In 2011, the Auburn Tigers had a season of rebuilding and inconsistency. They finished off the season at 8-5, winning their bowl game in Atlanta 43-24 capping off a nice end to a mediocre season. On offense, the Tigers ran the spread offense that Gus Malzahn had brought to Auburn and it worked well for two of the three years he was at the helm. With young, inexperienced, offensive linemen, and defenses that had adapted to the spread system at Auburn, the Tigers finished 91st in the NCAA last year in offense. On defense, the Ted Roof era was not what people expected. For three seasons the Tigers averaged a ranking of 44th and were amongst the bottom tier for two of those three seasons in the SEC. Enter Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGoder.
After a full year under his belt at Temple and leading the Owls to a top five rushing attack, Scot Loeffler was hired on as the new Offensive Coordinator when Gus Malzahn landed the Arkansas State job. Loeffler brings with him some NFL experience and a fresh new look for the 2012 offense. He has coached the likes of Tom Brady, Chad Henne, Drew Henson, and Brian Griese at Michigan, and Tim Tebow at Florida. With the new system in place at Auburn, Loeffler can use the talent he has to adjust to certain schemes.
The offensive line will still be young, but there are some familiar faces back on the line. Last year’s Freshman All-American center Reese Dismukes will anchor that position once again and Chad Slade will be a permanent fixture in the front. Some new faces to look for this year will be true freshman Patrick Miller, redshirt freshmen Greg Robinson and Christian Westerman, along with sophomore Eric Mack. With one of the best signing classes for offensive linemen for 2012, Auburn will have the depth they have been missing there. If they can work with the talent they have, this line could be a pretty good one in 2012.
Controversial running back Michael Dyer is gone, but the Tigers have a deep backfield and should see a variety of looks with each one of them. Sticking around for his senior season, Onterio McCalebb will see plenty of carries. With his type of speed, he should be able to run away from defenders like he has in the past. Sophmore Tre Mason will also receive his fair share of touches to go along with returning kicks at a dangerous level. Practice Squad Offensive Player of the Year winner Corey Grant and transfer Mike Blakely will also see some time at Jordan Hare Stadium. True freshman Jovan Robinson will be in Fall practice and could make a run at seeing some playing time also. All of these backs have something to offer for Auburn and will most likely be running back by committee.
Jay Prosch, the transfer from Illinois, received a bit of good news this week when the NCAA granted his waiver that brought him closer to home. Prosch’s mother was diagnosed with brain cancer, so “Jay Dozer” wanted to be closer to his family while still being able to play college football. The fullback gained All-American honors this past year as one of the best blocking fullbacks in the nation. Prosch will be a junior this coming season. He is one of the strongest guys on the team this year while benching over 400 pounds and power clinging almost the same.
The wide receiver/tight end positions have but two proven players in Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen. With Lutzenkirchen used primarily as an H-back the last three years, look for more out of him at his true role in the tight end position. With Prosch in at fullback, Lutz should be able to do just that. Also garnering some praise from Loeffler in the spring was Brandon Fulse. With a pro-style offense, defense should be able to see more of the two to three tight end schemes this year.
Emory Blake is by far the most proven receiver on the Auburn roster. McCalebb was second on the team in receptions last year if that tells you anything. Loeffler’s offensive scheme could have anywhere from three to four receiver sets, so look for a few other receivers to step up this year. One that comes to mind is Trovon Reed. He was second on the team last year, as far as receivers are concerned, in recpetions. He battled once again through some injuries. With Reed being healthy this year, and a lot of the attention on Blake and Lutzenkirchen, he could be a possibility as another threat. Another receiver to look for is Sammie Coates. He is a big physical guy, and if he can improve on his blocking, could be the speedy deep threat the Tigers are looking for. DeAngelo Benton, Travante Stallworth, and two true freshmen in Ricardo Louis and JaQuay Wiliams will also see some time this year.
The biggest question on offense this year is the quarterback stability. If last year tells us anything, it is there was none of that on the plains. Three guys fought all spring to see who could come out as the starter this year with only one really making a difference. It wasn’t because he was that much better…well ok yeah it was, but still Clint Moseley battled shoulder fatigue, and true freshman Zeke Pike is still getting used to the speed of college football. Out of those three, Kiehl Frazier seemed to be the one to break away from the rest. Although there is still no starter named yet, I believe everyone knows Frazier will be the man. He showed accuracy with his passes and showed a lot of zip on the football. That is something a few of the guys missed from the 2010 season with Newton. Frazier will need help from everyone this year if he is going to be a true pocket passer in the new Scot Loeffler system.
Brian VanGorder has been known as a college football defensive genius at times. He led the Georgia Bulldogs defense to an SEC Championship and a Sugar Bowl victory over FSU in 2003. Coming to Auburn from the Atlanta Falcons, VanGorder brings with him something that the Tigers have been lacking for some time, physical football on defense. He showed that he could take an average Falcons defense and turn them around..and that was with professional athletes. So that is some positive news for Auburn and the future of their defense.
The front four for the Tigers were not bad last year, but not good either at times. With the new system in on defense, one of the starters from last year loves it..attack. Jeffery Whitaker is the leader on this defensive line and has stated that he loves the way VanGorder has installed the new schemes. With Whitaker, Corey Lemonier has been praised by the media, and is an All SEC First team defensive end. He showed some flashes of physical football last year, but they were inconsistent. On the other side is Nosa Eguae and Dee Ford. Nosa was hurt a good part of last year, and Ford came on strong in the spring and impressed VanGorder to the point where he could be the other starting end in 2012. To center the middle with Whitaker will be a combination of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson, and Kenneth Carter. All of these guys played well last year, and now with experience, could be the best D-Line in the SEC this year.
Tommy Thigpen moved back to his natural coaching position this year with the linebackers after the hiring of Willie Martinez to handle the secondary. Thigpen has the talent to have a very good linebacking corp if they can practice and show the physical style of football VanGorder wants. Jake Holland will be fighting for the starting role at middle linebacker. Hot on his heels is redshirt freshman Chris Landrum. He was hurt last season and recovering from a leg injury, but could make a good push in the fall. Also in the mix is true freshman Cassanova McKinzy. McKinzy has the size and speed to make an immediate impact in 2012. On the outsides Daren Bates and Jonathan Evans should remain the starters without injuries. But lookout for redshirt freshman Kris Frost and sophmore Justin Garrett. Frost came in last year and could have played a key role in an outside linebacker spot, but was hurt while lifting weights before the season started. Now that he is healthy, he could just be what the doctor ordered. He can read and react to the football and has very good speed. These two could really push for playing time in the fall.
The secondary at Auburn got what they needed this offseason, Willie Martinez. His style of football is, again, what Auburn needed…physical. While at UGA seven out of ten times, his guys made the plays or put you on your back to break them up. It is exactly what this secondary needs to practice and learn. So who are these playmakers for Auburn this year? Returning from a knee injury is T’Sharvan Bell who has the most experience in the secondary. He should bring good cover corner skills this year. He has good make up speed and can get around on the football. Following closely in experience is safety Demetruce McNeal. He had a better year all around. But still the inconsistency was still there, so look for Enrique Florence to emerge soon. Chris Davis will most likely start on the other corner position. Plagued by nagging injuries last year, Davis fought hard in spring and looked good. The strong safety position is looking more interesting. Jermaine Whitehead could battle it out for this position with Anthony Swain. Whitehead looked good last year in some areas, but got beat a few times as well. Swain could be a BIG hitter along with Therezie at corner. Could be a few good battles to watch in the fall.
Special teams was by far the best of the best for Auburn last year. Tre Mason ranked this year in Athlon as the SEC’s number one guy on kick off returns. We could also see Onterio McCalebb, Jonathan Jones, and Quan Bray as well on kick off and punt returns. May the best man win!
Steven Clark can bring a ceiling down with some of the punts he had last year. He has a booming leg and can get the ball lifted high to get coverage team down quick. Another big leg this year will be the returning field goal/kick off guy in Cody Parkey. Parkey led the SEC in touchbacks last year, and with the move of the placement five yards closer, look for more than 60%. Although Parkey needs to improve on his accuracy outside the 40 yard range, he should be flirting with a pretty good year this year.
A 9-3 season is not out of reach for Auburn this year. They have the talent and the guys in the staff to do it. Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas might want to keep an eye over their shoulders this year, because this Auburn Tiger team could sneak up and surprise anyone of them if they are not careful. Just for the record.