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Jason Caldwell's Monday Morning QB Column: Spring Thoughts, Baseball, Softball And NCAA Tournament Picks

Thoughts on spring football, baseball, softball and the NCAA Tournament.

Early Spring Takeaways

The Auburn football team is off this week for spring break and it’s a great time to take a deep breath and try to figure out some of the early keys to watch for the Tigers this season.

One of the first things that stands out is junior college transfer quarterback John Franklin. While his athletic ability and speed are what some people think could earn him the starting quarterback spot, Franklin’s work ethic and the job he has done in integrating himself into the team could be the biggest positive for him early in the spring.

While the offense isn’t anywhere close to figuring out things because of the rotations at quarterback and the experimentation going on up front, there is no question that this group is a lot more cohesive early on than last year’s team. The players have said as much in interviews this spring and it’s easy to see on their faces. Not having any pressure or expectations could be part of that, but the buy-in early on has been much greater than happened a year ago.

On defense the thing that jumps out is the potential of the line. Right now I still look at the group as one that has a chance to be good, but the pieces are in place for that to happen when you look at the guys Coach Rodney Garner can build around. Perhaps the player who holds the key to that is senior defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence.

Physically, among the defensive tackles Lawrence is the player who has the most explosion in his game and he is trying to become one of the leaders for the defense even though he’s still a very raw player in terms of his football experience. Making strides in the second half of the 2015 season and continuing that through the winter conditioning and now in spring practice, Lawrence’s play should only push Montravius Adams, Maurice Swain, Dontavius Russell and the other guys at the position to improve and that’s always a good thing.


Offensive Explosion

After scoring just two runs in a 35-inning stretch in a four-game losing streak the Tigers broke out of that in a big way over the weekend as Coach Butch Thompson’s baseball team won two of three from Oral Roberts to get back on the winning track. Scoring 35 runs in three games the Tigers had 46 hits in 116 at-bats as a team, an average of .396. Auburn’s 15 runs on Sunday were the third time this season that they have scored 15 or more runs in a game. The Tigers didn’t score 15 runs in a game from May 12, 2010 through the end of the 2015 season.

One of the keys for the offense was the play of left fielder Josh Palacios. The junior college transfer was 9-16 (.563) in four games with six runs scored and four RBI. First baseman Niko Buentello batted .500 in four games and added his fourth home run and five runs batted in. He and Anfernee Grier both have four home runs already, more than the team leader from a season ago. Already with 27 RBI, Buentello is just 11 away from Daniel Robert’s team-leading total of 38 from a year ago.


Huge Final Game For Softball Tigers

Auburn’s first two games against the Florida Gators haven’t gone as planned for Coach Clint Myers and company with a pair of losses, making Monday’s final game of the series a monster game moving forward for the Tigers. With the hopes of being a national seed again this year Auburn probably doesn't need to be swept at home, even if it is by the best team in the country at the moment.

The good news for Auburn is that the weekend has shown the Tigers aren’t that far off once again from challenging the Gators and the rest of the country for a national championship with a couple of calls here or there making a huge difference in the first two games. What it did show is that getting veteran shortstop Haley Fagan back in the lineup will be important for Auburn in the coming weeks because of her experience and ability to get the clutch hit. The Tigers have plenty of talented young position players, but at the moment Fagan’s experience is something Auburn needs to give them some production in the bottom of the lineup.


Bracket Thoughts

This is one of the best times of the year for sports fans as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament gets underway this week. With that in mind I’ll give a few of my potential upset picks as well as the teams I like to get to the Final Four.

Starting in the South Regional I like several lower seeded teams, but the game that looks ripe for an upset for me is 13-seed Hawaii over 4-seed Cal in Spokane. Cal has a ton of big men and the Golden Bears have had a good season, but away from home they have really struggled to get wins. Hawaii is a team Auburn saw this year and they played a pretty solid schedule including going toe-to-toe with Oklahoma.

In the West I’m going with 10-seed VCU to take down #7 Oregon State. VCU was challenged early and often and played in what has become a very good basketball league. That should prepare them for an Oregon State team that will have to count on Gary Payton II to carry the load for a team that has a lot of depth but no other real go-to guys.

Looking at the East bracket I really like Chattanooga to upset Indiana in the 5-12 game after watching the Mocs play this season. With one of the deepest teams in the country right now Chattanooga must contain Yogi Ferrell for the Hoosiers and if they do that the Mocs will move on.

Rounding out the upsets for me I have to go with Gonzaga as an 11-seed. This team has grown up with its freshman guards getting some seasoning this year and the results have been really good basketball the last few weeks. Any team with Kyle Wiltjer shooting from the perimeter and Damontas Sabonis crashing the boards has a great chance to pull off the upset.

As for my Final Four picks, I’ll go with Kansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Michigan State with Tom Izzo and the Spartans cutting down the nets to win it all.

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