Who’ll play major roles for the Tigers next fall?
War Eagle, everybody! Spring drills have come to a close, and from here, it’s up to the players to continue to work out, hone their craft, and get even stronger. It’s said that summer workouts make or break a team, and we certainly saw the truth of that last season. The Tigers came through spring workouts with only a handful of serious injuries, and should be able to make even more progress going forward.
Last Saturday, we were treated to an extended pre-game workout, and an entertaining A-Day game. I’m always interested to see who has improved over the winter, and who did not. Considering how awful this team was towards the end of last year, it’s hard not to get excited over the way this team seems to be busting its tail. I saw very little goofing around. Guys ran from station to station, and there was overall serious attention to business.
Coach Malzhan in his post practice press conference said yesterday that he and the staff will continue to evaluate spring film, and there likely will be a depth chart in place in about a week. However, I think we saw enough on A-Day, and coupled with numerous coach comments over the spring, we’ll take a stab here. It will be interesting to see how similar these guesses are to the official version that we’ll see later.
Defensive tackle still looks like a three man battle for two starting spots. Coach Ellis Johnson says that senior Jeffrey Whitaker is his most consistent tackle. Juniors Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright would be the other two guys in serious contention right now. Junior college transfer Ben Bradley has had an uphill battle this spring, as he arrived too heavy. He’s lost down to 310 pounds, but might make a move after getting better conditioned during the summer. Even now, he’s probably number four on the depth chart. On A-Day, I really didn’t see a big amount of push and disruption from these guys, and that will remain a worry. However, these guys did play their assigned gaps better, so that’s something.
If I’m not completely sold on our tackles, defensive end has become a real concern. Fifth year senior Dee Ford has been singled out as Auburn’s only consistent pass rusher by Ellis Johnson, which is a real worry. The coaches moved senior Kenneth Carter to end this spring, and he took most of the first team defensive snaps on A-Day. He’s more of a 280-pound run stopper, and Auburn admittedly has had a need there for at least the past five seasons. Carter and 5th year senior Nosa Eguae should make a reliable strong-side end rotation, but Auburn will need to develop some edge rushers to keep from giving up 25+ points per game to SEC opponents again next fall. Of the backups who played Saturday, it seemed Gimel President’s name was called for making tackles more than the others. Signee Carl Lawson could come in and make an immediate impact as a pass-rushing end.
Linebacker was my biggest area of defensive concern going into spring drills, but I’m encouraged by what I saw Saturday. Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy looked like they knew what they were doing, which is a far cry from the linebacker play of last season. We’ve definitely got two guys there who can track a runner, get to him, and wrap up. Veteran senior Jake Holland didn’t play many snaps, but he’s been able in limited practice time to absorb the new defense, and should be a contributor. Junior LaDarius Owens made the move from end to linebacker this spring, and he showed good pursuit on A-Day. The real concern now at this position is pass coverage. I didn’t see much from this group on A-Day. Expect Washington State coach Mike Leach’s airraid offense to dump shallow crossing patterns at this group till they stop it.
The Star position appears to have been narrowed down to juniors Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie. Both did a good job of running to the ball on A-Day and making plays. However, I didn’t see much in the way of coverage down the field.
The Tigers appear to have a deep, physical and fast group of cornerbacks. Only occasionally on A-Day did we see a cushion that was too deep. More often, receivers were challenged at the line, and I was also impressed at several guys that could fight through screen blocks. Senior Chris Davis has seen a lot of action, and junior Jonathan Mincy showed a knack for physical play. Joshua Holsey and Jonathan Jones are only a step behind the starters, and senior Ryan White also looked pretty capable back there. I think it’s going to be important to have multiple guys back there this year, as the officials may well randomly eject guys in the secondary for playing football. Sure looked that way on A-Day!
Safety play was spotty on A-Day. It would be interesting to know for sure which position was responsible for repeatedly giving up those “out and up” plays to the slot receiver. Should the strong safety get that, or is the “star” supposed to? Part of the reason for shakiness was injury, and then there was the absence of presumed starter Demetruce McNeal. He apparently has some off-field issues to deal with. Coaches won’t say much about it, so this could be anything from “negligible,” to “gone.” We’ll have to see how that goes. On A-Day, coaches had free safety Jermaine Whitehead back deep, to prevent deep balls down the middle. None were attempted during the game. Senior Trent Fisher started at the other safety spot, and he was limping noticeably. Walk-on Blake Poole ended up getting a good number of reps with the ones. There was talk this spring of moving cornerback Jonathan Jones to safety, but I didn’t see that on A-Day. Jones is listed on the roster at 172 pounds. Ryan Smith looked respectable with the Blue team, hauling in the game’s only interception.
Special teams appear to be set barring injury. Seniors Steven Clark and Cody Parkey should handle punts and place kicks. In extended pre-game activities, we saw a lot of Clark punts. Expect more of the same from Clark, those towering, 35-40 yard howitzers. We’ll continue to fret about his distance, but returns will be rare. Parkey looked fine in warmups, but did miss both of his field goals during the game. I’d expect Parkey to lead the nation in touchbacks next season on kickoffs. Punt returners seem to have been whittled down to either Quan Bray or Trovon Reed. Both have experience. Kick return duties are anyone’s guess still.
For much of A-Day, Auburn used two complete offensive line units. The first team consists of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller. Second team is redshirt freshman Shon Coleman, sophomore Devaunte Danzy, junior Tunde Fariyike, redshirt freshman Jordan Diamond, and redshirt freshman Shane Callahan. Both units showed cohesion and strength on A-Day. The first unit pretty much imposed its will on A-Day. Whether this speaks to the strength of this line, or the weakness of those it faced has yet to be determined. I figure we won’t get a real answer till LSU comes to town on September 21.
Auburn is short on scholarship wide receivers, but every guy there has explosive skills. Right now, the coaches are just looking for consistency. From all accounts, junior Jaylon Denson has been the guy. He caught two short passes on A-Day, but mostly was called on to block on the edge, with decent results. I’d think sophomore Sammie Coates is the most explosive receiver Auburn has, but he’s had ongoing problems dropping passes. In typical fashion, he managed several spectacular passes, and dropped a couple of routine deals. Juniors Trovon Reed and Quan Bray both seem to fit the “shifty slot receiver” label. Ricardo Lewis seems to be an up and coming talent. Melvin Ray spent A-Day in shorts due to injury. Some folks think that incoming recruits Tony Stevens, Dominic Walker or Earnest Robinson could contribute early, but they’ll face a serious battle from the incumbents.
For the first time in many years, I think Auburn has adequate numbers at tight end/h-back, and several unique talents. Jay Prosch will likely be the best blocking back Gus Malzhan has had at his disposal at the college level. At tight end, I don’t think I saw anyone adequately cover C. J. Uzomah on A-Day. Behind those two, Brandon Fulse and Ricky Parks looked good also, although each contributed a dropped pass on A-Day.
It’s said that in the SEC, at least three capable tailbacks are needed. Auburn only had one available on A-Day, newcomer Cameron Artis-Payne. Payne did a good job of toting the rock, and will be a load for SEC defenses to handle next fall. Returning 1000-yard rusher Tre Mason played on A-Day, but did not look full-speed. He’s been battling an ankle problem all spring. Junior Corey Grant has been praised all spring, but missed the game with a high fever. Auburn has two highly touted runners arriving this summer, Jonathan Ford and Peyton Barber. Should any of the incumbents get nicked up next fall, these guys will likely be thrown into the fire.
For any offense to flourish in this day and age, there must be an accurate thrower at the helm. From what we’ve seen in past seasons, and this A-Day, this is still a work in progress. Both junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace did some good things on A-Day, but also made some bad throws. Frazier has had a tendency his entire career to date to throw the ball high, and this continued on quick screens on A-Day. Jonathan Wallace missed several throws down the field, and also sailed one ball up for grabs that was picked off. With the arrival of quarterback prospects Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson, and Jason Smith this summer, the quarterback race will be wide open. Quarterbacking will be key this fall, the difference between contending for the division title, or heading to the Compass Bank Bowl. May the best man win.
With a defense that can get off the field on 3rd down, and an offense that should chew up yardage, Auburn will return to a bowl this next season. It’s going to be the big throws, and disruptions on the defensive line that will have to come, to contend for a New Year’s Day bowl, or beyond. It’s going to be an interesting journey starting in September. We now have an idea what Auburn has. How do Auburn’s opponents look at this point? We’ll start taking a look next week!
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