By Acid Reign
Here it is, game week already! After the better part of a week under dark clouds and endless rain, the sun has come out, and it feels like football weather! It’s been a LONG off-season since spring ball. Where do the Auburn Tigers stand, after August football camp? As usual, some unheralded folks have made a move. Some veterans and highly touted newcomers have not. Coming up, we’ll take a look!
On defense, the story is injuries and an alarmingly thin secondary. Even before Aaron Savage was carted off for season-ending knee surgery, we knew that this would be an area of concern. As it stands now, we’ll start two junior corners, and two sophomore safeties. Behind the starters, true freshmen fill a LOT of spots on the two-deep depth chart. The linebacker corps appears to be deep, and talented. The interior line looks deep, too, but attrition has hit the ends.
Special teams look to be much improved from a year ago. Nearly every major player returns, and some new folks are making noise. We may well place totally green freshman out there to punt and return kicks.
The biggest buzz around Auburn Football for the past six months has been speculation on the new spread offense. If camp is any indication, there are a LOT of balls being thrown. Looking at the game-week depth chart, a casual observer can easily see that there’s only one tight end on the three-deep, and no fullbacks. Folks, this is an indicator that it’s for real, and not just another way to disguise first-down dives up the middle.
Position by Position Outlook
Defensive Tackle: Junior SenDerrick Marks appears to be headed for a monster season, and seems to be an excellent team leader. He’s a ferocious player, and awfully quick for a 300-pounder. However, he’ll see a lot of double teams. Marks was largely absent from Auburn’s A-day game, and we saw the rest of the depth chart struggle. This fall, stepping up to start at nose-tackle is Mike Blanc, who appears to finally be over a series of nagging injuries. By all accounts, Blanc has stepped up his game, and will be a force to be reckoned with. In a bit of a surprise, 6th year senior Tez Doolittle has overcome a torn ankle tendon, and a bad hamstring pull this summer, and has claimed the number two spot behind Marks. Junior Jake Ricks and sophomore Zach Clayton will provide quality depth behind Blanc. This is shaping up to be a nasty bunch, and none of them weigh less than Doolittle’s 283.
Defensive End: Junior Antonio Coleman was easily the Overlooked SEC defensive player of the year, last year. He’s had a scare with his neck this year, and a variety of nicks and bruises, but should be ready to return to wreaking havoc on the left side of opponent offenses. Behind Coleman, sophomore Antione Carter has been a terror, this fall. Last season, Carter was linebacker-sized. This year, he’s up over 250 pounds, and has been all but impossible to block. Look for Carter and Coleman to be on the field at the same time, on 3rd and long. On the strong side, junior Michael Goggins has nailed down the starting spot. He’s not as big as Marks was last year, but he showed great ability to slide off blocks during A-day, and he disrupted the running game significantly. Who’ll back Goggins up is the single issue of the defensive line. Raven Gray has not recovered from knee surgery, and is headed for a redshirt. A.C. Green has been too banged up to perform well, this fall. Coming out of nowhere, to make the two-deep in less than a week, is junior tight end Gabe McKenzie. Either McKenzie’s that good, or the situation is that dire. We’ll see, when Goggins needs relief!
Sam Linebacker: On the strong side, sophomore Craig Stevens returns, after a solid freshman season . Coach James Willis has praised Stevens for always being in the right place, but expects Stevens to step up this year, and make more plays. Behind Stevens is veteran senior Courtney Harden, a versatile guy who can play all three linebacker positions.
Mike Linebacker: Junior Tray Blackmon returns here, looking for a break-out season. Unlike previous years, Blackmon’s been a solid citizen both on and off the field. This may be the year that he becomes a superstar. Blackmon’s a half-second quicker than anyone else on the team, reacting to the ball. He has a chance to really be something special. Blackmon’s backup isn’t too shabby, either, if A-Day is any indication. Sophomore Josh Bynes was a menace, in that game, breaking up running backs, and intercepting errant throws. Behind Bynes is another player who can play all three spots, redshirt freshman Adam Herring.
Will Linebacker: This position will be filled by two stellar senior co-starters, Merrill Johnson and Chris Evans. Both hit hard, and are quick. If there is a difference, it would be that Evans really displayed a knack last season for tracking down runners, and Johnson appears to be our best linebacker in coverage.
Cornerbacks: On the strong side, getting his first starting action will be junior Walter McFadden. He’s got blazing speed, and good height, at 6 feet even. The knock on McFadden in the past has been consistency. This year, he’ll be matched up frequently on the opponent’s deep threat, and will not be able to take plays off. On the boundary side, junior veteran Jerraud Powers returns. Powers’ excellent play last season, has accorded him a number of pre-season honors. While he’s maybe not quite fast enough, and not quite tall enough, he always seems to be in the right place to make a play on the ball. Filling in behind the two junior starters are a pair of true freshmen, D’Antoine Hood, and Neiko Thorpe. Hood’s a shifty, smallish corner, while Thorpe is a tall, lanky guy who can run. The next corner on the list is converted wide-receiver Harry Adams, a redshirt freshman. Adams is still learning the position.
Strong Safety: True sophomore Michael McNeil has taken the starting slot here. He backed up the free safety spot as a true freshman, last year. McNeil has good size, and great closing speed. Depth behind McNeil is senior walk-on Jonathan Vickers, and true freshman Christian Thompson.
Free Safety: 3rd year sophomore Zach Etheridge moves over after an all-SEC Freshman Team year, to take the free safety spot. Etheridge was one of the top tacklers on the team a year ago, and has great speed. Behind Etheridge is redshirt freshman Mike Slade, a promising underclassman. Slade was impressive during A-day.
Punter: Redshirt freshman Clinton Durst is on the verge of taking the starting job away from pre-season All-SEC punter, sophomore Ryan Shoemaker. Shoemaker has been hampered by a hamstring this fall, and Durst can really boom it, as we saw during the A-Day game. A soccer standout, Durst had evidently never kicked a football seriously before last summer. The story of him buying a discount-store football, so he could practice to try out for the Auburn football team, is one that will be re-told for years to come! Lurking behind Durst and Shoemaker is sophomore Patrick Tatum, who punted well last season, when called on.
Punt Returner: For now, senior Robert Dunn holds onto that position. Dunn has a lot of experience, and broke several important long returns. Better still, he did so without turnovers. Auburn goes with a punt-block scheme, most of the time. The returner’s job is primarily to avoid a turnover, and keep the ball from being killed inside the 10. Dunn has become adept at that. Behind Dunn are sophomore Chris Slaughter, who fair caught a few punts last season, and incoming freshman Phillip Pierre-Louis. Louis has been a sensation, this camp, with his shifty moves and great speed. He’ll probably get a crack at a return early, this year. Don’t fumble. Don’t fumble. Don’t fumble…
Kick Returner: In Auburn’s scheme, two are listed, but it’s really a return man and a lead blocker. Senior Tristan Davis was the nation’s leading kick returner in 2006, but the foot is acting up again. Davis has had great difficulty staying healthy. To hedge his bets, Tuberville lists true freshman Phillip Pierre-Louis as a co-number one. Junior Ben Tate is a starter, likely to block. Should additional returners be needed, senior James Swinton and freshman Harry Adams are next on the chart.
Place kicker: Sophomore Wes Byrum is the man, here. There have been indications that Wes Byrum is nursing another leg injury, this week. He’ll not kick till the game, from what I’ve heard. Sophomore Morgan Hull is the backup, and he does have a pretty strong leg.
Tackles: The freshman terrors from a year ago, Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh, reprise their roles again this fall. After a year of Yoxercise, both appear to be a lot bigger, stronger, and nastier. Ziemba will have the QB’s blind side. So far this fall, Ziemba’s neutralized his man, which has allowed Auburn quarterbacks to complete a lot of passes. Pugh has split time between tackle and center, and in his absence at right tackle, sophomore journeyman Mike Berry has filled in well. Berry, who has played every position on the line, started several games last season, at right guard. Backing up Lee Ziemba will be junior Andrew McCain, who has improved greatly. Thrust into the spotlight too early last summer, McCain has become a much more consistent blocker this year.
Guards: Chaz Ramsey, a freshman starter a year ago, is likely to be sidelined with a bad back, this season. His replacement at right guard is sophomore Byron Issom, who played well in the A-Day game. Senior Tyrone Green is poised for an NFL career, holding down the left guard spot. Green is a stout, large, powerful guard who habitually muscles opposing defensive tackles backwards 5 to 10 yards. Depth at guard will come from sophomore Bart Eddins, and redshirt freshman Jared Cooper.
Center: Senior Jason Bosley is the leader of the line, and is on the Remington Award watch list. Should Bosley go down, Ryan Pugh will move over from the tackle spot. Mike Berry has also worked at center, this fall.
Tight End: In the Franklin offense, this position is called the “Y” position. Junior Tommy Trott sits atop the depth chart, here. Trott has had problems with his hands in the past, but under the Franklin system, he has flourished, and is poised to become a dynamic threat. By looking at the remaining depth at this position, it is clear that Auburn is not gearing up to be a power-running offense. Sophomore Tim Hawthorne, and freshman Derek Winter are listed at numbers two and three. Freshman Vance Smith will line up as a second tight end on short-yardage situations.
Outside Receivers: In the Franklin system, these are the “X” and “Z” receivers. As is typical with many offenses, there appears to be an effort to group a possession receiver, and a deep threat, on the field together. The starters are senior Rod Smith, and senior James Swinton. Smith has indeed proved to be an excellent possession receiver over the past two seasons he has started, but he also has shown great ability to go up and get deep balls, as well. Swinton has been lauded as the best performer in camp, this fall. One of the fastest players on the team, Swinton has thrived under the new offense. Junior Montez Billings, a starter from a year ago, has developed leg problems, and likely won’t play in the opener. Off the bench behind Swinton, sophomore Chris Slaughter appears poised to become a great weapon, too. He’s tall, fluid, fast, and has great hands. Backing up Smith is true freshman Phillip Pierre-Louis, a camp sensation. He’s a small, ridiculously elusive and fast receiver. Redshirt freshman Quindarius Carr is a more traditionally-sized option at the “Z.”
Inside Receiver: This position is dubbed the “H” receiver, in Franklin’s scheme. After a great spring, senior Robert Dunn was leading here. Alas, Dunn has earned the dreaded “doghouse” status from Coach Tuberville, and is now listed as 4th team. Whether this is a temporary motivational tool, or a sign that Dunn’s on the outs, has yet to be determined. Elevated to starter is sophomore Terrell Zachary, a former doghouse inhabitant. Zachary was a standout performer in spring drills, and is working hard this fall. Behind Zachary is listed true freshman Darvin Adams, a tall speedster. Sophomore Mario Fannin is listed at 3rd team H receiver, likely due to various ailments. I think the coaches would like to line Fannin up in a variety of positions, from outside receiver, to the slot, to running back.
Fullbacks: On the official Auburn depth chart, there are none. However, there WILL be some 3rd and ones, where we need to jumbo-up and make a first down. Scanning the Auburn roster, likely candidates for the thankless lead blocker post are redshirt freshman John Douglas, and senior Ryan Hastie. Neither has any experience, but they do have that 240-pound body so necessary to an SEC fullback!
Running Back: Listed as co-number ones are senior Brad Lester, and junior Ben Tate. Both are experienced and dangerous, bringing different styles to the table. Lester is the slasher with ridiculous acceleration. He hits the hole at full speed. Tate is a bigger body with deceptive speed, and he runs tough. Senior Tristan Davis is listed third. When healthy, he’s probably Auburn’s fastest back. Likely, true freshman Eric Smith will get more duty than Davis. Comparisons to Rudi Johnson have been made, as Smith is a stocky, muscular back with great balance. It’s also worth noting that Smith’s the only Auburn back not to miss time in practice with injuries…
Quarterback: I think the vast majority of Auburn writers would like to have a clearly delineated number one quarterback. Folks, that’s not going to happen yet. With a spread offense, and all those alphabet receivers splayed out, the quarterback is going to get hit. I think playing two, or even three, against Louisiana Monroe is a good idea. From all indications, sophomore quarterback Kodi Burns has continued the excellent play he showed near the end of spring drills. Junior newcomer Chris Todd seems largely recovered from a shoulder injury, and seems to be a high-percentage pocket passer. Sophomore Neil Caudle continues to improve. All three quarterbacks are mobile, something that’s been missing since Jason Campbell left for the Redskins.
Against Louisiana Monroe, expect Auburn to come out and try to dictate the tempo on both sides of the ball. A perfect scenario would be the starting offense and defense getting a chance to jell against a respectable opponent, then some opportunities to play younger backups while holding a big lead. We’ll see if Tuberville means what he says about turning over a new leaf, and playing freshmen early. Look for Phillip Pierre-Louis to get some early opportunities to break one.
War Eagle, everybody! Let’s all get fired up, and enjoy the opening week of the season!