While much of that comes from quarterback Jason Campbell and running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, the loss of senior center Jeremy Ingle and guard Danny Lindsey off the offensive line are going to be tough to fill, says offensive line coach Hugh Nall.
"That experience is everything, but what we'll miss the most is the tempo and the attitude that they always played with," Nall says. "Those are big shoes to fill as far as that goes. I felt like Ingle and Danny kind of set the tempo for the offensive line all year. That's what you're supposed to do when you're a senior. I thought they did a great job of their leadership through example. That's what I'll be looking for more than anything. It's time for some guys to step up and from what I hear there are some guys that are getting things together. That will be the big question."
The return of three starters up front is a good step toward another successful campaign for the offensive line. Perhaps no Auburn lineman since Willie Anderson will enter a season with more expectations than senior Marcus McNeill. An All-American selection as a junior, earlier this year the 6-9, 330 McNeill decided to return for his senior season rather than try the NFL Draft. When he did it signaled that Auburn was ready to reload on the offensive front.
"That was exciting news," Nall says. "He had a good year, but I think he needs another year of winter workouts and getting his back even stronger. He didn't miss a practice last year and didn't miss a game. I thought that really helped us.
"A year before he was only practicing on Thursdays and you were holding your breath each week that he would make it through a game. I really think he's set to have a good year. He can be really, really good if we improve on some areas of his game that need some work. I think another year in the weight room is going to help that. I'm excited about him."
Joining McNeill in the starting lineup last season and back this year will be fellow senior tackle Troy Reddick and junior guard Ben Grubbs. The 6-5, 316 Reddick returns having started 29 games in his career and 26 straight. Grubbs (6-3, 302), a former defensive end and tight end, moved to guard last spring and started all 13 games for Auburn last fall. Nall says that both did well last year, but have plenty of room for improvement beginning this spring.
"Troy Reddick played really well at the right tackle," Nall said. "I think having a year under his belt at right tackle he should play even better this year because there were some things he did really well and some things we need to work on to get better at.
"Ben Grubbs should be a lot better next year. He made some mistakes this year in his first year really. We put a lot on the kid because he hadn't been on the offensive line much at all. To be the starter for a team in the SEC all year, I thought he did a really good job. I'm not happy with everything he did, but he can get better because he's a real good athlete. I'm excited about those three."
Ben Grubbs double-teams a MSU player with McNeill.
That leaves the right guard and center position to be filled before spring practice wraps up in late March. With several players ready to give it their best shot at both spots Nall says that he's anxious to see who rises to the top. One player who will get a lot of looks is 6-3, 314 Tim Duckworth, but the list is long on talented players capable of winning a starting job.
"I think Timmy Duckworth has got a chance to be a big-time player," Nall says. "He only came over (to offense) last year during two-a-days. The winter workouts and spring practice should really help him develop in his knowledge of offensive line play and fundamentals and knowing who to block. Hopefully, next two-a-days we can really fine-tune the fundamentals. When you know who to block it's a lot easier to work on how to block them. If you don't know who to block then that how to is not very good. I'm excited about him. He's really got a lot of potential.
Duckworth gets a pat on the head from Nall after playing well in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
"Having Jarrod Britt (6-3, 295, So.) back is going to help," Nall adds. "We'll see how he does. You know he's going to play hard and he's going to compete for that starting job.
"The center position is going to be wide open," Nall adds. "A kid named Joe Cope (6-0, 276, So.) is going to be competing for it. You have Jason Bosley (6-2, 280, Fr.) there as well and I'm going to move Leon Hart (6-5, 280, So.) there this spring. Leon has all of the potential in the world to be as good as I've coached in whatever position he ends up at. I'll work him at center and some tackle also."
In addition to the starting five, Auburn should also have some talent at the backup positions with the best depth up front for a Tiger team in many years. Looking to move a few players around to find the best spots for everyone, Nall says that he's looking for improvement out of several players if they hope to get some playing time in 2005.
"I'll probably move Antwoin Daniels to right tackle backup and move King Dunlap 6-8, 305, So.) to left tackle," Nall says. "That will be basically two-deep. The Will Sullivans and Jonathan Palmer (6-5, 317, Jr.), they have to step up. JP has a lot of ability. He just needs to step up. He can take the job if he wants it. If he starts playing better than Duckworth or whoever, then I'll move him to right guard. There is going to be a lot of competition.
"Even with the three guys coming back nothing is set in stone. I'm going to play the best five and I feel real good about the second group. If they'll rise to the occasion and give us a chance to put the best five out there then our two-deep will have some ability and experience."
With 15 practice days this spring, Nall says that he is hopeful he can find his top five players going into two-a-days. While the talent level is impressive an offensive line must grow and mature together throughout the offseason to become a top unit. Last year's group did just that and it's something Nall is looking for this spring and into the fall when center Steven Ross returns to the mix after having knee surgery late in the 2004 season.
"I would like to come out of the spring with my five guys," Nall says. "I'm going to come out with five guys. I don't know who they're going to be. The other guy thrown into the equation that I think has a chance to be a very good player is Steven Ross. He's up to 290 now and looks good. He really played well after the first half of the Ole Miss game. I think he's going to be a good player."