First Practice: March 27
Spring Game: April 20
As we all know, it’s been it’s been a wild, wacky and tumultuous two years for Auburn fans. Following the 2010 BCS National Championship run, it was literally and figuratively all downhill for Gene Chizik’s program, culminating in one of the worst seasons in program history in 2012. The Tigers finished 3-9 overall and also endured their first winless SEC season ever.
Not surprisingly, Chizik did not survive to see a fifth year on the Plains.
But as they often say, “Sometimes it’s darkest before the dawn” and with offensive wonder kid Gus Malzahn now in to replace Chizik, it is officially the dawning of a new era of Auburn football. Along with the new coach, Auburn will also return to the fast-paced, run-heavy offense which brought the Tigers so much success (and one National Championship) in the three years Malzahn was an assistant with the school.
Still, it’s one thing to make a scheme change, but quite another to make a cultural one, something Malzahn will have to do immediately. Along with a winless program he inherits a fractured one, one which has endured more embarrassing moments off the field in recent years, than great ones on it.
It won’t be easy, but Malzahn seems to be a man up for the challenge. Here’s is what we expect to see in his first spring, which will open practices Wednesday.
Stability Factor: Stability Factor (1=chaos, 5=rock solid): 4.0
For a team which is coming off quite possibly the worst year in program history, Auburn is surprisingly stable. The fan-base believes in Malzahn’s ability to turn things around (at least right now they do) and as bad as the Tigers were last year, they were shockingly young also. That’s bad news for any team, but especially for one competing in the rugged SEC West.
Also, don’t undersell the move back to the spread offense, after a one year dalliance with the pro-style under Chizik and Malzahn’s replacement at offensive coordinator in 2012, Scot Loeffler. Most of the players on this current roster were recruited to play in the spread, meaning that by sheer common logic, numbers should go up across the board in 2013, simply because this offense suits the players that much better. It won’t make Auburn an instant title contender (or anything close to it), but after 2012, any step in the right direction is needed at Auburn.
Of course for success to happen, something needs to change at...
Under the Microscope: Quarterback Play
When you go 3-9, and both your offense and defense finish in the bottom half of all teams nationally, just about every position is under the microscope the following spring. Still, none is more important as quarterback play, a place where the Tigers were simply abysmal in 2012.
With a new coaching staff in place neither Kiehl Frazier (the starter in Auburn’s five games) nor his eventual replacement Jonathan Wallace has the edge headed into spring or fall camp, but each was recruited to run this offense and have the skills to do such. Frazier actually hails from Springdale, Ark., a place where Malzahn’s offensive reign of terror began as a high school head coach, before he took his talents to the SEC as an assistant in 2006.
Of course just because both have the skills to win the job, doesn’t mean that either showed them last year. Frazier finished 2012 with a meager 53 percent completion percentage and four touchdowns thrown compared to eight interceptions, while Wallace was a bit better (57 percent, four touchdowns and four interceptions), but still a major work in progress.
If neither can solidify themselves this spring, don’t be surprised if junior college transfer Nick Marshall and possibly even true freshman Jeremy Johnson come in this summer and compete for snaps right away.
Locked and Loaded: The Run Game
For a team which finished with college football’s 118th ranked total offense in 2012, there is actually quite a bit back in the run game. The Tigers return four starters along the offensive line, as well as the one true “weapon” this offense had last season, 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason.
Also, don’t sleep on the emergence of Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer who rushed for 2,048 yards and 25 touchdowns last spring.
We’re not saying he’ll be a superstar, but if Auburn has a good track record with any one thing, it’s successful junior college transfers named “Cameron,” right?
Jockeying For Position: The Defensive Line
Plenty of experience returns on the defensive line... but the problem for Auburn is that experience didn’t necessarily equate to production last season. The Tigers finished 100th nationally in rushing defense, allowing opponents to gash them for 197.58 yards game on the ground.
That also means that competition will be fierce this spring to establish a pecking order on the defensive line. Corey Lemonier is gone to the NFL, but pretty much everyone else returns. That includes rising seniors Dee Ford (34 tackles, six sacks) and Nosa Eguae (23 tackles), as well as underclassmen Gabe Wright (19 tackles), Angelo Blackson, Kenneth Carter and junior college transfer Ben Bradley.
And if these guys aren’t ready to compete, well, don’t be surprised if their positions and reps are taken in the fall by a group of star-studded freshmen. Carl Lawson, Montravious Adams and Elijah Daniel were all considered to be amongst the best high school players in the country this recruiting class, and will come ready to ready to compete.
Name to Know: RB/WR Quan Bray
For Malzahn’s offense to have any type of success in 2013 they’re going to need to establish play-makers, and if there’s one player who seems ready to make the leap into a major role into this offense, it’s Bray. Besides having the requisite talent (Bray was a four-star recruit who picked Auburn over pretty much everyone else in the SEC), he also actually put up better numbers as a freshman with Malzahn running the offense than he did in 2012 as a sophomore.
With speed to burn and more of the offense based off the edges, look for Bray to thrive this spring. It should translate nicely into the fall as well.
Spring Will Be A Success If: This Team Comes Together
If there is one silver lining from last year’s abomination of a season, it’s that the Tigers have nowhere to go but up. It also allows the Tigers to have a completely different approach this spring than most of their competition. After all, you don’t really have to worry about injury when you have so few impactful players, you don’t need to worry about building depth when you have none, and there’s no need to protect the starters when every position is open. This spring really is a fresh start for both the players and coaching staff alike.
At the same time, if there’s one responsibility Malzahn really does have this spring it’s re-uniting a fractured program. While college football fans like to joke about Mark Richt “losing control” at Georgia,” as the ‘Dawgs coach may have inadvertently pointed out last season, it was actually Chizik who was guilty of the exact same thing. Players spent the last few years running wild at Auburn, and the coaching staff seemed to have little ability or interest in stopping them.
Whether that will change or not under Malzahn, well, only time will tell.
But for the new coach and his program, this spring is about starting from scratch, and simply erasing the memories of a painful 2012 season.
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Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun.