2006 SEC Football Previews: Auburn

Auburn is featured in a seris of articles previewing the Southeastern Conference's 12 teams. Coach Tommy Tuberville's Tigers head into the season looking for improvement over last season's 9-3 mark with a large number of experienced players returning.

Auburn, Ala.--Although Auburn is being picked as one of the favorites to win the 2006 SEC football title, the Tigers have questions that must be answered before they will be ready to bring home a championship trophy.

Offensively, the Tigers were the league's top team last year and return many of the key players, including the conference's leading rusher, senior tailback Kenny Irons, and junior quarterback Brandon Cox. However, both starting tackles (Marcus McNeill and Troy Reddick) are trying to make NFL rosters this summer and the same is true of three of last year's top receivers (Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu and Anthony Mix).

Senior Jonathan Palmer (6-5, 325), who has played every offensive line position and done a good job the past three years, looks ready to step into a full-time starting role at the right tackle spot while six-foot-eight, 318 junior King Dunlap is expected take over on the left side where the Tigers lose All-American McNeill. If those players perform up to the expectations of offensive line coach Hugh Nall the Tigers should be set on up front because senior guards Ben Grubbs and Tim Duckworth are pro prospects and center Joe Cope had a solid junior season in his first year as a starter.

At wide receiver, Courtney Taylor was the team's most talented player last year, but limped through a disappointing season with a nagging ankle sprain and was limited to 22 catches for 278 yards and one touchdown. As a sophomore he made 43 catches for 737 yards and six TDs and there is no reason he shouldn't surpass those numbers this fall.

Courtney Taylor has been a key player since his freshman year with all of the tools to have a big senior season.

There are plenty of other candidates to push for playing time at wide receiver, but nobody other than Taylor has put up big numbers. Candidates at the wideout spots include senior Lee Guess, junior Prechae Rodriguez plus sophomores Robert Dunn, Montez Billings, Anthony Campbell, Rodgeriqus Smith and James Swinton. Heavily recruited true freshman Tim Hawthorne is already on campus working out and is a player to watch, too, from what looks to be another talented signee class.

Defensively, Auburn had some good performances last year, but as a whole the group wasn't consistent enough to please the head coach, who has brought in Will Muschamp from the Miami Dolphins and before that LSU as the new defensive coordinator after one-year coordinator David Gibbs returned to the NFL.

"I want to see us play good football for 12 weeks in a row on defense," Tuberville says. "We didn't do that last year."

For that to happen, the Tigers have to replace the linebacker tandem of Williams & Williams, who were the second (Travis Williams) and third (Antarrious Williams) leading tacklers last season. In a spring filled with experiments on the defensive side of the football, Muschamp moved senior free safety Will Herring to linebacker, and the three-year starter looks like he will make it four in a row because he quickly adapted to the new role. Herring led the Tigers in tackles with 69 last year and it won't be surprising if the smart and aggressive senior has a repeat performance.

Will Herring (35) makes a stop in Auburn's 2004 SEC Championship Game victory over Tennessee.

The other area where there is rebuilding to do on the defense is with the interior front. Two-year starter Tommy Jackson is trying to make it as a rookie in the NFL and so is 2005 starting tackle Wayne Dickens.

At noseguard, junior Josh Thompson, who had a strong spring, is trying to bounce back from an injury-plagued season. He was seriously challenging Jackson for a starting spot in preseason last August, but injuries severely limited his effectiveness in 2005.

A variety of candidates will be competing for the starting tackle spot. At the top of the depth chart is senior Chris Browder, who has moved there from end. He has gained weight and is up to 6-4, 267, but is still undersized for a tackle. Junior Tez Doolittle (6-3, 298), redshirt freshmen Sen'Derrick Marks (6-1, 287) and sophomore Pat Sims (6-4, 314) are all possibilities at tackle. Doolittle and Sims can play noseguard, too.

Muschamp, who will coach the secondary, inherited excellent talent and depth at cornerback where David Irons is expected to be one of the top players in the country this season. On the other side, junior Jonathan Wilhite is very good in pass coverage and there is quality depth. Montae Pitts, a senior, started for the unbeaten 2004 team. Patrick Lee, a junior, has starting experience, too. Young players to watch include Jerraud Powers and Walter McFadden while junior Zach Gilbert has significant game experience.

There was so much depth at cornerback that in the spring redshirt freshman Aairon Savage was moved to free safety, where he is battling sophomore Tristan Davis for the starting job. Davis is an interesting athlete with excellent speed. He split time between defense and offense last year and was spectacular at times as a tailback. He averaged 17.4 yards per carry on 11 runs, but is scheduled to be a full-time defensive player.

At strong safety junior Eric Brock and sophomore Steve Gandy are battling for the job. Brock opened the season as the starter, but Gandy finished number one there. This battle should continue throughout the season. Lorenzo Ferguson, a sophomore who played cornerback last season, is also in the mix.

In addition to Herring, the Tigers have another experienced fifth-year year player with lots of starting experience at linebacker. Karibi Dede can play all three linebacker spots, but is expected to spend most of his time in the middle this season. At 6-0, 216 he is undersized for the position, but is smart and makes a lot of plays. He will have to hold off a challenge from 6-4, 242 senior Kevin Sears, who has 15 careers starts at strongside linebacker. Sears moved inside during the spring and played well.

At weakside linebacker redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon finished spring at the top of the depth chart. The physical Blackmon will be challenged by another physical player, sophomore Merrill Johnson, who missed the spring with a knee injury. However, he should be full speed this fall.

Marquies Gunn is coming off of a strong junior season and an impressive 2006 spring practice.

At the end spots, the Tigers have one of the better defenders in the SEC returning in senior Marquies Gunn. Bigger and stronger than ever in the spring, he is up to 6-4, 270. He is backed up by sophomore Octavius Balkcom, another player who has made size and strength strides in the past year.

On the other side the Tigers feature talented junior Quentin Groves (6-3, 254), one of the team's quicker players. Depth will come from redshirt freshman Antonio Coleman who has shown potential as a pass rusher.

On offense the Tigers look to be in good shape at tight end with senior Cole Bennett (6-4, 261) taking over for starter Cooper Wallace, another player in an NFL camp. Bennett has plenty of big game experience and is a strong blocker. Two of the team's top redshirt freshmen play the position, too. Tommy Trott, a 6-5, 252-pounder, had a very impressive spring. He will compete for playing time along with 6-3, 255 Gabe McKenzie, who like Trott runs well for a tight end.

"Tre Smith a really strong spring and we are going to be counting on him to play several positions for us," says offensive coordinator Al Borges, who could line the senior up at tailback, fullback or as a slot receiver.

Tuberville says he is expecting Irons to have another big year at tailback and notes that he likes what he saw in the spring from newcomer Tate. "I personally watched him play in the state championship game in Baltimore and he has got everything you want--he can catch the ball, he can block, I think the sky is the limit for him...his work ethic is outstanding."

Behind Irons at tailback there is experience and depth. Senior Tre Smith and sophomore Brad Lester have started for the Tigers. Carl Stewart, a junior, has played extensively and is coming off a solid spring as is Ben Tate, a true freshman who was an early high school graduate after a record-setting performance in the Maryland prep ranks.

The fullback position is being handled by committee with Jake Slaughter now trying to play for the Kansas City Chiefs. Sophomore Michael McLaughlin, who missed spring drills with an injury, will try to hold off challenges from walk-ons Andrew Turman, Danny Perry and Stephen Gowland.

The Tigers return a potential All-American punter with Kody Bliss back for his final season after winning All-SEC honors in 2005. John Vaughn, a three-year starter, returns as the field goal kicker. He had a disappointing junior season, but was almost automatic in spring drills.

Auburn has won 22 games in the past two seasons, which is the third highest total nationally. For the Tigers to keep up that pace Cox, who passed for 2,324 yards and 15 touchdowns as a first-year starter, will need to have a big year, which offensive coordinator Al Borges says he is expecting. A calm and accurate throwing lefty, Cox completed 57.8 percent of his passes as a sophomore.

Quarterback Brandon Cox looks for a receiver.

If the rebuilt linebacker corps and interior defensive front comes through and several young receivers step up on offense, this should be one of Tuberville's better teams as the coach heads into his eighth season running the Auburn program.

The Tigers open the season Sept. 2nd vs. Washington State, an opponent the Tigers have never faced. The first month offers a key SEC West showdown in week three as LSU visits and on the 28th the Tigers play a Thursday night game against a South Carolina team that will be looking for payback after suffering an embarrassing 48-7 loss last season at Auburn. The opener vs. Washington state will mark the start of a schedule that goes 12 straight games without an off week, something that will challenge the endurance and depth of a team with the potential to get to the Georgia Dome for the league championship game.

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