Gridironnow reporter John Cubelic takes a peek at Auburn spring football practice and their need to find someone to take snaps and consistently move the ball eighty plus yards.
With a host of new assistants, Auburn will have a great deal to prove during spring practice, which begins Tuesday. Installation of the defense will be paramount; missed assignments will abound. On offense, there maybe are even more questions, mainly who will play?
Strongest position: Running back. The experience at the position means the backs barely edge out defensive line. There is intriguing youth on the defensive line, but potential does not mean success. The backs from a year ago will be stronger, smarter and more comfortable. While carrying the ball obviously will be critical, watch for who steps up in pass protection. Whoever starts at quarterback will need all the help he can get, and having a back in who is great pass protection may make all the difference.
Weakest position: Wide receiver — just touching out linebacker. All three linebackers from a year ago are gone, but Auburn didn’t focus on recruiting that position, which indicates coaches have some confidence there. Receiver, on the other hand, is a position with new faces and a new, young coach. This group absolutely must produce this fall. The top two targets from last year are gone and coach Gus Malzahn almost assuredly will be putting his offensive livelihood in some unproven hands. If this group struggles, the ensuing erosion of confidence could permeate throughout the offense and indeed the entire team.
Player most on the spot, offense: OT Robert Leff, possibly Darius James. One of these guys is expected to start at left tackle, and the pressure on that position in the 2016 campaign will be huge. New to the starting lineup, protecting a new quarterback in an offense that must produce, that must run the ball, that must protect the pocket – that’s a lot to ask. There is no learning curve, not this season, and whoever wins the job must be ready to step into the toughest trenches in college football on Day One. Leff is a senior who has started two games in his career. James is a sophomore transfer from Texas who sat out last season; he started two games for the Longhorns as a true freshman in 2014.
Player most on the spot, defense: LB Tre’ Williams. Auburn needs solid linebacker play and will turn to an entirely new group to get it. Williams has established himself as a vocal leader on defense and the Tigers need a commanding presence in the middle to complement Carl Lawson. Getting the defense aligned and adjusted is a huge job, especially in a new system, and that task now falls to Williams. Plus, he also has to play middle linebacker in the SEC. He needs a good spring to prove to his coaches and teammates that he’s the man for the job.
The clock is ticking on: RB Roc Thomas. The clock has run out on Jeremy Johnson. But Thomas, a once heavily recruited, highly prized running back, has yet to transfer that talent onto the field in an every-down situation for the Tigers. He has shown flashes of brilliance but has yet to assert himself as the dominant ball carrier. With Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson coming on strong last season, it’s now or never for Thomas to live up to his considerable potential.
Newcomer to watch: Take your pick. Franklin, Darius James, true freshman DT Derrick Brown, JC transfer LB Paul James III, true freshman WR Nate Craig-Myers, redshirt freshman DB Jamel Dean … Auburn will have plenty of untested talent on the field this spring. Also keep an eye on Carlton Davis. Yes, he’s a sophomore who played last season, but Davis has an opportunity to become one of the elite in Auburn’s historically illustrious defensive backfield. In a season sure to be full of surprises, Davis should be fun to watch.
Notable players who will miss spring practice: RB Kerryon Johnson is questionable after shoulder surgery in January. If he indeed is absent, it puts more pressure on Thomas to have a strong spring.
First game: vs. Clemson, September 3.