Auburn Football: How Gus Malzahn Will Replace Departed Stars in 2014
Auburn put together one of the best turnarounds in college football history in 2013, going from 3-9 a season ago to a berth in the BCS National Championship Game earlier in the month.
The Tigers' run to the title game was bolstered by a strong core of senior leaders—and a pair of talented third-year players now headed for the NFL—and Auburn will miss each of them next season.
But Gus Malzahn is bent on proving that his team's success wasn't just a flash in the pan during his first year as head coach and that the Tigers are in position to be contenders in the Southeastern Conference for years to come. For that to happen, a number of young players will have to step up and fill the void left behind by this offseason's departures.
In all, 14 seniors are leaving Auburn due to graduation, and two more players are leaving early for the NFL draft.
Ahead is a list of some of the biggest holes those departures will leave behind—and a list of a few up-and-comers that could take their place in 2014.
The Departure: Tre Mason is leaving the Plains as one of the greatest running backs in Auburn history after setting single-season school records in 2013 with 1,816 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns. Mason helped carry the load for the Tigers offensively, especially down the stretch of the season and into the BCS title game.
Now, the junior has elected to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft.
Malzahn and the Auburn coaching staff will be hard-pressed to find any single individual that can replace Mason's production moving forward.
The Future: The Tigers could turn to more of a by-committee approach in 2014 and rely on a stable of backs to carry the load alongside Nick Marshall in Auburn's read option attack.
Auburn has plenty of depth at the position, with rising seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant returning for another season with the Tigers. To help them carry the load, Peyton Barber—who redshirted his freshman season in 2013—and incoming 5-star running back prospect Racean Thomas could also see significant snaps this fall.
The Departure: The Tigers' other early departure, third-year sophomore Greg Robinson, is likely to be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft this May. Robinson was an anchor for the Tigers' offensive line all season at left tackle, leading the way for two 1,000-yard rushers in Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall. He also played a big part in helping those two play defensive ends like a fiddle all season with Auburn's read option runs.
Robinson will be sorely missed on the offensive line moving forward.
The Future: Fortunately for Auburn fans, the Tigers have plenty of talent returning at the position. Shon Coleman, Avery Young, and Patrick Miller will likely be the top contenders for the starting spot at left tackle.
Coleman will be a redshirt sophomore in 2014, fresh off of his first year back in football this season. Before 2013, he was away from the field for two years, beating leukemia after being diagnosed in the spring of 2010. Coleman saw limited action last fall as an additional piece in some of Malzahn's heavy sets while also serving as Robinson's backup.
Young and Miller have been trading starts at right tackle at different times throughout the last two seasons, and one of them could be moved over to help protect quarterback Nick Marshall's blind side.
The Departure: There's no question the Tigers will miss defensive end Dee Ford, both on and off the field. The sack specialist came away with 10.5 sacks in 12 games in 2013, the second-most in the SEC overall and the most per game. Perhaps most importantly, the senior was a leader on the defensive front and was part of the glue that kept the Tigers together during their late-season push.
The Future: While there may be no replacing Ford's leadership, the Tigers will hope to make up for that loss in the future with pure athletic ability. His departure will make way for rising sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel—both 5-star prospects from the 2013 signing class—to take to the field and start building a legacy of their own on the Plains.
The Departed: Cornerback Chris Davis will never be forgotten on the Plains after his last-second heroics in the Iron Bowl, but the Tigers will have to replace the departing senior at cornerback in 2014 and beyond. While most of America may only know Davis for one 109-yard field-goal return, he was also one of the best punt returners Auburn has seen in quite some time—after he was finally given his opportunity.
The Future: At corner, the Tigers should be fine moving forward, as a trio of Jonathans will return in 2014, in position to me mainstays on the Auburn defense. Rising senior Jonathon Mincy, rising junior Jonathan Jones and rising sophomore Johnathan Ford will likely be the Tigers' three main corners.
As for special teams, rising senior Quan Bray will likely have first crack at the punt return position after working at the position through each of his first three years at Auburn.
The Departed: Fullback Jay Prosch was the quiet third piece to Auburn's read-option attack in 2013, alongside Nick Marshall and Tre Mason. He was both heavy enough to knock back linebackers and seal an outside edge but still nimble and quick enough to pull around the entire offensive line as the run developed.
Prosch came into his own during his second and final season at Auburn, and he will be missed as an asset in Malzahn's backfield.
The Future: It will be interesting to see exactly what Malzahn will do with the open spot Prosch leaves behind in the backfield.
One option could be to fit a receiving tight end into the fold more often and place rising senior C.J. Uzomah in the backfield every down, replicating what Malzahn and former tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen did during Malzahn's run as an offensive coordinator at Auburn from 2009-2011.
However, with the success the Tigers' read-option had with Prosch leading the way for Marshall on the outside in 2013, Malzahn may want to keep more of a true blocking fullback in that space more often than not and give Brandon Fulse more playing time.
Most likely, Tigers fans will probably see a little bit of both, as Uzomah and Fulse will both likely see plenty of action in 2014.
Cody Parkey and Steven Clark
The Departed: Auburn will be losing both parts of its kicking game, as place-kicker Cody Parkey and Steven Clark graduate. Parkey was a solid 15-of-21 during his senior season in 2013.
But the Tigers may especially miss Clark, who seemed to have pinpoint accuracy down the stretch of the Tigers' run to the national championship game, often pinning opponents within their own 5-yard line—punts that may have proved the difference in some of Auburn's closer games.
The Future: The Tigers will be replacing both kickers with signees from the 2013 signing class in placekicker Daniel Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson.