Titles are won on the line of scrimmage.
(Photo by Acid Reign.)
War Eagle, everybody! We are just five days away from spring drills, although you’d hardly know it by looking at the thick layers of frost on the windshield this morning. After a grueling winter of tough workouts, the Auburn Tiger football team is ready to hit the practice fields, and work towards a terrific season. What’s been impressive this offseason has been a unity of purpose displayed in the comments of these fine young men. To a man, the team seems determined to do everything they can to take another step forward, and win another national championship. That they came so close last January, and came up 13 seconds short has left them hungry for more.
Auburn has a plethora of skill players on offense returning this season, including Coach Gus Malzhan’s first ever returning starter at quarterback in Nick Marshall. The situation has us all dreaming of scoring 50 points per game and setting new offensive records. But, it’s important to remember how titles are won. We’ve seen teams win the SEC with average quarterbacks, average linebackers, and even average running backs. What you won’t see is a team win the league with mediocre play along the line of scrimmage.
Make no mistake. Auburn had the second most prolific scoring team in school history last season because Greg Robinson, Alex Kozan, Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade, Avery Young and Patrick Miller absolutely road-graded SEC defensive lines on a weekly basis. Likewise, Auburn made timely plays on defense because of a 12 man defensive line rotation that ensured fresh, talented defenders on the field throughout the game.
Most of the offensive line returns, with only Robinson headed for the NFL. There is talent and depth there, and coach J. B. Grimes did an outstanding job tweaking Auburn technique last season. There is reason to be optimistic that this year’s bunch will be even better. It should be one of the highlights of spring to watch Avery Young, Patrick Miller and Shon Coleman battle to avoid being the odd man out. It’s going to be fun to watch three offensive tackles of this caliber!
On the defensive line, Auburn returns a lot of good tackles, but might have a numbers issue at defensive end. With the talented Dee Ford, along with reserves Kenneth Carter and Craig Stevens leaving, some new faces must step up on the outside. I think senior LaDarius Owens is a proven product on the run-side of the line, as he held onto the starting job all last season. Who’ll be that “rush end” is a whole different story. Will sophomores Carl Lawson or Elijah Daniel grab that spot and hold on? Or will it be a committee approach, with room for newcomers to shine immediately?
Even with Nosa Eguae graduating, Auburn is as deep at defensive tackle as any team in college football. Gabe Wright grabbed a starting job and held on down the stretch last season. Montravius Adams, Ben Bradley, Angelo Blackson and others made plays in the middle. Adams may have the most upside of any tackle. And Jeffery Whitaker returns for a 5th season with his knees as healthy as they’ve been while he’s been at Auburn.
Another interesting spot to watch will be in the secondary. Safety Jermaine Whitehead and corner Jonathan Mincy are proven SEC players. Auburn will be trying to find some answers behind them. Last season’s safety starter Joshua Holsey will still be rehabbing a knee this spring. A starting corner opposite Mincy must be found. Auburn has some talent here, but much of it is unproven. Jonathan Jones played in spots at corner last season. Converted running back Jonathan Ford is said to be a natural at corner. Finally, Trovon Reed will try his hand at defensive back, something he was recruited for by many schools five years ago.
There won’t be a lot of live kicks and punts on A-Day, so we won’t learn anything much about the return teams, although I do count dropped balls and cringe on a yearly basis. The best time to watch kickers on A-Day is during the pre-game warmups. I’ll be really interested in who has the big legs, and who nails most of their field goal attempts. Auburn is likely to field a team in 2014 with a pair of redshirt freshman kicking legs, as Daniel Carlson and Jimmy Hutchinson are expected to win the kicking and punting battles, respectively.
The running back battle is going to be interesting to watch, too. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are the heirs apparent, after both rushed for over 600 yards each last season, off the bench. Artis-Payne has gone on record as saying that his goal this season is to be the SEC’s first ever 2000 yard rusher. The two experienced guys may be pushed by redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who was said to be a scout team monster last fall. Barber is around 230 pounds, and dangerously shifty and fast. My guess is that he’ll find a way to contribute.
One of the biggest obstacles to an Auburn repeat SEC title this fall is the schedule. On paper it’s much tougher than 2013. There are land mines early, and a particularly brutal November. Auburn has Arkansas for an opener, then travels to Manhattan, Kansas for a Thursday prime-timer against K-State in week three. Louisiana Tech makes for a high-powered homecoming, then LSU comes to town a week later. The rest of October is on the road at Starkville, an off-week, then Auburn hosts South Carolina. November begins at Ole Miss, Texas A&M at Jordan Hare, Georgia in Athens, Samford, then Bama in T-Town. That’s road trips to Oxford, Athens and Tuscaloosa in November. Gone from the schedule are the likes of Western Carolina, Florida Atlantic and Tennessee.
I’ll go ahead and go on record now stating that I’ll likely be attending Auburn’s A-Day game on April 19th. I’ve been to three of the last five, I always have a great time, and it’s been a good way over the years to load my camera up with tons and tons of clearer shots during ever-increasingly rare daylight football at Auburn. I dig into those A-Day archives regularly!