Auburn, Ala.--Coming off a 7-6 season that ended with a bowl win over Memphis, Coach Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers enter spring practice with plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball. With new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, linebacker Coach Travis Williams, secondary Coach Wesley McGriff, offensive line Coach Herb Hand and wide receivers Coach Kodi Burns taking over, Auburn will have some new faces to guide the team into the new season.
With that in mind we take a look at some of the key position battles for Auburn as the Tigers hit the field for spring practice:
There is no question Auburn’s battle at the quarterback position is one to watch as Jeremy Johnson and Sean White return following a lackluster 2015 season. Playing in 12 games, Johnson completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions a year ago while White connected on 58 percent of his throws with just one touchdown and four interceptions.
"Both those guys are looking forward to a fresh start during the spring," Malzahn said. "Both of them are looking to compete. That's the great thing about it. Right now, we'll have good competition in that room. Everything they do we'll make sure we chart and grade everything and see what comes of it. My experience is when you've got good competition it brings out the best in everybody. I expect that quarterback room to do that this spring."
Neither their offensive totals nor Auburn’s struggles on offense a year ago has them in position to be a sure-fire starter heading into the spring. That means the battle is very much up in the air with redshirt freshman Tyler Queen throwing his name into the hat after coming back from Tommy John surgery. While he’s not expected to be fully cleared, Queen has been throwing since late in the fall and could be a player in this race.
"He will be on a pitch count on I think 50 throws a day," Malzahn said of Queen. "Everything else he'll be ready to go. That's still a lot of throws and that's after he warms up. Coach Lashlee will definitely keep up with that. He's in a good spot right now. He's excited to get back out there and get back participating."
The guy that could ultimately hold the key to Auburn’s quarterback race is junior college transfer John Franklin. Taking on a big role in terms of leadership already in just two months on campus, Franklin has won over his teammates because of his work ethic and the way he’s bonded with them. If he can show those same qualities on the field to go along with his running ability and strong arm then Franklin would have a great shot to win the job.
“He’s off to a good start with Coach Russell," Malzahn said of Franklin. "He had good mat drills with our coaches. I think he’s a guy that is very eager. He’s done a good job so far of just being a good teammate, getting to know his teammates. We’ll see what he does.
“Him and the other guys, just can they be successful running our offense, that’s really the bottom line," he added. "Everything that goes with it, from on the field, off the field, leadership, making your teammates better. The unique thing about our offense is the quarterback’s got a chance to really influence the rest of his teammates. That’s what we’ll be looking for.”
Jeremy Johnson runs for yardage against Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl
With both Shon Coleman and Avery Young heading to try their game in the NFL, Auburn is left with open spots on both end of the line of scrimmage. A player that heads into the spring with a good chance to earn a spot is fifth-year senior Robert Leff. After playing sparingly a season ago in place of Coleman, Leff has gotten bigger and that should help him as he takes his final and only run at a starting spot during his career with the Tigers.
Another player that is in position to make a run at playing time is Texas transfer Darius James. In much better shape and finally healthy after taking some time to get over his injuries suffered with the Longhorns, James has been impressive in the offseason conditioning program and that is good news for the Tigers and the former big-time prospect.
Redshirting last season, Mike Horton has progressed in a big way for the Tigers since arriving on campus and was very good last season at right tackle. Working with the offense every day should give him a big advantage as he now prepares to make a run at earning a starting position.
A wildcard in the race could be Austin Golson. While he returns as Auburn’s starting center Golson has experience at tackle and with the return of fifth-year senior Xavier Dampeer at center that could mean a potential look at tackle if the Tigers struggle at the position. The best-case scenario would be for two guys to step up and allow Golson to continue his seasoning at center, but he’s definitely a guy that has the ability to slide outside if needed. Malzahn said flexibility could be the key early in the spring for the Tigers.
“Take the offensive line for an example, we will be moving some guys around especially the first five days," Malzahn said. "Coach Hand has a good plan to give guys different opportunities. Hopefully after spring break we will be a little bit more position specific when we come back."
Robert Leff has experience at tackle for the Tigers
There’s no question that Carl Lawson is firmly entrenched on one edge of the Auburn defense heading into spring practice, but with both DaVonte Lambert and Cassanova McKinzy gone from last year’s team that leaves an open spot on the opposite side. With junior college transfer Paul James coming in this spring as well as true freshman Marlon Davidson it gives Rodney Garner two possible immediate impact players at the position, but the guy to watch may be sophomore Byron Cowart.
While Jeff Holland is a player that should definitely be in the picture, he probably better fits in Lawson’s role. That leaves more of a true defensive end on the other side and based on the early returns Cowart has made some big strides since his struggles early last season. Playing much better in the bowl game and having a very good offseason, Cowart is in position to see his playing time really increase and if the light turns on for him it could be huge for the Tigers.
The wildcard at this position is redshirt freshman Prince Tega Wanogho Jr.. A freakish athlete that is a full grown man already, Tega is 6-8 and close to 280 pounds of solid muscle and explosive quickness. While he is still very raw Tega showed some good signs in bowl practice and the more experience he gets the better his fundamentals will become. The positive for his inexperience is that he’s got no bad habits, making him a blank slate for Garner to work with.
Auburn's losses are heavy at the position with Cassanova McKinzy, Kris Frost and Justin Garrett all gone from last year's team along with reserve Kenny Flowers. That leaves just Tre Williams returning in the middle with experience and only JaViere Mitchell outside. While transfer T.J. Neal joins the team in May, that means this spring guys like DeShaun Davis, Darrell Williams, Richard McBryde and Montavious Atkinson will be battling to make their move before the Big 10 transfer arrives on campus.
Darrell Williams is a talented young linebacker
This battle won’t get much attention, but returning starter Kevin Phillips is back after an very up and down season a year ago. Consistency is the key for the now scholarship punter after he averaged 41 yards per attempt with 17 inside the 20-yard line. He also did a good job of limiting returns, with just seven total for the opposition a year ago. The goal this spring is limiting the one bad punt each game that hurt him for much of the second half of the season.
He’ll be challenged by redshirt freshman Ian Shannon. Signing with the Tigers after doing both the kicking and punting duties in high school, Shannon has punted exclusively since arriving on the Plains and will give Phillips a battle because of his strong leg.