Preseason Look at Football Strengths, Weaknesses

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the football Tigers as they continue preparations for opening day.

The problem with evaluating scrimmages is that it's impossible to look good on both sides of the ball at the same time. If the offense is running up and down the field, the defense is having problems. If the defense is pitching a shutout, the offense is having problems. As a result, it's difficult to say just what Saturday's scrimmage meant.

It should be remembered that many of the players who will be counted on to lead the way when the season starts watched from the sideline. All I can offer is impressions, which may or may not prove accurate in the end. But here they are, starting with the offense:

The offensive line has an opportunity to be the best at Auburn in many years. Offensive line depth is rare. The Tigers seldom went more than 6-7 deep in the glory years of the 1980s, but they seem to legitimately have two full lines that could play in the SEC. If Marcus McNeill's back problems don't flare up again, he could be in the mold of Willie Anderson.

Jason Campbell is more comfortable and confident than I have seen him in his five years at Auburn. He has bought enthusiastically into offensive coordinator Al Borges' system. I have seen every practice but one, and I have not seen him have a bad day or even a shaky day.

Though he certainly is not ready to challenge Campbell for the starting job, Brandon Cox has an opportunity to be a great quarterback. If he accomplishes that, it will be a wonderful story after the way his career started.

The wide receivers are dramatically improved from last season, both in running routes and catching the ball. Head coach Tommy Tuberville mentioned Devin Aromashodu catching a pass over the middle, taking a fierce hit and hanging on to the ball. As Tuberville pointed out, he probably wouldn't have made that catch last year. It's hard for fans to be patient, but it takes some players longer than others to mature.

Is there a better third-team tailback anywhere than Tre Smith? I don't think so. He's a terrific football player who plays incredibly hard.

Redshirt freshman Carl Stewart and true freshman Brad Lester might just be the next generation of outstanding Auburn tailbacks.

What we saw at Saturday's scrimmage was only a partial picture. McNeill, tight end Cooper Wallace and, of course, tailbacks Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown did not participate.

On to the defense:

There is more pure talent on the defensive line this season than last, but it's not easy to replace the kind of experience that Demarco McNeil, Reggie Torbor and Spencer Johnson had. On top of that, three-fourths of what will probably be the starting defensive line wasn't on the field. End Bret Eddins and tackle Jay Ratliff didn't participate. Noseguard Tommy Jackson is recovering from a dislocated elbow.

Stanley McClover is going to be a great player, probably an All-America caliber player, but first he must learn to be as good at stopping the run as he is at rushing the passer.

The depth at defensive tackle and noseguard isn't the best. Josh Thompson, currently the No. 1 noseguard, is a redshirt freshman. Wayne Dickens is a junior with plenty of talent, but he has yet to have a breakout year. True freshman Pat Sims may or may not be ready, but it looks like he's going to have to play.

Bret Eddins (94) and Jay Ratliff (83) are being counted on to anchor the defensive front.

At linebacker, Travis Williams is in the same mold as Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas, but he doesn't have their size. I have wondered from the start about playing with a 214-pound middle linebacker, and I still wonder.

It may be that the best solution is to make Mayo Sowell the starter in the middle and move Williams back outside. For whatever reason, the defense seemed soft inside Saturday. Williams may have put it best when he said that the Tigers, with all their speed, have to understand that fast isn't always best. Antarrious Williams looks set for a big year. Kevin Sears certainly has everything you are looking for physically.

The loss of David Irons at cornerback is much more significant than would normally be the case with a player who has never played in Division I-A. Montae Pitts has everything you are looking for physically, but he has to show he can be consistent. Kevin Hobbs is a good, solid player, but he was better at safety. Don't be surprised if walk-on redshirt freshman Zach Gilbert continues to climb the depth chart. He has the speed, the quickness and certainly the aggressiveness. The only thing he doesn't have is height (he's generously listed at 5-10) and experience. Redshirt freshman Patrick Lee, another one who has ample physical gifts, will have an opportunity to show what he can do. Obviously, it is imperative that senior Carlos Rogers recover completely from his knee injury.

The safeties are in good hands. Junior Rosegreen is a talented athlete who plays with passion and determination. Will Herring might be the most improved player on the entire team. Freshmen Tony Bell and Steve Gandy are likely to provide early help and senior Donnay Young is a solid player with experience.

As with the offense, we got only a partial snapshot of the defense Saturday. Bret Eddins and Doug Langenfeld, the top two strongside defensive ends, did not play. Neither did Rosegreen, Rogers or Ratliff. Some Auburn offensive coaches say Ratliff has been harder to block than any defensive lineman they played against last season.

The kicking game remains a question. Sophomore John Vaughn was terrific, hitting all seven field goals he tried. Senior Philip Yost was almost automatic until recent days. Saturday, he struggled badly, missing his first three tries and making just 3 of 7. If Vaughn does that again in the next scrimmage, he'll be the man on Sept. 4. Inconsistent kicking has cost the Tigers dearly in recent seasons. Maybe Vaughn is the answer.

Overall, Saturday's scrimmage was cause for neither celebration nor great concern. There is obviously much to be done in some areas, but three weeks still remain before the first game.

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