Spring football is in the air, and with our Spring Practice Primers the Eye On College Football Blog gets you up to speed on what to look for on campuses around the country this spring. Today we look at Auburn.
Spring Practice Starts: March 23
Spring Game: April 14
Returning starters: 7 offensive, 9 defensive, 2 specialists
Three Things To Look For:
1. Can a quarterback emerge? And will he look remotely comfortable under new coordinator Scot Loeffler? Quarterback play was an issue for Auburn down the 2011 regular season stretch -- note that this is like saying a pack of starving lions is an "issue" for a wounded gazelle -- and Barrett Trotter's sudden renaissance in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl didn't do much for future optimism once he'd announced he was giving up his senior season on the Plains. Sophomore Kiehl Frazier is widely considered the Tigers' heir apparent, but as a freshman he struggled to earn enough trust from Gus Malzahn to ever do more than hand off or go Wildcat, and Malzahn's system seemed a much snugger fit for Frazier's athleticism than Loeffler's (purported) under-center schemes. Frazier remains the favorite to take over as the starting QB, but he'll have to fend off a stiff challenge from Clint Moseley (who overtook Trotter in midseason last year for the starter's job) and maybe even true freshman Zeke Pike.
In any case, Tiger fans will be watching the marriage between Loeffler and Frazier (and Moseley, and Pike) closely this spring. In 2008, the first sign that Tony Franklin wasn't going to work out at Auburn was an awkward, disjointed "A-Day" performance; in 2009, the first sign Malzahn was working out was a thrilling outburst of A-Day scoring and big plays. If Loeffler's debut leans more towards the former than the latter, there may be some nervousness in the Jordan-Hare Stadium bleachers.
2. Is the Tiger defense ready to take its purported great leap forward under Brian Van Gorder? Of course, if that 2009 spring game explosion foretold some big things ahead for Malzahn's offense, it also should have warned Tiger fans about the future holes to be sprung in Ted Roof's defense. Van Gorder has been hired to plug those holes, and has both the track record and the talent on hand to engineer a huge improvement in the Auburn defense; defensive end Corey Lemonier, corner T'Sharvan Bell and tackle Gabe Wright all have All-SEC potential (all or in Lemonier's case, are All-SEC already). But Van Gorder has to find some playmakers in the linebacking and safety corps and fix some of the schematic confusion that seemed to occasionally plague the Tigers under Roof's reign; anything less than a marked step forward defensively during spring camp, and it'll be doubtful Auburn will be ready to re-enter SEC West contention come the fall.
3. Can anyone replace Michael Dyer? At the program its fans like to call "Running Back U," it's seemed like there's always someone on the roster ready to wear the mantle of game-changing tailback--see Brent Fullwood taking over for Bo Jackson, Kenny Irons for Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, and most recently, Michael Dyer for Ben Tate. But now that Dyer has followed Malzahn to Arkansas State, who's going to take over for him? Senior Onterio McCalebb has always been less-than-effective running between the tackles (going 5'11" and weighing 175 pounds will do that), and you'd expect to say the same about Alabama transfer Corey Grant. Tre Mason showed impressive flashes as a freshman but is unproven as a 20-carry workhorse, and Florida transfer Mike Blakely -- at 5'9", 206, maybe the player best-built to replicate Dyer's toughness -- is likewise an unknown commodity. It's likely one of these players will stake his claim on the full-time tailback gig ... but which one? And can he do so emphatically enough to fend off incoming freshman Jovon Robinson in the fall?
To check in on the rest of the SEC and other BCS conferences, check out the Spring Practice Schedule.
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