Power Ranking Auburn's Positional Units for 2014
After a remarkable 12-2 season that finished with an SEC Championship and a spot in the final BCS National Championship Game, the Auburn Tigers will have a target on their backs this season.
Fortunately for the Tigers and their fans, they have the strength to handle the pressure of SEC and national-title hype.
Auburn returns eight starters from one of the nation's most potent offenses and has depth across the defensive line and linebacker units.
However, Gus Malzahn and his staff will need to see improvement from an underwhelming secondary while implementing an entirely new set of specialists.
Here is a bottom-to-top look at the Tigers' positional units, ranked by experience, performance in previous seasons and an outlook toward the near future. Returning starters are listed as top players, while projected new starters and role players are listed as question marks heading into the 2014 season.
9. Special Teams
Top Players: N/A
Question Marks: K Daniel Carlson, P Jimmy Hutchinson, kick/punt returners
Why They're Ranked Here: Who knows what to expect from Auburn's special teams this season?
Specialists have been a strength of the Tigers in recent seasons thanks to the consistent quality of players such as Cody Parkey and Steven Clark. Auburn also received a boost last season in the return game with Tre Mason leading the charge on kickoffs and Chris Davis making an impact on punts—and one special field-goal attempt.
Redshirt freshmen Carlson and Hutchinson were the nation's top class-of-2013 players in their respective positions. Carlson had an up-and-down Jordan-Hare Stadium debut at A-Day with a 50-yard field goal and a missed extra point, but Hutchinson did not get a chance to show his skills in live action.
While Auburn will wait to see how big-game pressure will affect the new freshman specialists, the team will have to figure out how to replace Mason and Davis. The Tigers have some returning experience in Quan Bray and Corey Grant, but no leaders have been named heading into fall camp.
8. Defensive Backs
Top Players: CB Jonathon Mincy, Star Robenson Therezie, S Jermaine Whitehead
Question Marks: Star Justin Garrett, CB/S Josh Holsey, CB Jonathan Jones, S Derrick Moncrief
Why They're Ranked Here: Auburn's pass defense last season was not pretty.
The secondary had more pass breakups and interceptions than it did in the dreadful 2012 campaign but finished No. 102 nationally in yards allowed through the air.
However, the Tigers return a majority of their starting and role-playing defensive backs while also inserting a few newcomers who could be early difference-makers. If Auburn struggles again with pass defense, it will not be from a lack of experience.
While Mincy's recent drug arrest throws his future in doubt, Auburn has several players who could fill his spot as well as the one left by Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis. Holsey is probably the biggest question mark—he has starting experience at safety and cornerback, but no one is sure what role he will play in his return from injury.
Top Players: MLB Cassanova McKinzy
Question Marks: WLB Kris Frost, MLB JaViere Mitchell, WLB Anthony Swain
Why They're Ranked Here: A flip-flop of projected starters puts the linebackers, which had their brighter moments in 2013, slightly ahead of the defensive backs.
McKinzy returns as the team's leading tackler but will be moving over from weak-side linebacker to middle linebacker.
Frost has experience at both linebacker spots and will be moving back to his natural position on the weak side. He rotated heavily with starter Jake Holland at middle linebacker, ending the 2013 season with more tackles than Holland.
Auburn has developed a solid amount of depth behind McKinzy and Frost with rotational players Mitchell and Swain, the latter of whom was recently reinstated to the team. Several underclassmen could move up the depth chart this season, including in-state high school star Tre' Williams and former defensive back Khari Harding.
6. Tight Ends/H-Backs
Top Players: TE C.J. Uzomah
Question Marks: H-Back Brandon Fulse
Why They're Ranked Here: The H-back and tight end positions are usually important weapons in Malzahn's offense but did not receive a lot of the limelight in 2013.
Uzomah, who sometimes started as a traditional tight end and lined up at slot receiver, made one of the biggest catches of the year with a last-minute touchdown grab against Mississippi State. However, he did not catch more than three passes in one game, with several games that did not feature a single catch.
Fulse was primarily used as a blocking tight end, recording only one catch all season. He will most likely play most of his time as a run-blocking H-back but has the skills to be more of a difference-maker in all areas of the Tigers' attack.
The Tigers have multiple playmakers who can stretch the defense from boundary to boundary—look for these two seniors to have breakout seasons down the middle of the field.
5. Defensive Line
Top Players: DE LaDarius Owens, DT Gabe Wright
Question Marks: DT Montravius Adams, DT Angelo Blackson, DT Ben Bradley, DE Elijah Daniel, DE Carl Lawson, DT Jeff Whitaker
Why They're Ranked Here: The strength of Auburn's resurgent defense last season was across the front four, where a mix of veteran contributors and young stars showcased their abilities at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run.
A good portion of the defensive line graduated last season, but this is a position of great depth for the Tigers. Auburn will try to replace the likes of Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae with the highly rated trio of Adams, Daniel and Lawson.
The Tigers also have seniors Blackson, Bradley and Whitaker, who each have a solid amount of experience along the interior of the line. Some of Auburn's defensive tackles also have the versatility to play defensive end, which will give the defense added bulk against power-running offenses.
Auburn's line reloaded this offseason with the signing of six defensive linemen—four of them receiving a 4-star rating. If last season is any indication, the Tigers will rotate heavily across the front, and there is definitely strength in their numbers.
4. Wide Receivers
Top Players: Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis
Question Marks: Quan Bray, Marcus Davis, D'haquille Williams
Why They're Ranked Here: When a team only throws the ball 28 percent of the time in one season, the wide receivers have to make the most of their chances.
The speedy and physical Coates did that in 2013, finishing No. 3 nationally in receiving yards per catch as Nick Marshall's favored deep-ball target.
The presence of Williams, the nation's No. 1 JUCO player from the class of 2014, brings a whole new dynamic to Auburn's receivers. With Williams, the Tigers have another go-to weapon who can line up opposite Coates and make things more difficult for opposing defenses.
Louis, Bray and Davis will most likely be the key faces at slot receiver and in the rotation with Coates and Williams. If they can bring their intermediate passing success from A-Day—against Auburn's second-string defense—against SEC competition, every Auburn receiver could see his stock rise this season.
3. Running Backs
Top Players: N/A
Question Marks: Cameron Artis-Payne, Peyton Barber, Corey Grant, Racean "Roc" Thomas
Why They're Ranked Here: How will Auburn replace a record-breaking Heisman finalist in Tre Mason? By giving the ball to his talented support staff from 2013.
As impressive as Mason and Marshall were on the ground last season, Artis-Payne and Grant also contributed to college football's top rushing attack. While the two upcoming seniors worked over the spring to become better all-around backs, the powerful Artis-Payne and the speedy Grant complement each other for the Tigers.
The Tigers will also have a pair of freshmen to help out the seniors and build toward the future. Barber was a coaches' favorite on the scout team in 2013, while Thomas is projected to be the star running back of the future after a spectacular high school career.
So why do the running backs get the edge over the wide receivers, who have two returning starters? Although Auburn wants to throw the ball more in 2014, the running game will continue to be the basis of Malzahn's offense. CAP and Grant have experience and success from last year and are destined to lead the way for Auburn this season.
Top Players: Nick Marshall
Question Marks: Jeremy Johnson
Why They're Ranked Here: A returning quarterback has been a rare luxury for Auburn football for the last decade. This season, Auburn will have a running signal-caller with championship-game experience and the potential to become a Heisman winner.
Marshall arrived on the Plains after spring practices last season, won the starting job after a few weeks of fall camp and turned a slow start into an impressive campaign. He will have a entire offseason of practice heading into the 2014 schedule, as well as a few new playmakers in the high-powered Malzahn system.
Marshall did not have to throw the ball much last season, but Malzahn wants that to change. If he can improve his touch on deep balls and find consistency in a growing intermediate-passing game, Marshall should be the star of a more balanced and deadlier offense.
The senior starter will be backed up by Jeremy Johnson, a 6'5" sophomore who had a few highlight-reel plays in his true freshman season. But with Marshall getting more work as a passer this offseason, only time will tell if Johnson's snaps will increase or decrease in special offensive packages.
1. Offensive Line
Top Players: C Reese Dismukes, LG Alex Kozan, RG Chad Slade, RT Avery Young
Question Marks: LT Shon Coleman, LT/RT Patrick Miller
Why They're Ranked Here: Although the eventual No. 2 pick in this year's NFL draft is no longer locking down the blind side on the Plains, Auburn's elite offensive strength is still built on its front five.
The Tigers' No. 1 rushing attack thrived behind Auburn's offensive line, which will return with more experience and cohesiveness after only losing left tackle Greg Robinson. According to Football Study Hall, Auburn finished No. 2 nationally last season in adjusted line yards, a statistic that is used to separate credit for a given rush between both the runner and the blockers.
Dismukes is the anchor of the talented Auburn offensive line and is aiming for more standout performances in his fourth consecutive year as the starting center for the Tigers. He will be flanked on the interior by SEC All-Freshman selection Kozan on his left and third-year starter Slade on his right.
While Young is set to return as Auburn's starting right tackle after starting the second half of the 2013 season at the position, Coleman is expected to take over Robinson's spot at left tackle. Former starting right tackle Miller could make a move into the starting job on either side or provide extra depth.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats taken from CFBStats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.