A former quarterback that enjoyed the passing game as much as anyone, Craig also knows that in the Southeastern Conference you’ve got to run the ball to be successful. While that will again be a key for the Auburn Tigers in 2014, the passing game should be able to take on much more of the load in year two of the offense and with Nick Marshall back at quarterback.
Much of the reason for the optimism in the passing game comes from the addition of junior college standout D’haquille Williams to a group that already featured big-play threats Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis as well as veteran Quan Bray and youngsters such as Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens. With one year of coaching the group under his belt Craig said he feels like Auburn’s wide receivers are headed for even bigger and better things this season.
“It’s night and day,” Craig said of where his group is this preseason as compared to last year. “They didn’t have a lot of confidence last year. I think a lot of the guys are still learning how to play the position. They were young and inexperienced. We only had 15 catches coming into the season. It’s totally different and it has been fun to watch the transition and the guys grow up, watch them compete and build the confidence they need. Sammie is a totally different kid than last season. His attitude has changed. His work ethic has changed. His attention to detail has changed. He’s an unselfish player. All of them are. Ricardo’s confidence is better. Quan has become a more responsible person and is making great decisions on and off the field. I can go down the line. It has been a fun process.”
Dameyune Craig works with redshirt freshman Dominic Walker
One of the toughest positions to get help from a newcomer on any football team is on the defensive line. Fortunately for Coach Rodney Garner he’s got some depth to work with on the interior line with four seniors as well as Montravius Adams, but outside is where the questions remain. Without Dee Ford and Carl Lawson the Tigers are hoping to get some production from one or more of the new players to help out early in 2014. Garner said so far Raashed Kennion, Andrew Williams, Davonte Lambert and Dontavius Russell have made an impression, but the biggest question remains and that is which guys can help him now?
“The Kennion kid he can run, he can bend, he's long,” Garner said. “Unfortunately, he's a kid that you want to redshirt. He has natural stuff, but we don't know how it's going to develop. As far as a speed guy, he is the best speed guy in that young group. I've been very pleased with Lambert. He's a very good SEC defensive end. He's strong at the point of attack. He's going to help this football team.
“Williams' role will be more like Elijah (Daniel), more of a first, second-down kid. He's more of an inside kid. Devaroe (Lawrence) has been banged up a little bit. I really like both of those JC kids. I really think they'll help us. I think they're going to give us a lot of value. Then we have to decide what we're going to do with the high school kids. That's the struggle I'm having right now. To be honest, the most impressive kid out there is really Russell. He's real good. He can be real good this year, but you don't really need that position. You need the outside position. I'm still struggling, because he's so good.”
With senior Jonathon Mincy back this season and Josh Holsey back at the cornerback position, it has meant the search for the third guy at the position in the preseason for Coach Melvin Smith. Always talented, but dealing with minor injuries his first two seasons, Jonathan Jones is in line for much more playing time this season and likely a starting role in the season opener because of Mincy’s suspension. Smith said he’s earned the opportunity and has done some good things already this preseason.
“He has great speed,” Smith said. “He’s really polished, I’ve been on him about his technique. I want him to bend more sometimes in man coverage. Jonathan is a gifted athlete and he’s bigger than you think. He’s 185 pounds and he’s sturdy built. I love Jonathan. He’s athletic, he can run. He’s smart, he understands what I want, he knows what I want. I foresee some special stuff for him.”
While Auburn’s top safety group is pretty well defined at the moment with Jermaine Whitehead and Derrick Moncrief the likely starters going into the season and sophomore Johnthan Ford the top back-up, there is room for a freshman or two to make a run at playing time for Coach Charlie Harbison. Two of the players that are already doing just that are Stephen Roberts and Markell Boston.
It may be expected for Roberts to make an early impact after an impressive career at Opelika, but for Boston it’s surprising considering he wasn’t highly recruited coming out of high school. More of a wide receiver before moving to a full-time safety as a senior, Boston’s natural ability was apparent and it has shown up this preseason as well.
“I like the fact that he came in, you’ve got to be able to tackle,” Harbison said. “He’ll tackle. All of the young guys we have will tackle and that’s encouraging to me. We saw it on tape and we saw it in high school, but sometimes you never know how they’ll transition. They are doing it. He’s learning the system. It’s a group of guys that, right now, are heading in the right direction. He’s got a good skill-set and can change direction. He’s got good size and I like his frame. He’s going to do some good things moving forward.”
Coach Cheese has been impressed with a pair of his freshmen
One of the biggest areas of concern for the Tigers this season is going to be trying to replace punter Steven Clark. A major weapon last season and a big help for the defense because of his ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory, Clark worked hard to develop his game over the course of four years. Now Auburn must depend on a newcomer to get the job done.
Just who that will be remains a question early in preseason camp with redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchinson battling walk-ons Tyler Stovall and Matt Shiel for the starting job. A native of Australia, Shiel brings a different dynamic to the position for the Tigers because of his ability to use the rugby-style punts. Fountain said with that in mind they may use a different approach to the punting game this season to take full advantage of the guys they have.
“Matt Shiel kind of grew up doing that playing Austrailian rules football,” Fountain said. “Steven last year, he worked it, but he really committed to it last spring and he really made it a trait of his, what we call an Aussie punt. That’s something Matt Shiel brings to the table that he’s done his whole life. That’s a value that he may bring to our team.
“That’s kind of what we’re looking at. Can somebody solidify the position and do it all, or are we going to have to use a guy to be a punter and a guy to be a sky guy? We’ll see that as we go through camp, but that’s definitely one of the reasons we brought him here, we knew he brought that value to the team.”
Plenty has been made about Auburn’s offensive line situation since the announcement that Alex Kozan was done for the season after having back surgery. The good news for Coach J.B. Grimes is that he had a player like Avery Young that was versatile enough to slide over and fill in at guard. With Chad Slade dealing with a concussion early in camp it has allowed Devonte Danzey to get plenty of work and he has impressed Grimes with his improvement on the field.
The move of Young to guard means that Auburn’s tackle positions are pretty much solidified with Shon Coleman on the left side and Patrick Miller at right tackle. A player with a ton of ability and also a mean streak, Miller is bigger and stronger and more confident, which has pushed his game to another level according to his coach.
“Pat Miller is a very tough, very competitive guy,” Grimes said. “He doesn’t like to get beat. That I like having in our lineup. He’s having a great camp, he really is. I’m not saying that because he’s the starting right tackle. He hasn’t taken one lazy step on the field. He’s about to take a step and have a break-out season — if he stays healthy.”
Patrick Miller has gotten much more physical since last season
Losing Tre Mason off last year’s team means there is once again an open battle for the starting tailback position for the Tigers. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are the frontrunners to earn most of the action when Auburn opens the season against Arkansas on Aug. 30 with redshirt freshman Peyton Barber perhaps next in line, but Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said freshman Racean Thomas has done everything asked of him in the preseason to make a run at playing time early in 2014.
“He's really a good student of the game,” Horton said. “He's learned it well. One of the most pleasing things the last couple of days is he's really hasn't had mental mistakes and for a true freshman, getting thrown the whole playbook fairly early, I've been real pleased with that.”