Photo by Jason Caldwell

Coach Gus Malzahn's Auburn Football Tigers Begin Spring Practice This Week

The Tigers head into spring football practice with major questions at several key spots on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage.

Sean White (above) will try to win the starting quarterback job this spring as a redshirt sophomore.

Key Losses: OT Avery Young, OT Shon Coleman, RB Peyton Barber, WR Ricardo Louis, WR Melvin Ray, OL Devonte Danzey

Key Returners: RB Jovon Robinson, C Austin Golson, OG Alex Kozan, OG Braden Smith, WR Marcus Davis

Spring Newcomers of Note: TE Landon Rice, RB Malik Miller

Auburn, Ala.--Who is going to be the No. 1 quarterback and who will replace the starters at tackle are major questions for the Auburn offense as the Tigers begin football spring training on Tuesday.

Figuring out those questions will be among the first steps on the road to recovery for Coach Gus Malzahn’s offense, which saw its touchdown production drop from 55 in 2014 to 39 last year. That resulted in an average of just 27.2 points per game for the Tigers last season, down from 35.5 in 2014.

The competition to be the No. 1 quarterback features two players who started last year, but it seems safe to say that neither senior Jeremy Johnson nor redshirt sophomore Sean White can be considered the favorite to open the 2016 campaign vs. Clemson as the starter. In fact, the position looks to be quite open.

Junior college transfer John Franklin is expected to make a push to be No. 1 on the depth chart. Tyler Queen, who redshirted last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, is expected to practice this spring, although he will probably be less than 100 percent physically.

In August a fifth contender is expected to enter the competition when four-star recruit Woody Barrett, an Under Armour All-American and Florida Class 8A Player of the Year, joins the roster for preseason drills.

The Tigers closed the 2015 season with White as the starting quarterback during a 31-10 victory over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. He completed 8-13 passes for 103 yards and was intercepted twice while running the ball once for no gain. Johnson played briefly in the bowl, completing his only pass for an 11-yard touchdown to go with three carries for 26 yards and a touchdown.

For the season White completed 88-143 passes for 1,167 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions while dealing with a knee injury he suffered in the Arkansas game. He later had to deal with a foot injury.

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Jeremy Johnson is shown in action in the bowl game vs. Memphis.

Johnson, who started the first three games and the final four of the regular season, completed 95-157 passes for 1,054 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Sharing QB duties at East Mississippi Community College last season after transferring from Florida State, Franklin completed 64-110 passes for 733 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He ran the ball 43 times for 451 yards and nine touchdowns. Franklin, who ran a 10.8 meters in high school, is the fastest of the quarterbacks.

On defense there are three new coaches and there are changes on the offensive staff with two newcomers. One of those additions is Herb Hand, who is taking over for J.B. Grimes as the offensive line coach. Both the starting guards and the No. 1 center return, but the Tigers have to replace tackles Shon Coleman and Avery Young, who declared for the NFL Draft after their redshirt junior seasons.

With a new coach evaluating the returning talent there is certainly the possibility there could be changes on where players line up.

Returning tackles from the 2015 team include redshirt senior Robert Leff, who played well last season in a backup role and as an extra blocker at tight end.

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Robert Leff has a chance to break into the starting lineup as a senior.

Redshirt freshmen Mike Horton and Bailey Sharp will look to impress Hand and the same is true of Darius James, a transfer from the University of Texas who redshirted last fall. Horton won praise last season from the coaches for his work in practice. 

The Tigers returning their starters at the guard spots, juniors Alex Kozan on the left side and Braden Smith on the right. In the middle of the action, junior Austin Golson is the returning first-stringer at center.

Smith and Golson have played tackle before so that gives Hand more options at that position. Marquel Harrell, a redshirt freshman who practiced at guard last season, has quick feet and might be able to play outside at tackle if needed there.

Other guards include senior Jordan Diamond, junior Deon Mix and redshirt freshman Tyler Carr. Diamond, a highly-regarded signee out of Chicago, has been limited since arriving on campus due to a series of injuries.

Redshirt freshman Kaleb Kim plays center as does Xavier Dampeer, a fifth-year senior who received a medical redshirt last season. Mix has practiced at center, too, so Hand will have multiple options at that position.

The Tigers will be thin in numbers at running back for spring drills due to injuries and the surprise decision by Peyton Barber to enter the NFL Draft after his redshirt sophomore season.

Jovon Robinson, who was named the MVP of the Birmingham Bowl, will be a senior and could be the guy to beat for the starting assignment. He got off to a slow start last season while learning his assignments and getting over an injury, but looks to be primed for a big finish to his collegiate playing days if he picks up where he left off in Birmingham.

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Jovon Robinson is shown in action at Legion Field where the Tigers defeated Memphis to close the 2015 season.

Kerryon Johnson, who had shoulder surgery following the season after playing hurt last fall, will be limited during practice this spring. In the fall Johnson, a player who won high praise from the coaches last season as a true freshman, could push Robinson for the No. 1 spot.

Roc Thomas, a junior, has the talent to push for the No. 1 spot. He averaged 6.1 yards per rush last season, but only carried the football 43 times. Barber got 237 carries and finished with 1,016 yards at 4.3 per rush. Robinson ran the ball 117 times and averaged 5.5 yards per rush while Johnson got 52 carries and averaged 4.0 yards per run.

The Tigers signed just one running back in the 2016 class, Malik Miller, Johnson’s teammate at Madison Academy. Miller had a knee injury that cut short his senior season. He should be able to practice this spring, but may be limited in what he is allowed to do.

Sophomores Chandler Cox and Kamryn Pettway return to handle the fullback/H-back duties. Both are coming off of solid seasons and this could develop into a position of strength for the Tigers. Pettway, a high school tailback, has the potential to move to the running back spot if the Tigers need him to do that.

The Tigers will be looking to get more production from the tight end position. Neither Chris Laye nor Jalen Harris, who will be sophomores this fall, caught a pass last year and at times were replaced on the field by an offensive tackle to improve the blocking. Laye has decided not to return to the team for his third fall on the roster with the probability that he would again be watching from the sidelines.

Under Armour All-American Landon Rice, an early graduate at Calhoun, Ga., High School, is participating in spring drills and is expected to push for immediate playing time.

Kodi Burns, who has replaced Dameyune Craig as the wide receivers coach, has the assignment of replacing  last season’s top two receiving yardage producers, seniors Ricardo Louis (46 catches for 716 yards) and Melvin Ray (20 catches for 279 yards).

Jason Smith, who will be a junior, is the top returner on receiving yardage with 203 on 13 catches while senior Marcus Davis is the top returner in catches with 30, but gained only 200 yards on those plays.

Photo by Linda Pond

Jason Smith has a chance to be a key performer for the Auburn offense.

Burns, a former Auburn player, had recently moved from Middle Tennessee State to Arizona State prior to accepting a position on Malzahn’s staff that includes the co-offensive coordinator title that Craig previously had.

Auburn’s new wide receivers coach won’t have a large group to work with this spring, although help could be on the way with four wideouts in the 2016 signee class. However the Tigers line up personnel-wise this fall, there won’t be a large amount of experience at the receiver spots.

Senior Tony Stevens has seen very limited playing time and the same is true of sophomores Ryan Davis and Stanton Truitt plus walk-on junior Gray King. Darius Slayton, a 2015 signee who redshirted last season, has good speed and will try to move into the playing rotation.

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Tony Stevens caught 14 passes for 177 yards and one touchdown as a junior.

Kyle Davis, an Under Armour All-American, graduated early from Archer High in Lawrenceville, Ga., will be at spring practices, but won’t be able to do much after having shoulder surgery late during his senior season. Auburn’s other three wide receiver signees, Nate Craig, Marquis McClain and Elijah Stove, are scheduled to be summer arrivals.

The receiving yardage numbers dropped from 229.5 per game in 2014 to 175.6 last year so the Tigers are going to need all of the help they can get from the newcomers at the wide receiver spots. Combine that with a ground game that also went backwards last year by averaging 191.8 yards, 63.7 less than the 2014 mark, and it is clear the Tigers have major work to do on the offensive side of the ball.

Spring Preview--Defense

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