Previews 2016: Arkansas, Auburn and LSU

Dec 30, 2015; Birmingham, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn during the game against the Memphis Tigers in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 30, 2015; Birmingham, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn during the game against the Memphis Tigers in the 2015 Birmingham at Legion Field. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-

Auburn Tigers

Overview: Auburn may be winding down the Gus Malzahn era. The Tigers had a disappointing 2015 season and the pressure is on to win nine or ten games in 2016 (and an upset over Alabama would be most helpful), despite protestations to the contrary coming out of the program. Unfortunately, this isn’t the best hand Malzahn has ever been dealt, not by a long shot. There are questions at quarterback, running back, and the is vulnerable outside of the defensive line.

Projected record: 7-5 (UA, Clem, LSU, OM, UGA); 4-4 and 4th West
Returning offensive starters: 5 (FL, LT, LG, RG, HB)
Returning defensive starters: 5 (RDE, RDT, LDT, RCB, ROV)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings
QB: Av DL: Vg
RB: Fr LB: Fr
WR: Av DB: Av
OL: Av ST: Ex

Offensive breakdown: What makes the Malzahn offense go is a shifty, run-first quarterback who also has a decent downfield arm. Jeremy Johnson is not that guy, but he’s still the best Auburn has. Most of the offseason and early fall camp, however, has been devoted to evaluating sophomore Sean White and JUCO signee John Franklin III. White has good footwork, but hasn’t proven able to absorb multiple big hits from lines, and his arm strength is lacking.

Franklin could have a future at running back if quarterback doesn’t work out, but early reports on his accuracy aren’t good. That leaves Johnson, who is a pro-style quarterback with decent mobility, and the oddly-built (6’1”, 240) redshirt freshman Tyler Queen, who has yet to make an impact thanks to a bum shoulder. It would surprise no one to see Auburn go through two or three quarterbacks in its first couple of games while trying to figure out the best option for play. Given that and hit the schedule in Weeks 3 and 4, however, Auburn doesn’t have much time to get this right.

The running back position went from shaky to desperate when Jovon Robinson was kicked off the early in fall camp, which means Kerryon Johnson will now get the bulk of the work. He has good speed, but isn’t a polished inside runner, and his lack of bulk is worrisome. Kamryn Pettway, who will also line up at H-back, can handle the inside load, but isn’t explosive. There are questions about freshman Malik Miller’s speed and ability to change directions in tight quarters. Scatback Kam Martin gets the jet sweep assignment. H-back Chandler Cox will probably see an increased workload as Auburn figures out a way to help this green unit.

At receiver, Marcus Davis, who finished second on the last year with 30 catches but produced only a 6-yard-per-catch average, leads a unit that includes Tony Stevens and Jason Smith. Stevens certainly has the physical makeup to make a bigger impact, but so far has been a supporting player. Signee Kyle Davis was expected to provide a spark to the offense, but has been sidelined with shoulder and foot injuries and may miss the start of the season.Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton, Stanton Truitt and Nate Craig-Myers may be the second group for now.

The other concern is tight end, which is not a full-time position in this offense, but still important. Sophomore Jalen Harris and a true freshman, Landon Rice, are the two major competitors there. Both are raw.

The offensive line could be a boom or it could be a bust. The guard positions are in good hands with Alex Kozan and Braden Smith returning. But no one is comfortable with the rest. Xavier Dampeer seemed to grab the reins on the center job in the spring. Austin Golson will start at one of the tackle positions, but there will be a learning curve given he’s moving out from center. Robert Leff is almost a liability at the other tackle spot. On top of that, depth is a problem. transfer Darius James will probably back up both tackles, while Kaleb Kim and Marquel Harrell, both redshirt freshmen, are the other two to watch.

Defensive breakdown: Yet another new defensive coordinator, this time two-time former Alabama assistant Kevin Steele, hopes to finally fix whatever keeps affecting the back end of Auburn’s defense. As in previous seasons, Auburn will have a stellar defensive line, with Montravius Adams, Dontavius and Devaroe Lawrence working inside and Jeff Holland, Carl Lawson and Marlon Davidson working at end. Nick Coe and Derrick Brown bolster this group further. Things are good enough that the loss of Raashed Kennion, who quit the for personal reasons, might not be felt at all.

The one concern here is consistency, which the incumbent players have sometimes not displayed. Auburn feels better about its inside group than its outside group at the moment, mostly due to Byron Cowart and his penchant for flightiness. JUCO signee Paul James III may get an increased role if Cowart continues to go MIA for long periods.

The much bigger issue is the linebacker group, which has underachieved in recent years, and now Auburn is replacing two starters and a top reserve. Tre’ Williams and Darrell Williams finished as the starting inside backers in the Tigers’ 4-2-5 base front. T.J. Neal may unseat Darrell Williams before the first game, however. Deshaun Davis and signee Tre Threat will provide depth. Also at issue is how this unit will blend with the defensive backfield, which is being rebuilt. Carlton Davis is a solid cornerback, but he’ll need help. Rudy Ford appears to be the full-time nickel/rover in base.

Ohio transfer Jamel Dean, who was expected to step in at corner next to Davis, may now miss the season with a knee injury. Davis wasn’t going to be athletically cleared to play at Ohio State, so this latest injury raises eyebrows. With Dean out, either senior T.J. Davis or freshman Javaris Davis will have to step up. Safety jobs are up for grabs, with Tray Matthews, Nick Ruffin, Stephen Roberts and Markell Boston all in the mix for time. One of them will also have to step in behind Rudy Ford at rover, as Tim Irvin elected to leave Auburn after the spring.

There are no concerns in the special teams, as Auburn gets back to normal this year with one of the conference’s best kicking combos. Daniel Carlson may be the best kicker in the league, while punter Kevin Phillips has a bright future. Auburn was solid in kick returns last season and is expected to repeat the performance.

Overall trend: Down. Defensively, Auburn should improve based solely on what is expected of the defensive line, but the back seven needs to get it together. More importantly, will have to prove that he isn’t just a good recruiter and decent defensive assistant, and that he can actually coordinate an attack, especially coming off a dismal year at the helm in Baton Rouge. The offense may prove to be the make-or-break unit in the end, thanks to the question marks in the offensive backfield and on the edges of the line. Auburn just as the feel of a that peaked, got figured out by the competition, and hasn’t been able to stabilize since.

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