Who’ll carry the mail in 2013?
War Eagle, everybody! Spring football is still a month away for the Tigers, but it’s never too early to start taking a look at how next fall’s team is shaping up. Signing day has come and gone, as have Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. Here as we enter the weeks of Lent, we’ll take a gander at what the Auburn offense might field in the future.
An offense will only go as far as its offensive line, and it can be argued that much of Auburn’s offensive doldrums of the past two seasons can be attributed to holes on the line. Against SEC foes, Auburn has managed an average of just 15.0 points scored per game since the Cam and company ran wild in the Georgia Dome. With a young but seasoned crew returning, Auburn should see an uptick in consistency this year.
At left tackle, sophomore Greg Robinson returns, after a solid freshman campaign. If there’s such a thing as a sure lock for an NFL career, Robinson is that man. At tackle on the other side we should have a battle between returning sophomores Patrick Miller and Avery Young. Both guys had starts as true freshmen last season, and were bloodied often in SEC combat. A year more seasoned should help both guys. The center spot features two very capable guys in juniors Reese Dismukes and Tunde Fariyike. Dismukes seemed aimed toward an all-star season last year, but an August alcohol arrest seemed to derail his season. Should he falter again, Fariyike is a solid replacement.
The competition at both guard spots should be wide open. The demands here are a bit different than in the Loeffler offense a year ago. In Malzhan’s scheme, the guards often pull and make blocks on the flanks. With that in mind, a guard’s mobility is key. Junior Chad Slade has a couple of years of starting experience, and has moved all over the line. He’ll likely start at one spot or the other. As an insurance policy, the Tigers have signed JUCO phenom Devonte Danzy, and he’s already enrolled in school and will participate in spring drills. If Danzy is ready to play at an SEC level, Auburn will field a pretty tough line in 2013.
Should any of the guys mentioned above falter, Auburn has a lot of untested talent waiting in the wings, including Alex Kozan, Robert Leff, Shon Coleman, Jordan Diamond, and Shane Callahan. The loser in either the right tackle or center battles could well end up playing guard, also. Line coach J. B. Grimes should have plenty of guys to work with molding a good offensive line.
Auburn has some intriguing options at the inside receiver/H-back position. While the Tigers have a number of battle tested guys, most of them have a label of either being a blocker only, or a receiving threat only. My guess is that the guys who wind up starting will be those who can become dual threats. One thing that really kept defenses guessing in 2009 and 2010 was tight ends/inside receivers Tommy Trott and Kodi Burns. My guess is that the guy who best fits that mold today is junior C. J. Uzomah. He showed flashes last season of being a big-time receiving threat, but his blocking was a bit suspect. Auburn’s best blocker at tight end last season was junior Brandon Fulse, but he was an afterthought in the passing game. I’d expect both guys to have a chance to thrive in Malzhan’s offense this season.
At H-back, I’d think it would be hard to beat senior Jay Prosch. As a fullback last season, Prosch was a pancake machine blocking. He was thrown to only five times, but caught every ball. As the season wore on, he was Auburn’s best ball-carrying option on short yardage, and was not stopped for a loss on 12 carries.
Auburn has talent, but is relatively untested behind the three inside guys mentioned above. Blake Burgess will return for his senior season as a blocking journeyman here. The Tigers also have Chris Landrum and Ricky Parks who were highly touted signees a few years ago.
At the outside receiver positions, I suspect there will be battles. Barring injury, I see sophomore Sammie Coates nailing down the split end position that Darvin Adams made famous. Coates has had problems dropping balls in the past, but he’s easily Auburn’s most electric returning receiver. At the flanker spot, I see a good battle between juniors Trovon Reed and Quan Bray. This spot often goes in motion behind the formation, and gets the ball on counters and reverses. I think either Bray or Reed can do this role well, but both must get better at being downfield receiving threats. In 2009 and 2010, Auburn hit a number of field-flipping long bombs to Terrell Zachary from this position.
As veterans with playing time under their belt, I’d expect Jaylon Denson and Ricardo Lewis to get looks this spring. Lewis could fill that “Emory Blake” role, as the first guy off the bench, often matched up on a safety or linebacker. If Auburn can’t get consistent play across this unit, there’s talent coming in for fall camp in signees Dominic Walker, Tony Stevens, and Earnest Robinson. Auburn also will have to have a renewed commitment from the outside receivers to blocking downfield. Too often last season, Auburn receivers ran to space, and sat there while the defense swallowed a runner.
“The man” on Auburn offenses historically has been the running back. All eyes are on Tre Mason as he gears up for his junior season. Mason exploded into the Auburn consciousness in his first game with a kickoff return for a touchdown, and he was the lone bright spot in Auburn’s horrible offense last season, putting up a thousand yards rushing. The concern last season was that Mason could not survive a season getting 20 or more carries a game, and as a result Mason was not given the ball nearly as much as he should have been.
I think this current group of coaches will make far better use of Mason’s talent, but there was immediate need of depth at this spot. On campus already is junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne, who was the top JUCO running back available. Payne is about 15 pounds heavier than Mason, and will give Auburn some ability to pound the ball inside. Junior Corey Grant shined during A-Day and fall camp last year, and disappeared during the season. He may be able to resurrect his career in the new offense. If any of Auburn’s three main spring guys at running back don’t work out, there’s a couple of talented guys coming in for the fall, Jonathan Ford and Peyton Barber.
I’m not sure Auburn’s quarterback situation will be settled till deep into August. This spring, the two scholarship incumbents will be given a chance to get a leg up in the race. Junior Khiel Frazier was recruited to run this offense. Sophomore Jonathan Wallace was not, but he’s proven to be a great student of the game, and showed surprising poise and ability late in the season last year. Ideally, one or both of these guys will able to pick this offense up and play well enough to move the ball by A-Day.
If Auburn isn’t able to find a quarterback this spring, there is a trio of candidates arriving this summer. The most obvious choice to step in and start immediately would be transfer Nick Marshall. Originally signed by Georgia as a defensive back, Marshall got in trouble at Georgia and was dismissed, and spent a year in Garden City, Kansas playing quarterback. Marshall is a tall, speedy athletic guy, but did throw more interceptions than touchdowns. The Scout book on him is that he needs work on accuracy, release, and technique.
Jason Smith from McGill Toolen in Mobile will also report in August. He was originally projected to move to receiver or defensive back in college, but Malzhan says he’ll get a shot at quarterback. Smith has world-class speed, but is only about 6 feet tall, and light at 170 pounds. He’s considered very raw in terms of passing ability.
Perhaps the most intriguing choice arriving in August is Carver-Montgomery’s Jeremy Johnson, the state of Alabama’s Mr. Football last fall. Johnson is a towering 6′ 6” guy, with good arm strength and running ability. Like the two guys above, Johnson is seen as a guy who needs work on his passing game. On the plus side with all of these guys, just about every incoming college freshman is cited by the scouting services as needing work in one area or another.
The quarterback race this year at Auburn is critical, but at least it’s a race this season, with multiple candidates competing. That can only make the eventual winner better. The good thing about the Malzhan offense is that the quarterback is not asked to make a lot of difficult throws, or to make a lot of checks at the line. The real keys are execution with ball fakes, mobility, and avoiding turnovers. However, the quarterback at least needs to be able to consistently throw screens, slants and 5 yard hitch passes accurately. Auburn has the guys at the skill positions to take a short pass and turn it into a big play. We just need to find the quarterback who’ll be able to get it there with maximum efficiency!
Auburn’s fortunes next season will ride on offensive success. It usually takes Ellis Johnson two or three years to produce really tight, tough defenses, although he does have a lot more to work with initially at Auburn than in his previous few stops. Still, I think everyone agrees that Auburn can’t win in the SEC unless they improve dramatically over their 10 points per game output of last season. The exciting thing is that Auburn likely has the pieces in place to do a lot better in 2013.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the Auburn defense for 2013. Like the offense, there are a few questions, but a lot of returning and incoming talent to work with. In the meantime, have a great day, and War Eagle!
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