Marshall: Spring Football Areas to Watch

Columnist Phillip Marshall comments on the Auburn football team as the Tigers begin their 15 days of spring drills.

It hasn't yet been two months since Auburn played its last football game, but the Tigers return to the field Tuesday to begin preparation for another season.

Spring practice, now limited to 15 days, is a far cry from what it once was. But it remains, in the eyes of coaches, a vital part of the fabric of college football. In the eyes of the players, it is something to be endured.

This spring should be an interesting one for Auburn, coming off a season of highs that ended with a dreadful low in a 24-10 loss to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. A season of promise beckons. The Tigers will surely be among the favorites in the Southeastern Conference race in 2007.

Numerous players and situations will bear watching between now and the annual A-Day game on March 18. Replacing lost stars, the moves of Will Herring from free safety to outside linebacker and Christopher Browder from defensive end to defensive tackle, and new coaches in Will Muschamp and James Willis, are of obvious interest. But there are others.

Among them: *The race to back up starting quarterback Brandon Cox. Blake Field won it last summer by a nose over Calvin Booker, but he'll have to do it again if he wants to be No. 2 again. Offensive coordinator Al Borges says he's going to give Booker, who has the strongest arm of any of Auburn's quarterbacks, ample opportunities this spring.

*The moment of truth for sophomore tailback Brad Lester. Lester was spectacular when he was healthy last season, but he wasn't often healthy and hasn't been for most of his Auburn career. Kenny Irons is clearly the bellcow, but Lester had beaten him out last season before being injured at Arkansas. He needs to show he can stay on the field.

Brad Lester (28) goes into the spring No. 2 on the tailback depth chart.

*The young defensive ends. Alonzo Horton and Antonio Coleman, both redshirt freshmen, spent last season on the scout team. Both have uncommon talent. With Browder's move to tackle, there'll be ample opportunity for them to earn playing time.

*The baptism of a freshman. Tailback Benjamin Tate enrolled in school a semester early and will get his first taste of college football. By all reports, Tate has done well in offseason workouts. He has everything it takes to be a great one. The question is whether he can make enough of an impression to earn playing time next season.

*The return of defensive tackle Pat Sims. Talent has never been an issue with Sims, one of the more highly recruited players on Auburn's roster. If he has his mind right after walking away from the team last season, he could make a big impact next season. He is currently listed as the No. 3 noseguard, but he could play either interior line position.

*Cole Bennett's opportunity. Bennett has been a valuable backup to Cooper Wallace at tight end for the past three seasons. Now is his chance to be the starter. I don't know of a player on the current team who has improved more over the course of his career. If he has a big year, he could attract plenty of NFL interest.

*The young tight ends. Behind Bennett are a couple of much ballyhooed signees in redshirt freshmen Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie. Trott played a little last season before injuring his neck and getting a medical redshirt. McKenzie spent the season on the scout team. With their receiving skills and athleticism, both have opportunities to be something special.

*What to do with Jonathan Palmer? For three seasons, Palmer has been the odd man out on the offensive line. He has the ability and the work ethic to be a great one. He'll compete with Joe Cope for the starting center's job. If Cope stays No. 1, don't be surprised to see Palmer get a look at one of the tackles.

Andrew Turman will have a chance to move up the depth chart at fullback this spring.

*Finding a fullback. Speaking of unsung heroes, most people don't realize just how valuable Jake Slaughter was to Auburn's offense last season. The candidates to replace him have no experience. Sophomore Mike McLaughlin is listed No., 1, followed by walk-on junior Andrew Turman, walk-on redshirt freshman Stephen Gowland and walk-on junior Danny Perry. Any one of the four could emerge as the man next season.

Those are just some of the positions and players that will bear watching as spring practice unfolds. Somewhere along the way, a player or players will come out of nowhere to get the coaches' attention.

The 2006 season is still six months away, but the quest of a second SEC championship in three seasons begins today.

Until next time...

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