Auburn Tigers: Team Overview
by Jess Nicholas
August 19, 2009
There were few collapses as memorable in recent SEC years as Auburn’s fall from grace in 2008 that ultimately cost Tommy Tuberville his job. Auburn began the year with solid expectations, but by the end of the year was misfiring on all cylinders. The only firing that went in order was the firing first of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and finally Tuberville, as the Tigers opted to bring former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik back from Iowa State. In 2009, Auburn will go back to the spread offense that Franklin tried to implement, only this time former Arkansas high school coaching legend Gus Mulzahn is at the controls. Auburn is a thin team in 2009, and few are expecting much. Any kind of bowl game would be a heady accomplishment.
Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (SE, TE, LT, LG, C, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (RDE, LDE, RLB, LLB, RCB, FS, SS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 5-7 (UA, Ark, WVU, UT, LSU, OM, UGA)
Projected SEC Record: 1-6 (UA, Ark, UT, LSU, OM, UGA)
Projected SEC West Record: 1-4 (UA, Ark, LSU, OM)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Running Backs: Av
Wide Receivers: Fr
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Av
Defensive Backs: Vg
Special Teams: Av
Auburn will ditch any semblance of its traditional power running game in 2009, going full-bore into the spread offense that Mulzahn popularized in high school and in a brief stint with Tulsa. There is no fullback on the Tiger roster anymore, and the offense figures to use more misdirection, Wildcat formations and short screens to try to open up defenses. Unfortunately for Auburn, there isn’t much talent at the skill positions, and the team still doesn’t have a quarterback it can depend upon.
A virtual bombshell was dropped Aug. 13 when Auburn elected to move last year’s starter, Kodi Burns, to wide receiver and award the job to Chris Todd, who lost the job to Burns last year over injuries and concern about Todd’s arm strength. Todd is healthy now, but the arm strength questions are still there.
Behind Todd, there isn’t much. Former prep star Neil Caudle has battled his own injury demons and despite his five-star pedigree, couldn’t wrest the job away from Todd. The quarterback of the future at Auburn is probably Barrett Trotter, who figures to compete with Caudle for the backup job if his knee comes back to form after an injury in the spring.
Two true freshmen signees, Clint Moseley and Tyrik Rollison, could also get in the mix, but both need redshirt years. Moseley is cut from the same pattern as Caudle and Trotter, while Rollison is a dual-threat quarterback who is a bit smallish for the position right now. If Todd gets hurt again, it remains to be seen whether Burns – who coaches plan to use as the Wildcat quarterback – moves back.
Auburn has a lot of bodies at the position, but few proven answers. Todd was only 86-of-156 (55.1%) for 903 yards, 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in 2008. This one could turn out to be a mess.
Quarterback may be a morass, but the running back situation at Auburn should be strong enough. Ben Tate ran for 664 yards on 159 carries (4.2 avg.) last year and, if he’s used properly, is an above-average SEC back. The rest of the roster offers up several players with different skill sets. Mario Fannin has shown flashes of being a good runner and receiver, but also has had a problem with fumbles and mental mistakes.
Eric Smith looks like a potential power back, while scatback Onterio McCalebb can fly but may not be able to take a pounding inside. True freshman Dontae Aycock could get some time as the season moves along. Conspicuously absent is any semblance of a fullback; when Auburn needs to go big, expect Smith to be the man.
Unless the installation of the spread ends up benefiting the Tiger wideouts by default, Auburn could be in some trouble here. The most experienced wideout on the team, Montez Billings, saw his status remain up in the air over eligibility issues. Even if he’s eligible, Billings caught only 24 passes for 277 yards (11.5 avg.) and 0 touchdowns in 2008. Terrell Zachary has been on radar screens for years, as Tiger fans hoped for a breakout season. Zachary figures to start this year in the slot and it’s now or never for the former prep standout from Wadley.
Auburn will start three receivers, and sophomore Darvin Adams figures to be the third starter. He’s the second-tallest Tiger wideout at 6’3”, but caught only 3 passes for 18 yards (6.0 avg.) last year. The only other big bodies available are converted quarterback Kodi Burns and Tim Hawthorne; Burns is a newbie at the position and Hawthorne is currently hurt. The name on the lips of all the fans is signee DeAngelo Benton, who was all-world a couple of years ago when he originally signed with LSU. Derek Winter is a possession receiver without a lot of flash, but he could find a role.
Quindarius Carr and Philip Pierre-Louis round out the top unit. Pierre-Louis is one of the team’s fastest players but is trying to rebound from a torn ACL suffered last fall. True freshmen Emory Blake, Anthony Gulley and Travante Stallworth are also in the mix. Running backs Mario Fannin and Onterio McCalebb may also line up in the slot from time to time.
But the real go-to guy may end up not being a receiver at all, but rather a tight end – true freshman Philip Lutzenkirchen. Lutzenkirchen is custom-made for the spread offense and will start out the year backing up Tommy Trott, unless Trott’s numerous injuries force him to the sidelines.
The unfortunate thing about the spread, however, is that it renders Gabe McKenzie a man without a position. McKenzie needs to either play on a pro-set team or move to defensive end, which he’s played before. Bailey Woods adds depth.
Auburn isn’t talking much about this group but the fact is it could end up turning into a real problem. Left tackle Lee Ziemba and center Ryan Pugh are about as good as you can find in the SEC this year, but that’s where the good news ends. Byron Isom returns as the starter at left guard, and should do OK between Ziemba and Pugh, but the right side of the line is still wildly unsettled.
Mike Berry held the right guard job and Andrew McCain the right tackle job coming out of spring, but neither player is considered above average – and that’s being generous. What’s worse, depth is so poor that Berry was also listed as the backup center. Injuries have further hit, taking out the top reserve tackle, Vance Smith, and slowing down Berry considerably. Bart Eddins has been around forever but isn’t a top SEC lineman. A.J. Greene will have to back up both tackle slots if Smith can’t go.
True freshman John Sullen, who was a marginal prospect out of high school to begin with, looks like a lock to play and could even start if Berry can’t get healthy. Another recruit, Andre Harris, is probably in line for playing time, too. Early reports from fall camp have what is a fairly average Auburn defensive line being too much for the OL to handle on a regular basis. Auburn has got to find some help for Pugh and Ziemba or the installation of the new offense could be dead in the water before it even leaves port.
Ted Roof takes over as defensive coordinator, but not much is expected to change in regards to Auburn’s philosophy. The Tigers will remain a 4-3 team, playing to the strength of their front seven. The secondary is solid up the middle, but there are some questions at corner. Auburn was mediocre defensively last year, ranking around the halfway mark in the conference for both run and pass defense, but part of that was due to an offense that couldn’t keep the defense off the field. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look to change much in 2009.
Ends Michael Goggans and Antonio Coleman are formidable. Goggans is a good all-around player; Coleman is a stellar pass rusher but can be a liability at times against the run. The real issue is depth. Antoine Carter is good in spots, particularly in obvious passing downs, but isn’t an every-down player. Cameron Henderson has a long ways to go in his development. Keeping Goggans and Coleman healthy will be a top priority.
The interior situation is no less drastic. Mike Blanc and Jake Ricks are decent SEC tackles, and junior Zach Clayton is a capable backup. But the good news ends there. Signees will have to make up the rest of the depth chart, with JUCO transfer Nick Fairley leading the charge. Derrick Lykes and Jamar Travis, both freshmen, are the others battling for playing time. As long as Auburn can keep the starters healthy, things should be OK, but an injury or two would definitely ruin the party.
Unless Auburn gets the middle linebacker position settled, the Tigers could be in for trouble. There is nothing troublesome about the outside linebacker duo, however, unless you’re the other team. Josh Bynes is one of the best linebackers in the conference, and battery mate Craig Stevens is a playmaker. But the middle position is up for grabs and Eltoro Freeman, a JUCO transfer who was supposedly in line for the position, got hurt early on in fall camp. His current status is unclear.
If Freeman can’t go, the job will fall to Spencer Pybus, likely not the answer for the middle of a top-level SEC defense. But Auburn has had success over the years turning borderline talents into solid linebackers, such as Will Herring. The real issue here is depth. Adam Herring and Harris Gaston are projected to be the backups at the outside positions and neither is anywhere close to the player that Bynes or Stevens is.
If Freeman is out at middle linebacker, Josh Evans will be forced to back up Pybus. Evans, a freshman, would be one of the smallest linebackers in the conference if he plays, and he’s a true freshman besides. If Freeman gets healthy, Auburn should be fine, but again, injuries could really do some damage here.
The safeties, lead by Zac Etheridge and Mike McNeil are as good as any in the conference. McNeil is the prototypical physical specimen, while Etheridge is tough, smart and rarely gets out of position. But McNeil must first recover from a broken leg before getting back to his hard-hitting ways. Cornerback is also a potential problem due to health issues.
Walter McFadden will hold down one side ably enough, but the other side of the field is in the hands of Neiko Thorpe and a half-dozen other candidates, each short on playing time. D’Antoine Hood, Harry Adams, T’Sharvan Bell and Demond Washington, the latter a junior college transfer, will battle it out with Thorpe for the slot. Drew Cole and Mike Slade add depth at safety.
Auburn should be able to field a very competent secondary, perhaps even a better one than just “competent,” but again, the broken record of injuries must stop spinning first.
There’s no way Auburn should be going through this much turmoil in the kicking game, but the Tigers are. Wes Byrum returns at placekicker, but he’s being pushed by Morgan Hull and Chandler Brooks. Byrum slumped badly toward the end of the year and then briefly lost the job in the spring, but he still figures to be Auburn’s best option in most kicking situations and almost certainly has the strongest leg.
Punter is in good hands with Clinton Durst leading Ryan Shoemaker for the job. The Tigers finished 18th in the country in net punting last year, good for 3rd in the SEC. Auburn excelled in punt and kick returns in 2008, but the players who led the Tigers to those numbers are now gone. If Phillip Pierre-Louis can stay healthy, he and Onterio McCalebb figure to have the talent and speed to make things difficult on the opposition.