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Monday, April 20, 2009

Two-A-Days: Auburn Tigers

We're kicking off a two-week series today that I'm calling "Two-A-Days."

I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents over the past couple of weeks to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.

Each day, Monday through Thursday this week and next, we'll preview two teams, culminating with a final day in which we take a big-picture look at the SEC and take a deeper look at the biggest issues facing your Georgia Bulldogs. To submit a question for the Georgia entry in Two-A-Days, send me an email with the subject line "Two-A-Days" and I'll do my best to find you an answer.

Our first entry in the series is the Auburn Tigers.

Head coach: Gene Chizik (first year)
2008 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Total Offense: 303 ypg (8th SEC, 104th overall)
Total Defense: 307.75 ypg (7th SEC, 29th overall)
On the docket: Auburn opens Sept. 5 vs. Louisiana Tech and visits Georgia on Nov. 14.

Auburn had a sub-par season last year with an offense that struggled mightily. The Tigers fired their offensive coordinator midseason, lost to arch rival Alabama, missed a bowl game and essentially ran their longtime coach, Tommy Tuberville, out of town. Gene Chizik was hired to replace Tuberville and turn things around, and I checked in with Andy Bitter of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer to find out how Chizik was doing this spring.

David Hale: Last year, Auburn tried the spread offense and it went over about as well as an Alabama jersey in the student section at Jordan-Hare. First Tony Franking gets canned, then Tommy Tuberville follows him out the door at season's end. Enter Gus Malzahn as the new offensive coordinator and Auburn is suddenly back to running the spread. What indications have you seen this spring that things might be different with the spread the second time around?

Andy Bitter: Gus Malzahn has been very specific and intentional with his words about his offense, particularly after last year's failed experiment. Malzahn contends this is not a spread offense, just up tempo. That means running the ball will still be a priority, with a smashmouth mentality (and looking at Malzahn's track record at Arkansas and Tulsa, he appears to be telling the truth).

Auburn fans are obviously wary of the up tempo promises after Franklin guaranteed his offense would be the fastest in the country, then slogged through six unimpressive games before being fired. Malzahn, at the very least, appears to be genuine with how fast-paced his offense will be, and, unlike Franklin, he has offensive assistants on board who are not going to sabotage his efforts. There will be growing pains in the first year, especially with major questions marks at quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line, but I would gather the Tigers will not panic and clamor for the old days of power-I formations if the offense struggles out of the gate. That in itself can be considered a step forward.

DH: Step one in making the offense successful will have to be identifying a starting quarterback. Kodi Burns seemed like the guy at the end of 2008, but Malzahn has been reluctant to hand him the job. How has he responded this spring, and what kind of competition have Neil Caudle and Barrett Trotter offered?

AB: From all indications, the quarterback race is wide open. Burns, Caudle and Trotter have rotated with the ones throughout the spring, with last year's partial starter Chris Todd sidelined by offseason shoulder surgery. Malzahn had hoped to find his guy by the end of spring but conceded that it would be difficult. At this stage, he has not yet narrowed the list down to two. That tells me he's not all that enamored by any of his quarterbacks. I would say Burns is still the frontrunner, but Malzahn's offense requires a precise decision-maker who isn't prone to improvising. Improvisation might be Burns' strongest attribute. Burns talks the talk of a starting quarterback. I can see how he is a leader on the field just by his demeanor off of it, but I question if he is accurate enough to be the guy Malzahn needs to run the show. It would not surprise me if this competition wasn't decided until the end of fall camp, with Todd being very much in the mix once his shoulder returns to full strength. That's how wide open it is.

DH: Rod Smith, Chris Slaughter and Robert Dunn are all gone for various reasons, which doesn't leave much experience in what was already a pretty unremarkable receiving corps. Who has stepped up this spring, and can new receivers coach Trooper Taylor find a decent group to work with in the fall?

AB: Other than quarterback, wide receiver is unquestionably Auburn's biggest question mark. Their leading receiver from last year, Montez Billings, hasn't practiced this spring because of an undisclosed injury and hasn't exactly gotten in the good graces of Taylor, who has said point blank -- fair or not -- that injured players aren't helping their cause by being on the sidelines.

Taylor has had high praise for junior Tim Hawthorne, but he's not a burner. Speedster Harry Adams was moved from cornerback to wide receiver last week to give Auburn a deep threat, but he doesn't know the position yet. Philip Pierre-Louis, a Franklin favorite, was a star last August, but he's still working back from an ACL tear that cost him the season. Auburn has two highly-touted freshmen coming into camp next year in Emory Blake and DeAngelo Benton. It says a lot about the state of the receiving corps that they might be able to step onto the field and contribute immediately.

DH: The first response to the hiring of Gene Chizik by the Auburn fans was less than enthusiastic. What has been the players' attitude during their first real work with Chizik, and have you noticed the fan response start to mellow a bit?

AB: I'd say the fan response did a complete 180 within a month and a half of Chizik being hired. By that point, all he'd done was good, putting together a staff of Malzahn, Taylor, Curtis Luper, Ted Roof and fan favorite and former Auburn star Tracy Rocker. He took some swings at some big-time recruits (and landed a few too), which certainly helped increase his popularity to the Auburn nation. And from now until at the very earliest September, he will not lose a football game. As long as that is the case, fans of any team are going to be positive about what's going on.

I think the players have fallen in line too. Chizik instituted some fairly strict rules around the athletic complex (no hats or earrings). I'd say it was a shock initially to the players, but they've embraced it, thinking it will translate onto the football field. I don't know if I necessarily agree that those kind of rules have any effect on the actual game (how many wins did Iowa State have the last two years again?), but if that's what it takes for the players to believe they will do better on the football field, it's probably worth doing.

DH: After seeing the team this spring, what jumped out at you in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions Auburn still needs to answer before the season begins?

AB: I wouldn't say I saw much of anything this spring. Except for three 25-minute periods and the A-Day game, practice was closed to the media and public, keeping the inner workings of the Chizik and Co. shrouded in secrecy (the point of which, I must say, I just don't get).

The biggest positive I'd say is that this group sounds committed to running a unique, fast-paced offense, not some hybrid of its old offense with some no-huddle thrown in. It's going to be fast. And if Auburn fans feel like they've heard that before, they have. But I'd say it's genuine this time around.

The questions marks, as there will with any new coaching staff, clearly outnumber the positives. Quarterback will remain the team's biggest offensive problem until someone can emerge. Four offensive linemen are back. Ben Tate, Mario Fannin and Hargrave speedster Onterio McCalebb are plenty talented at running back. Receiver success seems to be a function of how good the quarterback is. But the quarterback starts it all, and nobody has stood out so far, which is a problem. Defensively, Auburn shouldn't be too bad. The defensive line has to replace a couple of strong tackles, but end Antonio Coleman is back to anchor the group. The linebackers are a little short-handed, but if junior college transfer Eltoro Freeman can step in right away, they have a chance to be good.

Again, though, it remains to be seen how well everything meshes together until the games start. Rocker said it himself after practice one day: the coaching staff is doing a fine job of working together, but they won't be able to tell if it's genuine until they go through some tough times. Until the Tigers see how they fare after going through a little adversity, I think there's a giant question mark surrounding the whole team right now.

* Andy Bitter is the Auburn beat writer for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. You can read his Auburn coverage online HERE or view his Auburn blog HERE. You can find his coverage of Auburn's A-Day spring game HERE.

NEXT UP: Georgia Tech with Macon Telegraph writer Coley Harvey.

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