Auburn Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview
Auburn opens spring camp on March 18 and will keep it active for roughly a month, closing shop on April 19, per Phil Steele's spring calendar chart.
The mood about the Tigers could not be more different than it was at the start of last spring.
In 2013, this team was learning the rhythm of a new coach on the heels of a 3-9 season. A season of winning zero SEC games. A season that was the nadir of a supremely proud program.
In 2014, this team is coming of an appearance in the national title game—a game the Tigers came within 13 seconds of winning. They are the reigning champions of the best conference in college football and return enough talent to be considered a favorite in the fall.
That doesn't mean there's no intrigue, however. At the places where Auburn did lose talent, the battle to replace it is important. The same goes for the spots where the Tigers struggled in 2013. How do they improve those problem areas this season?
How do they go from national title participant to national title winners?
It all starts in the spring.
The spring will be important for quarterback Nick Marshall, who needs to work closely with Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee to refine his throwing motion, footwork and accuracy.
According to Brandon Marcello of AL.com, the team forbade him from training with QB guru George Whitfield in San Diego, so it better be prepared to give him the help he needs. As good as he was overall in 2013, the flaws in Marshall's arm became evident at big moments during the national title game against Florida State.
But will he even be the starter? That seems absurd to ask, seeing as he propelled Auburn to within 13 seconds of winning the national championship in his first year with the team, but it might not be. At least not according to ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit.
"This spring, Gus Malzahn told me the other day, no matter what happens tonight, there's going to be a battle in the spring between Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall," Herbstreit said on College GameDay before the national title game, according to Drew Champlin of AL.com.
Johnson vs. Marshall is something to keep a peripheral eye on, I guess, although the chances of it becoming a close competition are slight.
If anything, Malzahn's reported comments reveal how highly the team thinks of Johnson, who will be a true sophomore in 2014 and the overwhelming favorite to start as a junior once Marshall graduates.
Johnson's development will be important this spring—both for the future as a starter and in a backup role this season. Considering the amount of exposed hits Marshall takes as a runner, Johnson must be ready to play at a moment's notice.
Behind him, Jonathan Wallace, who started four games in the shan't-be-talked-about season of 2012, provides experienced depth that most teams would kill for in a third-string QB.
The battle to "replace" Tre Mason won't be much of a battle, and it won't necessarily yield a replacement. Instead, as Auburn did during the early part of last season, a number of backs will share the role.
Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, the second- and third-leading rushers among running backs last season, are both back in 2014 and ready to increase their workload. Whether either or both has improved to the point of a lead tailback will be seen during spring practice.
Perhaps more intriguing, though, is the progress of redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, whom I named one of the SEC's 10 players to watch over the next couple of months. Coaches loved him on the scout team last season, and they weren't the only ones.
"Me and Cam [Artis-Payne] talk about it all the time," said Mason, a Heisman finalist in 2013, according to Brandon Marcello of AL.com. "[Barber] is probably, skill wise, the best out of all of us. That guy is good. He's very consistent when he's scrimmaging."
If Barber is as good as advertised, he could work into a time-share with Grant and Artis-Payne. If not, the first two are capable of handling the load as a traditional thunder-and-lightning duo.
Also worth keeping an eye on is Johnathan Ford, who oscillated between running back and cornerback as a freshman last season. He told Ryan Black of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that he has "always wanted to run the rock," and he looked good rushing for 73 yards on six carries in mop-up duty last year.
Ford has the speed to contribute in 2015 and/or 2016, provided he stays at the position (or even moves back in the first place).
A position of relative weakness in 2013, Auburn's group of wide receivers has the talent, and now the experience, to become a position of strength.
A lot of that will depend on how each player has improved.
All six of the leading wide receivers are back from last season, and spring drills will suss out whom among Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis, Marcus Davis, Quan Bray, Melvin Ray and Trovon Reed is most ready to make a leap in 2014.
And then there's the wild card: JUCO transfer D'haquille Williams.
Ranked the No. 1 overall junior college player on the 247Sports composite, Williams comes to Auburn with excessive—and perhaps unfair—expectations.
The last receiver ranked No. 1 overall in the JUCO rankings was Cordarrelle Patterson. The last time that Auburn scored a JUCO player this highly ranked, he won a Heisman Trophy and led it to the national title.
That's a lot of pressure.
How Williams acclimates himself this spring will be of utmost concern to Tigers fans. At the very least, they are expecting someone who can be a top-three receiver on the team. Romantically, they haven't ruled out a Cam Newton-sized impact. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, but there's no good way to know until spring ball has begun.
At tight end, C.J. Uzomah returns with Brandon Fulse, Chris Laye and Ricky Parks the primary candidates to back him up.
How do you replace someone like Greg Robinson?
It won't be easy. He was the engine that made Auburn's offense go last year—a physical anomaly suited like a dream to Gus Malzahn's offense. Without his mauling presence out in front of Auburn running backs, there may be some early-season growing pains.
The race for the two starting tackle positions comes down, more or less, to three players: Avery Young, Patrick Miller and Shon Coleman.
Either Young or Miller, who combined to start all 14 games at right tackle last season, will start on the other side of the line. Whether they see a look on the left has to do with Coleman's performance.
If he looks capable of being a legitimate starter, the player who loses the right tackle competition—most likely Miller, who was replaced by Young during his 2013 suspension and never got his job back—will end up in a swing tackle role. If he doesn't, the better right tackle might move to the left, and the worse one might start on the right.
At guard and center, there is less immediate intrigue.
Reese Dismukes, Chris Slade and Alex Kozan started every game last season and played well enough to make Tre Mason a Heisman finalist. If anything can be rightfully considered the "strength" of a team that is strong on most levels, it is the interior of the offensive line.
Behind them, guys like center Xavier Dampier and guards Jordan Diamond, Deon Mix and Devonte Danzey will work to improve and set themselves up for a bigger role in 2015 or 2016.
Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae are gone from a unit that secretly—at least outside of the Plains—carried Auburn to the national title game last season.
But fear not. There is more than enough talent left to survive.
LaDarius Owens is a senior and becomes, via seniority, the de facto leader of the defensive linemen. How he adjusts to that role in the absence of Ford is worth keeping an eye on this spring.
More practically, the sophomore jump from Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel could define this defense in 2014. If they make the necessary improvements, the Tigers' pass rush could be scary. If not, the loss of Ford and Eguae will be palpable.
Is Lawson ready to assume a full-time starting role? Is Daniel ready to assume the role Lawson held last year—that of an essential starter? Is Gimel President ready to live up to his name and play the same role Daniel did in 2014?
Three 4-star recruits will arrive this summer: Justin Thornton, DaVonte Lambert and Andrew Williams. If President and Keymiya Harrell want to hold them off on next fall's depth chart, they will need to impress defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson during the spring.
There are far less questions in the defensive tackle rotations, which should be one of the strongest units on the team. Gabe Wright returns to the starting lineup and Montravius Adams, another 5-star recruit in the class of 2013, played well when he saw the field last season.
Behind them, seniors Angelo Blackson and Ben Bradley provide quality, seasoned depth. Both played in all 14 games last season. Provided Bradley's old weight and conditioning problems don't relapse, the coaching staff can put faith in both players.
Cassanova McKinzy is back after starting all 14 games at outside linebacker and leading the team with 75 tackles as a sophomore.
His spot is safe.
At middle linebacker, Jake Holland leaves the team after starting 13 games in 2013, which would appear to leave a void. However, rising junior Kris Frost essentially split time with Holland last season and was arguably Auburn's best defensive player against Florida State, so the position is his for the taking this spring.
The true battles in Auburn's two-linebacker scheme will come behind McKinzy and Frost. Anthony Swain, McKinzy's backup in 2013 and a steady contributor, returns and should see meaningful reps come the fall. Behind him, things are essentially a crapshoot.
And of those in the mix for reps, one name sticks out in particular: Justin Garrett.
He was the star of spring practice a year ago and was named MVP of the A-Day game, according to Ryan Black of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Robenson Therezie took his spot at the "Star" position when he was nagged with foot injuries in the fall, which forced Ellis Johnson to slide him over to linebacker, but Garrett, when healthy, is capable of helping this team in myriad ways.
Before 5-star linebacker Tre' Williams arrives in the fall, spring practice will give Garrett and other hopefuls such as JaViere Mitchell, Cameron Toney and Kenny Flowers a chance to establish themselves in good standing with the coaching staff.
If Williams is as good as advertised, doing so will be important.
Auburn's secondary was the weakest unit on the defense last season, and after losing three key pieces in Chris Davis, Ryan Smith and Ryan White, the Tigers are left hoping for addition by subtraction.
Otherwise, the pass defense might get ugly.
The most important player to watch this spring might be JUCO safety Derrick Moncrief, who projects as an immediate starter in Smith's old position of boundary safety. He was a teammate of D'haquille Williams at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the top-ranked junior college safety on the 247Sports composite.
Joshua Holsey started the first six games of 2013 at boundary safety, and his health will be an important storyline of the spring as well.
He tore his ACL in October—a true shame, as he was playing good football—and would combine, if healthy, with Moncrief to give Auburn a pair of legitimate boundary safeties alongside returning cornerback Jonathon Mincy, field safety Jermaine Whitehead and "Star" Robenson Therezie.
Any or all might be counted on for depth in the secondary, depending on their performances in fall practices.
Until then, the rest of the defensive backs on the roster would be wise to use this spring as a jumping-off point—a means of keeping those youngsters at bay. Now would be a great time for Auburn to see an unexpected contributor blossom.
Overlook special teams all you want. It's the reason Auburn lost the national title game.
In 2014, the Tigers lose punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey.
Juniors Alex Kviklys and Duncan McKinney will compete with redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson for the kicker job. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchinson and sophomore Tyler Stovall will vie to replace Clark at punter.
Elsewhere, the loss of Heisman runner-up Tre Mason and Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis leaves big holes on the kickoff and punt return teams, respectively.
Quan Bray has experience returning both, but depending on where he lands on the receiver depth chart, his services might not be needed.
Marcus Davis, Trovon Reed and Corey Grant also have returning experience.
Note: Star rankings courtesy of 247Sports.