Biggest Storylines Heading into Auburn's Fall Camp
The longest offseason in recent memory for many Auburn fans is almost over.
The Tigers return to the practice field in a few days for their final weeks of practices before the start of the 2014 season, which they hope will end with another SEC Championship and a national title.
Auburn entered fall camp last season with a lot of question marks as a team fresh off a disappointing 3-9 campaign and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff.
Head coach Gus Malzahn's squad thrived off being the underdog last season, but how will they perform heading into a fall filled with preseason hype and tremendous expectations?
Here are six storylines to watch for when Auburn opens a busy August of practice and preparation for the 2014 campaign.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.
Nick Marshall's Status
From a legal standpoint, Nick Marshall's marijuana citation has been resolved after his mother paid his fines.
From a football standpoint, the Auburn quarterback's status is still up in the air.
Malzahn said at SEC media days that Marshall and fellow senior Jonathon Mincy, who was also arrested on drug charges earlier this summer, would "suffer the consequences" for their recent off-the-field issues. The head coach did not go into specifics of what those consequences would entail, but he said last week an official decision was coming soon.
"The quarterback is the face of our program, so he'll have some things he'll have to pay for," Malzahn said during his appearance on ESPN's Numbers Never Lie, per AL.com's Brandon Marcello. "I have not decided that for sure right now, but it will be in a short period of time I'll have that figured out."
According to the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington, Marshall is not required to miss any playing time under Auburn's official drug policy because the July citation was his first incident as a Tiger. Missed playing time or no missed playing time, Marshall's punishment will definitely be the big story for the first few days of fall camp.
Finalizing the Depth Chart
Auburn may not have another quarterback battle on their hands at this point this fall, but there are still a number of high-profile position competitions that will continue in August.
The most notable battle is at field cornerback, where a host of Tigers will compete for the right to start opposite Mincy, who moved to boundary cornerback in place of Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis.
Versatile defensive back Josh Holsey, who will be back on the field for the first time after a season-ending knee injury before 2013's visit to Texas A&M, could be the leader at the position if he does not stay at safety. The speedy Jonathan Jones will be another name to watch in the battle, along with Kamryn Melton, T.J. Davis and former wide receiver Trovon Reed.
Someone will have to step up at defensive end for Auburn, which will surely miss the presence of injured star sophomore Carl Lawson. Elijah Daniel and Gimel President return at the position, and they will be joined by a trio of tall, athletic newcomers—more on those players later.
A few other position battles seem to have strong leaders after spring practices, but none of the new first-teamers' spots have been finalized yet. These projected starters include Shon Coleman at left tackle, Brandon Fulse at H-back and Derrick Moncrief at boundary safety. Keep an eye on all three of them this fall.
More Special Teams Practice
The special teams unit has been a big part of whatever success Auburn teams have had over the last decade, and this season, the Tigers are starting from scratch.
Kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark's replacements, Daniel Carlson and Jimmy Hutchinson, have already been on campus for more than a year, but they will get their first collegiate action this fall as starters. Both redshirt freshmen were top recruits in the class of 2013 and will have to prove their worth from the opening game of 2014.
Both players had up-and-down Jordan-Hare Stadium debuts at the annual A-Day Game, according to special teams coordinator Scott Fountain.
"Daniel Carlson hit a 50-yarder, he missed a 51-yarder," Fountain told the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea. "(A-Day) was a great opportunity for them. For Jimmy, he started out kind of sluggish, I thought he got better as he went but we got to continue to improve at that position. Those are two big holes to fill."
While the two young players get some more valuable practice time during fall camp, Auburn will also look to replace returners Tre Mason and Chris Davis. Running back Corey Grant and wide receiver Quan Bray have experience as returners, but wide receiver D'haquille Williams and Mincy are part of a few playmakers who could move into the rotation this fall.
First Impressions of the Newcomers
Although a few stars from Auburn's star-studded class of 2014 were early enrollees, most of the incoming freshmen and a few JUCO transfers made their way to campus this summer.
New NCAA rules allowed these newcomers to get some time with assistant coaches these last two months, but the real impressions will be made on the practice field this fall.
Auburn has a few top recruits who have a great chance at turning heads early and putting their names into the position competitions like Williams, Moncrief and slot receiver Stanton Truitt did in the spring.
Roc Thomas is the first name that comes to mind as a player who could see a good amount of playing time in Auburn's running back-by-committee system that Malzahn seems to be favoring heading into 2014. The state's former Mr. Football winner will enter practice with a tremendous amount of buzz generated by his coaches, teammates and new fans.
New defensive ends Justin Thornton, Andrew Williams and DaVonte Lambert could have big roles to play in the front four's rotation this fall. Four more defensive backs, including big cornerbacks Kalvaraz Bessent and Joseph Turner, are also on campus to bring additional depth to a unit that definitely needs it.
Injuries were a major problem for Auburn's defense during spring practice, with the biggest one resulting in major knee surgery for Lawson.
"It was sort of a herky-jerky spring, as far as really improving as a total picture, as a unit, because every other day there was somebody missing, a key element of your defense," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told Marcello in April. "So I don't know how many days we actually had the best 11 out there working together."
No team can get through a full slate of contact practices without some amount of injuries, but good overall health was a major factor in Auburn's run to the SEC title and the BCS National Championship Game last year.
There were a few season-ending injuries, but the Tigers were fortunate not to suffer direct hits to their star players like other SEC teams had in 2013.
With a month to go before the defending conference champions open their season, it will be interesting to see how much contact the Tigers will have during fall practices. One thing is for certain: Auburn will not want to repeat the same breakout of injuries it had in the spring.
Preparing for the Arkansas Game
While most of fall camp will be focused on fine-tuning before the start of the season, Auburn will flip the switch to its first regular-season opponent toward the end of the schedule.
Arkansas went winless in the SEC last season and is looking for a 2013 Auburn-like revival of its own this season.
"I know what 3-9 feels like…there’s no bigger motivation than that," Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright said at SEC media days. "If you really have true athletes who give it their all: workouts, class, football…nothing else matters but those three things."
The struggling Razorbacks will have experience with 15 returning starters, and the continuing rivalry between Arkansas native Malzahn and second-year Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema will provide plenty of fireworks for Aug. 30 in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Arkansas will be an inspired team looking to make a statement in the season opener, while Auburn will want to use a rare opener against an SEC team to set the tone for a national championship run. An important game like this one will require a good amount of game-planning for Malzahn and his staff.