Two-a-Days rolls on with our second installment, in which we take a closer look at the Auburn Tigers.
To read previous entries, click HERE.
Auburn in a flash:
Head Coach: Gene Chizik, second year
2009 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC), beat Northwestern in Outback Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 431.77 ypg (2nd SEC, 12th nationally); Total defense, 374.08 ypg (11th SEC, 68th nationally)
Coaching Changes: None
Starters Returning: Offense (7), Defense (8), Special Teams (1)
Key Player Losses: QB Chris Todd, RB Ben Tate, DE Antonio Coleman
Big Games: Arkansas (10/16), LSU (10/23), Georgia (11/13), at Alabama (11/26)
Non-Conference Slate: Arkansas State (9/4), Clemson (9/18), Louisiana-Monroe (10/2) and Chattanooga (11/6)
Auburn rebounded in its first year under Gene Chizik to earn a berth in the Outback Bowl, and with the arrival of JuCo transfer QB Cam Newton and a schedule that is particularly favorable leading up to the annual Iron Bowl, there's every reason to think further progress will be made in 2010.
To get more on the Tigers, however, I checked in with Auburn beat writer Andy Bitter of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer to get some details on spring practice…
David Hale: Given all the turmoil of last offseason, it's ironic that Auburn is the lone SEC team that entered the spring with its full coaching staff still intact. Were things feeling a good bit more comfortable for the Tigers and for Gene Chizik this spring than last?
Andy Bitter: There was definitely a sense of continuity this spring and more than one coach remarked about how much ahead of last year the players were, both in their comfort with the coaches and in the system. It was especially noticeable in the quarterbacks. Although presumed frontrunner Cam Newton is new to the system, both Neil Caudle and Barrett Trotter are in their second year under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's tutelage. It showed in the A-Day scrimmage, where Caudle and Trotter combined for 353 passing yards and three touchdowns (albeit against watered-down coverages).
DH: The quarterback battle probably grabbed the most headlines, and it sounds like Cam Newton is most people's favorite to land the job. Who stood out to you this spring and how do you see this process playing out into the fall?
AB: Despite the coaches' reluctance to name a starter, it is 99 percent sure to be Newton. The No. 1 junior college prospect in the country didn't transfer to Auburn to sit on the bench, not when opportunities to play were plentiful around the country. At 6-foot-6, 247 pounds, he certainly passes the eye test. Now it's a matter of him getting to know the offense (he has four more months to wade through the playbook) and settle into a groove (he was jumpy at A-Day, overthrowing a couple of passes in the end zone that should have been touchdowns).
As for the rest, Caudle had an OK spring, but nothing special enough to make you think he's made the leap from backup to major player. Trotter bounced back from an ACL injury that cost him last year to show enough that he could be a quarterback of the future, and redshirt freshman Clint Moseley, while fourth in the race, at least got his first taste of working with the team after performing a scout team role last year. Still, there's no doubt in my mind that Newton's going to be the starter.
DH: Ben Tate was the cornerstone of Auburn's offense last year, but he's gone now. Has Mario Fannin seized the job? How might guys like Onterrio McCalebb or incoming freshman Michael Dyer fit in to that mix?
AB: Fannin satisfied everything the coaches wanted to see from him by the end of spring, getting the No. 1 tailback blessing from running backs coach Curtis Luper, along with the same 1,000-yard prediction Luper gave Tate. Fannin eliminated his fumbling problems and worked on lowering his pads to better suit running between the tackles. There will be plenty of carries to go around, though. Malzahn has said repeatedly that you need more than one running back to succeed in the SEC. McCalebb has bulked up some, but his game will always be about speed. Luper said he won't hesitate to throw Dyer in the mix immediately, but if history is an indicator, it'll be tough for him to make an immediate impact. I could see him being a factor in the second half of the season, but the beginning of the season, and possibly longer, will be Fannin's time.
DH: On the defensive side of the ball, Auburn finished 11th in the SEC in total defense last year and 10th in rushing defense -- including allowing 25 TDs on the ground. How much has changed in that area this spring? Has anyone stepped up that could help turn that around?
AB: It's hard to tell. Auburn had so many defenders sitting out of spring drills that the feel-good story of the spring was about walk-on safety Ikeem Means, whose performance may or may not have been a mirage.
Three safeties returning from injuries -- Zac Etheridge (neck), Aairon Savage (Achilles', knee) and Mike McNeil (leg) -- still have major question marks. Furthermore, Daren Bates, a freshman All-SEC safety who moved to a hybrid safety/linebacker spot in the offseason, sat out spring drills following shoulder surgery, leaving plenty of question marks.
But one bright spot was cornerback Demond Washington, who moved to safety at the end of last year. If he makes strides, Auburn won't feel the sting of Walt McFadden's graduation as much. Also, defensive end Antoine Carter capped a solid spring with 3.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks in the A-Day scrimmage, giving Auburn hope that he can somewhat replace the production of Antonio Coleman, the departed SEC leader in sacks and TFLs.
The key will be the return of the injured players. If they can come back, Auburn will at the very least shore up the depth problems that troubled it last year. If not, it could be another year of the defense trying to patch up problems on the fly.
DH: Well you mentioned in the secondary, Auburn gets Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil back from injuries. How'd they look this spring, and how much of a difference might they make in the season to come?
AB: Savage didn't participate in contact drills, but coaches were encourage by the way he has moved around. (Of course, they said that last year when he was coming off a knee injury and he ended up tearing his Achilles' in the summer). Although he was a full participant this spring, McNeil still had a noticeable limp a year after breaking his leg in a spring scrimmage. That left plenty of reps for junior Drew Cole and Means, a walk-on who drew universal praise from the coaches for the way he flew to the ball and caused turnovers.
But Auburn will need something from the injured guys -- including Etheridge, who didn't participate in contact this spring but will likely return to the field following a scary neck injury last fall. The coaching staff appears to be banking on them to return if Bates' move to linebacker is an indication. If healthy, the trio of Etheridge, Savage and McNeil would provide bodies and experience to a secondary that was paper thin last year. Of course, expecting all three to get back to their pre-injury form might be wishful thinking.
***Big thanks to Andy for his input. You can read his work in the Ledger-Enquirer HERE, view his blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.
So, what do you think about Auburn's potential in 2010? More progress from last year or time for a step back in Year 2 under Chizik?
And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.