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April 30, 2014

Spring wrap: Auburn

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Editor's note: This is the first installment of a 14-part, in-depth look at SEC spring practices as written by lead team writers of the Rivals.com network. We start with my review of Auburn.

AUBURN, Ala. | That went well.

Gus Malzahn's first season as the Tigers' head coach yielded one of the best seasons in school history. Auburn finished 12-2 and ended its season one defensive stop away from a national title -- a clear break from the quagmire of coach Gene Chizik's final campaign in 2012.

What happened? Malzahn and his protégé, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, installed their hurry-up, no-huddle offense and created a statistical monster. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, 61 years young at the time, took one of the nation's most porous defenses and made it average. The team lacked balance, sure, but the Tigers coaches accentuated the good and found ways to mitigate the bad just enough to keep things moving forward.

Now it's time for an encore.

"We've been really up front with our guys. We're definitely proud of how far they came, but that's in the past," Malzahn said. "It's a complete, new season. This is a new team. The seniors moved on. We've got to earn it. All we're talking about is earning the right to try to get back to a game like that." Auburn entered the spring with a few goals in mind. Malzahn said he wanted his offense, which returns eight starters, to begin executing at a faster pace. Despite all the hoopla surrounding Malzahn's up-tempo offense, the Tigers averaged only 74 snaps per game.

That's equal to the Bowl Subdivision national average.

Though the A-Day game on April 19 didn't feature much pace, players said they're more comfortable than ever with Malzahn's offensive system. Chalk that up as a spring win. The other area of emphasis was retaining the physical edge Auburn created last season. The team was pushed around throughout the 2012 season and the new coaching staff was satisfied with how strongly and aggressively the Tigers played last season.

If injuries are any indication, spring drills were physically challenging. Auburn lost five defensive linemen to various physical ailments during the month-long practice period as well as middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and backup outside linebacker Khari Harding.

All in all, safety Jermaine Whitehead said, it was successful spring.

"We got better and we learned a lot about some players who didn't get as many opportunities last year," he said. "We came up a short in California. We feel that pain every day. We didn't finish what we started, so we're taking (the 2014 season) as a chance to get it right. We've started things off right this spring."

FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT AUBURN:

What's the biggest thing we learned about Auburn this spring?

This offense has a chance to be epic. For the first time during his college career, Malzahn is returning his starting quarterback (Nick Marshall) for a second season. Speed back Corey Grant averaged 9.8 yards per carry last season while featured back Cameron Artis-Payne and redshirt freshman Peyton Barber seem poised to replace Tre Mason's remarkable production.

Add to that an experienced offensive line, a featured wideout in Sammie Coates, the nation's top-rated prospect (wideout D'haquille Williams) and a bevy of tall wideouts and Auburn clearly has the requisite pieces for offensive success.

They're operating at a faster pace and observers insist that Marshall, who arrived on campus a week before two-a-days in 2013, looks like a different (and better) quarterback these days.

Can this team average 45 points per game?

What's the biggest Auburn answered during spring ball?

There wasn't one singular question to answer, honestly. This is a program loaded with inertia, returning players and coaches who have worked together. It could have been a spring of celebration, but Malzahn doesn't operate that way.

He all but expunged the 2013 season a week before spring drills began and reset his expectations. Malzahn isn't easily pleased. Still, he walked away from A-Day with a cautiously optimistic outlook, which provides a clear indication that the Tigers powered their way through the spring like a team fighting for respect.

That's exactly what the head coach wanted.

Which questions still linger?

Auburn is going to rely on several players this fall making debuts either at a new position or simply in the spotlight.

The biggest question is along the defensive front, where end Dee Ford and end-turned-tackle Nosa Eguae provided strong push throughout the season's second half. Auburn has plenty of high-profile guys prepared to fill those spots -- most notably a pair of former Rivals250 guys in tackle Montravius Adams and end Elijah Daniel. Can they turn promise into performance?

Can Marshall actually become a true passer rather than a runner who passes when necessary? Can Artis-Payne or Barber truly replicate Mason's durability and performance? Can this team qualify for the College Football Playoff when it's not the underdog?

Which players stepped up this spring?

Barber probably was the biggest surprise. The redshirt freshman tailback, a three-star prospect who spurned Ole Miss to sign with Auburn, impressed with better-than-expected power and agility. He was all but forgotten after spending his first college season on the scout team, but Barber could be a major contributor if the ankle injury he sustained in the A-Day game isn't prohibitive.

On defense, Justin Garrett was back to his old tricks. He was marginalized during his first few seasons because he lacked the sie to play linebacker in a true 4-3 system. Still, Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme, which features a linebacker/safety hybrid called a "star," is perfectly suited for Garrett's broad base of skills.

The junior suffered a pair of foot injuries last season that all but eliminated his ability to contribute. If a set of new orthotics remedy the foot issue, Garrett will be a valuable defensive element.

Which players need to step up during the summer?

A few important players missed all or part of the spring with various issues. Chief among them was defensive end LaDarius Owens (broken foot) and wideout Jaylon Denson (patella tendon), who were front-line guys when healthy in 2013.

Auburn will need a third wideout to collaborate with Coates and Williams. Denson, a tough guy who can block fiercely in addition to catching tough passes between the hashes, could be an ideal collaborator.

The Tigers also could benefit from the summer emergence of a few true freshmen on defense. Rivals100 linebacker Tre Williams has a chance to play right away. So does end Andrew Williams, safety Stephen Roberts along with cornerbacks Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin.

Johnson perpetually is in need of more defensive playmakers.



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