War Eagle, everybody! The first week of spring drills is nearly complete. It’s an important time for the Tigers, with new offensive and defensive schemes being installed. As is usual for spring ball, there’s a lot of enthusiasm. Players seem to love the new schemes, especially on defense. I think Tiger fans are excited about the prospect of a head-hunting, aggressive defense. Reviews of the new offense are more mixed. No one really knows what to expect out of this year’s attack, and there will be a number of fresh faces on the field.
One has to love recent statements by defensive line coach Mike Pelton and several players about a simplified approach up front. “To me, it’s a defense that as a defensive lineman, you want to play in it,” Pelton remarked. “It emphasizes all get-off, it emphasizes penetration, it emphasizes going and playing football. There aren’t a lot of checks in this defense. It basically lets them play.” Unfortunately for the Tigers, most of the starting line, and much of the playing rotation up front can’t play, because of injuries. Of last year’s starters, only Jeffery Whitaker is participating in full-contact practice. Nosa Eguae, Corey Lemonier, Kenneth Carter, and Gabe Wright are all on injured reserve. It’s a great opportunity for the backups to get some reps, but it’s worrisome that most of the starting lineup will go into fall drills without having popped a pad in the new scheme.
Fortunately, Auburn is fairly deep on the defensive line. The same can’t be said at linebacker, where experience is more limited. Attrition is a factor here, as last year’s starting weak side linebacker Jonathan Evans is out after surgery. The lineup has shuffled, with senior Darren Bates evidently moving to the weak side in Evans’ place.Jake Holland remains the man in the middle, and your first-team strong side linebacker, at least for now is redshirt freshman Kris Frost. As a highly decorated high school star, there’s a lot of upside for Frost. However, there’s a learning curve at the position. “He’s got a long way to go as far as getting himself lined up,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. “He’s been away from the game for a year and it looks like it. He’s always done it off ability and it was easy in high school, but now it’s not about ability.” The second group at linebacker appears to be sophomores Justin Garrett and Jawara White, and redshirt freshman Anthony Swain.
In the secondary, competition has reportedly been fierce this spring. Starting cornerT’Sharvan Bell is rehabbing a knee injury suffered last fall, and won’t participate in contact drills. There are a half dozen young men competing for playing time at corner, and the leader is junior Chris Davis. With two years in the playing rotation, many expect Davis to turn in an All-SEC caliber season this fall. Battling for playing time are juniorRyan White, and sophomores Jonathan Rose, Jermaine Whitehead, Robenson Therezie, and Jonathan Mincy. At safety, it appears that junior Demetruce is still the starting guy on the strong side. At free safety, it’s sophomore Erique Florence running with the first team. Trent Fisher and Ryan Smith are likely in the playing rotation, as well.
Making the most noise thus far on special teams is junior punter Steven Clark. By all accounts, he’s really hammering the punts once again. Sophomore Quan Bray appears to be the man to beat as a return man on both punts and kickoffs. Most alarming trend is that there’s been little mention of junior kicker Cody Parkey. Incoming freshman walk-on kicker Alex Kviklys has gotten the most ink.
Many of Auburn’s offensive woes last season could be traced back to the offensive line, so we’ll be watching this group with great interest this spring. Sophomore center Reese Dismukes appears to be moving up to another level. Last year at this time, he was basically a high school senior on campus early, successfully fighting for a starting job. Now, he’s the leader of a pretty young line. Senior John Sullen appears to be entrenched at one guard slot. The other guard spot is a battle between sophomore Eric Mack and redshirt freshman Christian Westerman. The tackle positions appear to be set with sophomore Chad Slade on the right, and redshirt freshman Greg Robinson on the left. This young unit with only one upperclassman in the starting lineup will have this spring to work against a mostly reserve defensive line. Can they gain cohesiveness and some confidence? One of the real keys to watch in the A-Day game will be how this line fares against Auburn’s reserve defensive linemen. Another one-touchdown A-Day will likely mean more offensive woes next fall.
I’d say that it’s troubling that wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor is projecting 80 catches for senior receiver Emory Blake. In the new offense, Blake has been moved all over the field, to try and get him the ball. We have yet to hear about any of the other guys making great catches. Usually if one guy is getting the lion’s share of catches, it means the other guys aren’t producing. SEC defensive coaches don’t take long to figure out how to slow down those one-receiver offenses. Right now, the lineup appears to feature Blake as the man, and seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton battling for the other starting position. A 4th guy has yet to materialize.
At fullback/tight end, Auburn’s top player Phillip Lutzenkirchen is out after surgery. He’ll be back this fall, but he’s not getting the valuable work in spring drills. All eyes are on sophomores Brandon Fulse and C. J. Uzomah. Rumored to be making a full-time move to tight end, Uzomah has been spotted doing heavy blocking drills with the line. Auburn desperately needs some tight ends behind Lutzenkirchen, and here’s hoping the two guys in the rotation make the most of their spring. Likewise at fullback, Auburn is looking for some depth behind junior Jay Prosch. I think also it’s important for the coaches to involve Prosch in the passing game. In two years at Illinois, Prosch had exactly two carries and one catch. SEC coordinators will figure he’s a decoy, if he drifts into the flat, until proven otherwise.
There’s a lot of talent at the tailback position at Auburn. As expected, though, the experienced guys Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason are running ahead of the others. McCalebb has made big plays happen for three years at Auburn, and I think he’ll continue that this year. Coaches have raved about Mason’s added muscle this spring, and figure he may be the guy to replace the departed Michael Dyer’s 20 carries per game.
There’s been reason for worry about Auburn’s quarterback situation for many years, ever since Jason Campbell played his last snap in the 2005 Sugar Bowl. This spring is no exception. Junior Clint Moseley has the most experience returning, and two days into spring drills he was out with a sore arm. That really doesn’t bode well. Auburn’s three competitors for the starting quarterback job need every opportunity to get comfortable with the offense, and find some chemistry with Auburn’s talented receivers. Right now, quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler seems to be more concerned with basic things, such as taking snaps from center, taking drops correctly, handing off on time and at the right spot, and so on. There’s been little else to report on the quarterback race, other than the fact that sophomore Khiel Frazer appears to be much stronger than last season. We’ll be interested to observe the accuracy of these guys on A-Day, that’s for sure!