Five Burning Questions for A-Day.
Should be a fantastic day in Jordan Hare Stadium!
War Eagle everybody! Can you believe it’s A-Day week already? Auburn spring practice proceeds apace, and the big day is nearly here. If you’re planning to be in Auburn for the game, a jacket is in order for a cool morning. It should be around 45 degrees at daybreak, rising to the upper sixties for the 1:05 PM kickoff. It should be a clear, sunny day. Get all your gameday info from the source, here. The game will be televised live on CSS cable TV, for those who have Comcast or Charter. Outside of the southeastern USA, try ESPN-3.
Probably the most exciting news out of Wednesday’s practices is that coach Malzhan plans to make this scrimmage more like a real game than we’re used to. Raise your hand if you’ve been baffled by the byzantine offense vs. defense scoring system used the past few A-Days! I know I have. This game will feature a blue vs. white structure, and the standard football scoring system. However, I would not be surprised to see certain players, perhaps even a lot of players regularly play on both squads.
It’s been a tough spring in Auburn, and a number of Tigers missed yesterday’s practice due to injury. These included Tre Mason, Keymiya Harrell, Jay Prosch, Ricky Parks, Avery Young, Nosa Eguae, Angelo Blackson, Chris Landrum, Javiere Mitchell, Jonathan Jones, Melvin Ray, and Tyler Nero. Jake Holland missed due to a class, Demetruce McNeal had personal business to tend to, and congratulations to Robenson Therezie, who apparently is celebrating the birth of a daughter. And now on to the questions for Saturday.
Quarterback Play. I looked back at what I have written each year in this space before A-Day, and I think I’ve mentioned a quarterback race every time. Frankly, it’s pretty amazing that Auburn has not had an entrenched returning starter since Brandon Cox in 2007. Auburn has only had two guys, Chris Todd and Cameron Newton, start every game in a season. We’ll be watching contenders Khiel Frazier and Jonathan Wallace carefully. We saw last spring that Frazier can make accurate throws when it’s “no contact on the QB.” I’d expect both guys will make their throws this year. If we see a lot of wild stuff the receiver can’t get to, it will be time to worry. Also, crisp ball-movement and fakes are critical to the Gus Malzhan offense. If nothing else, I think watching who does this with enthusiasm, and who is tentative will go a long way towards pointing to who is ahead in the race.
Tackling. We’ve seen a clinic the past two years on how NOT to tackle in the SEC. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has emphasized proper tackling on more than one occasion in the press this spring. I know that we won’t see too much violent, “blow-em-up” hitting in this game, but I’ll be curious to see if the lowered head, blind dives at the feet tackling has been cut out. The most pervasive on the field problem through the entire previous staff was poor tackling. This resulted in three of the four worst defenses in Auburn history.
Defensive Line Play. Auburn has been soft up front the past couple of years, no two ways about it. It’s not a good sign this year that two projected starters, Nosa Eguae and Angelo Blackson, have already missed significant time this spring. Whether either will play on A-Day is up in the air. With Auburn’s veteran offensive line, I don’t expect this unit to dominate and be constantly in the backfield. However, they must hold their own and plug up those running lanes. If we’re blown off the ball on A-Day here, expect more trouble next fall.
Offensive Line Play. The Tigers get a lot of talented players back on the o-line, but last year’s line was never really completely dependable. There were drive killing mistakes made across the board, with four underclassmen starting. Particularly vulnerable was the right tackle position, where freshmen Avery Young and Patrick Miller got a pretty rude introduction to SEC defensive ends. I don’t think any college coach ever wants to start a true freshman on the line, but that’s where we’ve been lately. By all accounts this spring, Miller is a completely different player, much stronger and under control. Redshirt freshman Alex Kozan is replacing a departed big-body at left guard, and he’ll bear watching also. I want to see these guys avoid letting linemen blow through uncontested. I want to see no false starts, and no holding penalties. Gus Malzhan’s first two offenses at Auburn were powered by three guys, the tackles and the center, just posting their guy up and allowing NOTHING, while the guards were moved around like a shell game to get power in unconventional lanes. Greg Robinson, Reese Dismukes and Patrick Miller will be called on to do this, next fall. Can these guys duplicate the efforts of Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh?
Receiver Play. Auburn’s numbers here aren’t great, but pretty much every scholarship guy at receiver tight end and H-back are big-time talents. It does bother me to hear about dropped balls every practice from the coaches. Is this a problem on this team, or are the coaches simply holding these guy accountable for catching EVERY ball? We’ll see on A-Day who is able to make catches against a deep secondary. I’ll also be watching the blocking of these guys. We know guys like Jay Prosch and Brandon Fulse can block well. How about the others? Those big play sweeps Auburn had in 2009 and 2010 were usually aided by lock-down blocks by Darvin Adams, Kodi Burns and Terrell Zachary. Word is that the leader here this spring is Jaylon Denson. I’ve felt that he was criminally under-used the past two years. It will be interesting to see what he can do with this new staff.
There are questions in other areas, of course, but I’m not as sure those will be answered. Linebacker is a big one, as Auburn lost two starters from a lackluster unit last year, and the returning starter is missing practice due to a mandatory class. I’m not sure any meaningful conclusions can be drawn Saturday about this unit, unless they do better than expected. We’ll likely see a lot of walk-on running backs carry the ball, as incumbent 1000-yard rusher Tre Mason has been shelved with an ankle injury for most of spring. We’ll see some of Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne in the game, but I doubt that the coaches will run them a lot.
I’ve debated back and forth whether I’m going to this game, all spring. I always enjoy my trips to Auburn, but I’ve been really battling the pollen this spring. And, I reasoned, I could always watch it on TV and do a game thread. Well, the pollen has let up, and I’m breathing a lot better this week. I’m planning on pulling on my leather jacket early Saturday morning, heading down US 280, and loading up a camera-full of pictures. Expect a Sunday wrap-up from me right here, on TrackEmTigers.com. War Eagle, and see you at the game!