Tony Stevens (above) is heading into his senior season.
Auburn, Ala.--As the Auburn Tigers prepare to take to the football practice field on Wednesday afternoon, Coach Gus Malzahn’s team has plenty of questions to answer before facing off against Clemson on Sept. 3. There is no doubt the biggest question for the Tigers is who will start at quarterback, where ultimately this season’s success could hinge on how well the position performs this season.
Completing just over 58 percent of their passes last year for 2,220 yards and 11 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, the combination of Jeremy Johnson and Sean White left a lot to be desired in 2015 and that is one of the reasons Auburn brought in junior college transfer John Franklin and freshman Woody Barrett to compete for the job this fall with Tyler Queen trying to rebound from spring shoulder surgery.
John Franklin is shown in action during the A-Day game.
The problems on offense a season ago weren’t solely that of the quarterbacks, but improved play at the position is a must if the Tigers want to challenge for the SEC West title. In both 2010 and 2013 it was the play of Cam Newton and Nick Marshall that pushed the Tigers over the top. While nobody on the roster is likely to reach the numbers either of those two put up, just playing solid football might be enough to take Auburn to another level.
An answer should come pretty quickly with Auburn needing to solidify things as quickly as possible to get the offense flowing smoothly before beginning work on Clemson. With Johnson and White having a lot more experience under their belts, Franklin needs to make an impact very quickly if he hopes to win the job.
There is no battle for one of the spots with Carlton Davis a lock on one side of Auburn’s defense, but on the other side there is a real competition with redshirt freshmen Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean neck-and-neck going into preseason camp. A speedster who has shown the ability to be physical at the point of attack, Javaris Davis is a former running back who has the athleticism to really take a big step forward this season. One of the largest cornerbacks in Auburn history, Dean’s physicality could be a big plus for the Tigers when you factor in what should be an improved pass rush.
With 66 career receptions senior Marcus Davis enters the season as the only established wide receiver on Auburn’s roster. While Jason Smith showed big play ability last season and Tony Stevens has the size and talent to make a big impact, the consistency outside of Davis is still a huge question mark. The good news for AU's first-year wide receivers Coach Kodi Burns is that there are plenty of guys in line to challenge for playing time when the Tigers take the field.
Slot receivers such as Stanton Truitt and Ryan Davis should earn playing time because of the speed they bring to the table, but it may be tough to keep redshirt freshman Darius Slayton and at least one of the group of four true freshmen off the field. The guy to watch may be Nate Craig. Even though he wasn’t on campus for spring practice, Craig’s combination of size and natural receiving skills should allow him to challenge for immediate playing time
If you just look at the numbers, junior college transfer Kevin Phillips had a solid first season at Auburn. Averaging 41 yards per punt with 17 of his 55 kicks inside the 20-yard line, Phillips had his moments last year, but overall the Tigers are looking for more consistency from the position. Too many times Auburn was hurt by a short punt that didn’t flip the field and left the defense in a tough spot. Phillips has the experience and that should give him an advantage, but redshirt freshman Ian Shannon has a very strong leg. This should be one of the battles that goes down to the wire in camp this year.
With a new position coach in Travis Williams and three seniors gone from last season, Auburn’s linebackers have the ultimate chip on their shoulder heading into 2016. Along with wide receiver, linebacker has been perhaps the most underachieving position the last few seasons on the Plains.
Darrell Williams is a sophomore from Hoover High.
One of the players looking to turn that around is junior Tre Williams. One of the leaders on defense for the Tigers, he split time a season ago with Kris Frost and is ready to step in and take over the full-time starting role in the middle. The battle comes beside him with Illinois transfer T.J. Neal and sophomore Darrell Williams expected to compete for the starting spot. A multi-year starter for the Illini, Neal has the intangibles to help out the Tigers immediately, but Darrell Williams is one of the most talented defenders on the roster. Both should see plenty of playing time this season, but the competition for the starting spot is one to watch.