This week the Auburn Tigers will open practices in preparation for the 2016 football season and it’s always a time of excitement to get a new year underway. For this team the opportunity is there to make some noise with plenty of talent back on both sides of the ball, but there are also plenty of unknowns that will ultimately tell the tale for Gus Malzahn’s fourth team on the Plains and most of them are on offense.
That starts at the quarterback position where Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and John Franklin are expected to be the three that battle for the starting job. All three bring something different to the table, but with White finishing last season as the starter and nobody else pushing past him in the spring, he is the guy I expect to see take the first snap against Clemson.
All that could change in the next few weeks, however, with Franklin the quarterback who could make the biggest move. After getting 15 practice days under his belt in the spring, the juco transfer is bigger and stronger as the Tigers get back on the field. Needing to improve his accuracy throwing the football, Franklin’s level of improvement is something that will have to be figured in once the coaches get to see him back on the field.
On the offensive line how well Austin Golson handles the left tackle position and Robert Leff at right tackle are big keys for the Tigers. Perhaps a bigger key is what Xavier Dampeer looks like following a summer of knowing he’s finally the man at center. The fifth-year senior worked extremely hard physically and mentally to get the job done, now it’s time to see if that work paid off.
Can Jovon Robinson handle the load at tailback? Will a bigger Kerryon Johnson lead to a more physical presence for the sophomore running back? How much of a factor can Kamryn Pettway be running the football? All of those make the running back position definitely one to watch.
At wide receiver Marcus Davis is back and is someone the Auburn coaches know they can count on, but who’s next? Fellow senior Tony Stevens has the talent, but so far he hasn’t shown near the consistency needed to be a go-to guy. The same is true of Jason Smith, although he made some plays in his first season on the Plains.
Sophomores such as Stanton Truitt and Ryan Davis, redshirt freshman Darius Slayton and true freshmen Nate Craig, Kyle Davis, Elijah Stove and Marquis McClain will all get their chances to show what they can do in preseason camp. If the older guys don’t produce then we could see a couple of these guys step to the forefront.
On defense the biggest question is just how well the line is going to play this season?
A lot of that depends on the health of Carl Lawson because, as we saw last year, having him on the field just brings a different feel to Auburn’s defense. If Lawson can stay health and become the productive guy we have been expecting to see the last two years, then the Tigers should see the defense improve.
Getting production out of the rest of the front four would really help Lawson and the overall defense, something that should happen with veterans like Montravius Adams, Devaroe Lawrence and Dontavius Russell in the middle and exciting newcomers like Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Antwuan Jackson also in the mix.
At linebacker experience is the main issue for the Tigers because Coach Travis Williams has a talented group to work with starting with junior Tre Williams. Adding veteran Illinois transfer T.J. Neal is important for the group, but sophomores Darrell Williams and DeShaun Davis should both pack some punch this season with Montavious Atkinson a sleeper in my book because of his athleticism and speed.
In the secondary the Tigers have a lot of bodies, but how Coach Wesley McGriff meshes the guys together is the real question. At cornerback Carlton Davis should be one of the best in the SEC, but behind him is a whole lot of inexperience. Massive redshirt freshman Jamel Dean and speedster Javaris Davis should battle for the spot opposite Carlton Davis, but neither have played a down of college football. The same is true of true freshman John Broussard.
With Johnathan Ford and Josh Holsey at the nickel the Tigers have two very good options there. Holsey could also play safety if needed, which only adds to the depth at that position with Stephen Roberts, Nick Ruffin, Tray Matthews, Markell Boston and even T.J. Davis possibilities at the two spots.
Back following a strong year, Daniel Carlson has Auburn’s kicking on lockdown, but the punting job is one that could be wide open in the preseason. Kevin Phillips is back after winning the job last season, but inconsistency late in the year was a big problem and really put the defense in a bind at times. Redshirt freshman Ian Shannon has a very strong leg and could make a strong run at winning the job.
2004 All Over Again?
It's not hard to see the comparisons from the 2003 season and last year for Auburn. Picked to win the national title that season, the Tigers floundered out of the gate and finished 8-5 overall. They did finish strong, beating Wisconsin 28-14 in the Music City Bowl behind a strong defensive performance and solid running game. That set the table for that team to do big things on the way to an undefeated season.
Jason Campbell was a key to the 2004 team's success.
In no way am I predicting the same kind of results for the 2016 Auburn Tigers, but like their 2003 counterparts the 2015 Tigers played very well in a bowl game to give them confidence heading into the offseason. The 2016 Tigers also return plenty of key performers on both sides of the ball. The one major difference is at quarterback, where Jason Campbell returned after throwing for 2,267 yards and 10 touchdowns with eight interceptions, but even in the bowl win Campbell showed no signs of taking his game to the next level, going 10-22 for just 138 yards and an interception.
Auburn rolled over ULM in the first game of 2004 and ran roughshod over Mississippi State in week two, but it was the win over LSU that kicked Auburn into high gear. Doing very little on offense for much of the day, Auburn came through in the clutch with Campbell making several big plays in the passing game. That sequence was the ignition that kicked Auburn into high gear and this fall the Tigers will need something similar.
This year's Auburn team is still talented and can contend for a title, but it will need the quarterback to make winning plays if the Tigers are going to seriously compete with the top teams in the SEC.