Duke Williams (above) is Auburn's leading receiver.
Auburn, Ala.--Following a monster offensive season in 2013 it appeared Auburn’s loss of running back Tre Mason and Greg Robinson would be the biggest holes in the lineup to replace this season. While both are obviously missed, starting left guard Alex Kozan and fullback Jay Prosch may have been the toughest Tigers to replace based on the early returns in 2014 for Coach Gus Malzahn’s offense.
When you look at the numbers Auburn’s offense is still producing at a high level, averaging 38.8 points per game, 262 yards on the ground and 225.7 yards through the air through the first six games. Even though the rushing totals are still very good, 14th in the country and fourth in the SEC, the Tigers are struggling to develop a consistent threat between the tackles so far. That has put more pressure on the passing game to make plays and forced Auburn to open the offense.
Now with a chance to tweak things before facing South Carolina in two weeks it’s a good opportunity to take a look at the Tigers’ offense at the halfway point of the season.
The combination of Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson have combined to put together solid passing numbers already this season. With 13 combined touchdowns and three interceptions, the duo has been very good at times and solid overall.
Getting the majority of the reps, Marshall is completing just 55.4 percent of his passes, but has made some big-time throws in every game. He has also shown the ability to be a more patient passer, something he wasn’t last season. When you throw in his 492 rushing yards and four touchdowns, it’s easy to see why Marshall is the centerpiece of Auburn’s offense.For Johnson much of his action came in the first half against Arkansas. A very good passer with touch, the sophomore continues to show why he will be a very good option for the Tigers when his time comes to take over the starting spot.
With the second half of the regular season still left, the goal for Marshall and the quarterback position is to become more productive, especially in the short passing game. Being able to convert and create more short yardage situations is a must with the running game still trying to find its rhythm.
Through the first half of the season it has been the Cameron Artis-Payne show at the running back position. With 126 carries for 664 yards and five touchdowns, the senior is far and away the most called-upon runner for Auburn this year.
With just 39 carries for 252 yards and a pair of scores, Corey Grant has been good at times this season, but has had just six chances in the last two games. That trend may continue with true freshman Roc Thomas expected to play a more significant role in the weeks to come.
With six carries for 42 yards in the loss to Mississippi State, Thomas displayed a glimpse of his playmaking ability. That should make him a great complement to Artis-Payne the remainder of the 2014 season and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take on a major role by the end of the year.
Cameron Artis-Payne is off to a solid start for the Tigers.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
There is no question that junior college transfer Duke Williams is the class of the group for the first half of Auburn’s season after catching 31 passes for 493 yards and five touchdowns in six games. Showing the ability to make the tough catch as well as play physically, Williams is on pace to have one of the best seasons in school history for a wide receiver.
The good news is that Coates has looked closer to form the last two games and appears to be getting healthier. With the need to make plays in the passing game the Tigers need Coates to become a weapon down the field.
That is also true of C.J. Uzomah. Auburn’s top receiving tight end, the senior has just six catches for 74 yards and two scores this year. He’s a player the Tigers need to get more involved down the stretch run, particularly in the red zone.
An area that must improve for the entire group is the blocking, particularly on the perimeter. One of the keys for any Malzahn offense to truly be successful is getting great blocking from the wide receivers and tight ends. That allows short runs to turn into big yardage plays and opens up the entire field for the offense. Right now that is not happening, something the coaches are stressing before returning to action vs. South Carolina.
With no Robinson nor Kozan on the left side the challenge was already a tough one for Coach J.B. Grimes this season, but things got tougher when starting right tackle Patrick Miller was injured in the win over Louisiana Tech. That game was when Grimes decided to move Chad Slade back to right guard and Avery Young from right guard to the left side.
Early on the move looked promising, but once Miller went down it sent Young on the move again. This time he ended up back at right tackle with Devonte Danzey inserted into the lineup at left guard. That is how things have been the last two games and, even though the offense has performed at a relatively high level, the movement has definitely caused a stunt in the growth of the front five.
Reese Dismukes has been a steadying force for the Tigers on the offensive line
This week the Tigers have experimented on the offensive line by putting talented true freshman Braden Smith at left guard next to starter Shon Coleman. One of the strongest players on the team, Smith earned playing time last week as an extra tight end and the coaches liked what they saw from the big lineman. If he can pick up the concepts of guard in a short time it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith get a look in the rotation sometime soon as the Tigers look to become more physical up front in the running game.