If the Tigers are to improve on their three-win season from last year, it will require the front lines to step up and live up to their potential. It has been three seasons since Auburn was able to maximize the potential of its personnel up front.
After winning the national championship in 2010, Auburn's run offense and run defense have slipped each of the past two seasons, resulting in losses to teams the Tigers traditionally win against.
Of the current scholarship players available for the upcoming season, more than 38 percent are down linemen. If there is no attrition along the way the Tigers will enter the season with 18 defensive linemen and 14 offensive linemen on scholarship. This would be 25 percent more scholarship linemen available to Auburn's coaching staff than the 2009 Tigers had.
The average star-rating of Auburn's 2013 scholarship linemen is 3.6, according to Scout.com, which includes 19 players rated 4-stars or better. In comparison the 2009, Auburn scholarship linemen possessed an average recruit ranking of 3.1, including eight 4-star recruits or better out of 24. Even if we were to consider the possibility of some individuals not being properly evaluated, logic dictates Auburn should have enough talent up front to compete with the majority of the teams in the Southeastern Conference.
Looking back over the past 20 years of Auburn football, there is no doubt offensive line has fallen upon difficult times during the past two seasons. In terms of tackles for loss allowed, the 2011 Auburn offense was No. 17 and the 2012 offense finished at No. 18 among the past 20 Auburn teams. During the last 20 seasons 10.7 percent of Auburn's offensive snaps resulted in a loss. The 2011 offense came in at 11.7 percent and the 2012 Auburn offense dropped to 13.4 percent.
Nationally, Auburn was No. 114 in tackles for loss allowed during 2011 and dropped even further to No. 116 in 2012. Adding to the offensive line issues was the lack of quality quarterback play resulting in an offense unable to overcome negative plays.
On the defensive side of the football, the front four was just about as inconsistent as the offensive line. Comparing the last two defensive lines to previous squads over the last 20 seasons, the 2011 team finished at No. 18 and the 2012 defense was No. 19.
Nationally, the 2011 defense ranked No. 63 in tackles for loss and the 2012 Auburn defense dropped to No. 70. With both lines struggling the past two seasons, it is no wonder Auburn compiled a record of 11-14, including a 3-13 conference record. In contrast the 2010 Tigers posted a 14-0 season by having an offensive line that gave up the second fewest overall tackles for loss by an Auburn team since 1993 as well as a defense that produced the most tackles for loss by an Auburn team the last 20 seasons.
Interestingly, the 2009 offense gave up the sixth fewest overall losses by an Auburn team over the past two decades and the 2010 offense was No. 2. Former offensive line coach Jeff Grimes inherited a veteran lineup when he arrived at Auburn, but production immediately dropped off after the veterans were no longer available in 2011. This brings into question a strong possibility that the younger players simply did not develop on either side of the line during the past two seasons.
J.B. Grimes will have the assignment as Auburn's offensive line coach. He made the move with Malzahn from Arkansas State.
The current numbers reveal Auburn has quantity to work with in 2013 and potential quality based on recruiting rankings. Auburn also enters the 2013 season with 10 linemen possessing more than 20 games of experience, including seven players with at least 10 starts or more. The final step in the equation will be player development, which has already begun with conditioning drills.
Under strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell more emphasis has been placed on upper body strength as well as preparing the team for an 80-snap games by the Auburn offense. With more teams operating some variation of the fast-paced, spread offense in the conference, Auburn appears to be taking a step ahead in preparation for these type of games.
What separates Malzahn's offense from other spread offenses is the incorporation of a power running element. Most opposing defenses will go to a lighter personnel grouping, taking speed over size to defend spread offenses. By implementing a power running game Malzahn's offense will take advantage of this opposing personnel deployment. This is a key reason why Malzahn's staff will stress the importance of being physical up front on offense as well as defense.
Coach Rodney Garner, much like Tracy Rocker did in 2009 and 2010, will place a high priority on effort and physicality on the defensive line. Changing the mindset and attitude of becoming more physical can often be as important as technique.
Of the 18 defensive linemen Garner will work with this season, 12 are rated as 4-stars or better and seven have at least 20 games of experience. Like the offensive line, everything is in place for the defensive line to become far more consistent with better player development. The addition of Ben Bradley and Montravius Adams will increase the probability of shoring up what has been a soft interior defensive line during the past two seasons. Just as running backs benefit from the play of the offensive line, linebackers do the same behind the defensive line.
Though Auburn added promising linemen to the fold through its latest recruiting class, the primary focus should be on the Tigers' ability to obtain the most out of their returning linemen on scholarship. Will Malzahn's staff be able to tap the full potential of its personnel more so than the previous staff? This clearly was a shortcoming by the previous staff under Gene Chizik.
The latest recruiting class should help address some immediate and long term needs. As vital as recruiting is to field a championship team, developing that talent is just as important. Making sure that happens will be an important assignment for Malzahn and the new Auburn coaching staff.