Marshall Column: AU's Likely Starting Lineup

There is much yet to be decided about Auburn's 2006 football team. There are positions to be won or lost, injuries to be healed and coaching decisions to be made. Once two-a-days begin, there will be surprises and there will be disappointments. So it always is.

Here is one man's guess--somewhat educated--at who will be in the starting lineup when the Tigers begin a season of great expectations against Washington State on Sept. 2 at Jordan-Hare Stadium:

QUARTERBACK

Starter: This is a no-brainer, of course. It'll be junior Brandon Cox. He has no challengers and could be the best in the Southeastern Conference.

Waiting in the wings: Sophomore Blake Field is certain to be the backup. One of two true freshmen--Steven Ensminger or Neil Caudle--will be No. 3 and travel with the team. If Cox and Field stay healthy, both of the freshmen will be redshirted.

TAILBACK

Starter: Another no-brainer. Senior Kenny Irons, the SEC's leading rusher last season, will be the starter. But he is not without challengers.

Waiting in the wings: Sophomore Brad Lester had beaten Irons out last season before being injured against Arkansas. Junior Carl Stewart, senior Tre Smith and true freshman Ben Tate all will fight for playing time.

Carl Stewart runs the ball in spring practice as linebacker Tray Blackmon (10) closes in to make a tackle.

FULLBACK

Starter: Everything depends on how sophomore Mike McLaughlin comes back from spring knee surgery. It is unlikely though not impossible he could be ready for the opener. If he's not, my guess is that Stewart will be the starter much in the same mode as Ronnie Brown in 2004.

Waiting in the wings: Even if Stewart is the starter, there'll be a need for a bigger blocking fullback in certain situations. Junior walk-on Andrew Turman has the inside track, but he'll have to fend off redshirt freshman Stephen Gowland and junior Danny Perry.

WIDE RECEIVER

Starters: Senior Courtney Taylor is the bellcow. Junior Prechae Rodriguez is a safe bet to also be in the lineup. The third starter? I'd bet on sophomore Robert Dunn.

Waiting in the wings: Dunn will certainly have to fight for his spot. Sophomore James Swinton, redshirt freshman Montez Billings, senior Lee Guess, walk-on sophomore Roderiqus Smith and sophomore Anthony Campbell, a converted defensive back, could have something to say about who starts against the Cougars.

TIGHT END

Starter: Barring something totally unexpected, it'll be senior Cole Bennett, a guy who has improved steadily from the time he arrive and has waited his turn.

Waiting in the wings: Redshirt freshman Tommy Trott has a chance to be a dynamic player, a guy who is big enough and physical enough for tight end and fast and athletic enough for wide receiver. Redshirt freshman Gabe McKenzie also seems ready to make a move.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

Starters: Junior King Dunlap and senior Jonathan Palmer are the players to beat. Both have plenty of talent. Dunlap needs experience. Palmer needs consistency.

Waiting in the wings: The only player with a realistic opportunity to snatch one of those starting positions is junior Leon Hart, who is listed as a backup at guard but can play any offensive line position. Redshirt freshman Oscar Gonzalez and sophomore Antwoin Daniels have promise, but they are works in progress. The same goes for sophomore Andrew McCain.

OFFENSIVE GUARD

Starters: Seniors Tim Duckworth and Ben Grubbs are the best duo in the SEC and maybe in college football.

Ben Grubbs (69) is coming off an impressive junior season performance.

Waiting in the wings: The most likely scenario is that Hart will back up both guards and both tackles. Sophomore Tyronne Green is being honed to step in as a starter in 2007.

CENTER

Starter: Joe Cope doesn't look the part of an SEC center, but he has turned back every challenge.

Waiting in the wings: Sophomore Jason Bosley is listed at No. 2, but if Cope were to go down, Palmer could move over from tackle, opening a spot for Hart, or Hart could play center.

PLACE-KICKER

Starter: With a little more consistency, senior John Vaughn could leave as one of the better kickers in Auburn history.

Waiting in the wings: Redshirt freshman Zach Kutch is listed at No. 2, but his time isn't likely to come in 2006.

DEFENSIVE END

Starters: Senior Marquies Gunn isn't flashy, but he's a hard-nosed tough guy, the kind of football player who helps win championships. Junior Quentin Groves is flashy and has a chance to move out of the shadow of departed Stanley McClover.

Waiting in the wings: Sophomore Octavius Balkcom appears to be ready to make a significant contribution. Redshirt freshman Antonio Coleman is likely to be heard from as well. Redshirt freshman Alonzo Horton could be in the mix if he doesn't stay at linebacker, where he moved in the spring.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Starters: Josh Thompson is a lock at noseguard if he can stay healthy. Senior Chris Browder, who made the move from defensive end in the spring, is probably a safe bet at the 3-technique. Fans worry a lot more about his size than Auburn's coaches do.

Josh Thompson has seen extensive playing time as a backup noseguard.

Waiting in the wings: Junior Tez Doolittle and sophomore Pat Sims, underachievers so far in their careers, took steps forward in the spring. One or both should figure in the plans at nose guard. Redshirt freshman Sen'Derrick Marks will push hard behind Browder.

LINEBACKER

Starters: Other than converted safety Will Herring on the outside, it's a fluid situation. My guess is that senior Kevin Sears will emerge as the starter in the middle and redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon will start opposite Herring.

Waiting in the wings: Senior Karibi Dede could back up both outside spots and the middle. Even if he doesn't start, he'll probably play as much as any of the others. He might well be the starter in the middle, and Sears can play any of the three positions. Sophomore Merrill Johnson is a ferocious football player and could well beat out Blackmon. Sophomore Chris Evans will get playing time in the middle.

CORNERBACK

Starters: Senior David Irons has an opportunity to be one of the nation's best. Ditto for junior Jonathan Wilhite.

Waiting in the wings: Redshirt freshman Jerraud Powers made a big move in the spring. Junior Patrick Lee and senior Montavis Pitts also are likely to be in the picture.

SAFETIES

Starters: This is one of the more talented and more unsettled areas on the team. Someone needs to take charge in a hurry. It's a coin toss, but I'll say the starters will be junior Eric Brock, the starter for the first half of last season, and redshirt freshman Aairon Savage. Savage made a big impression in the spring after moving from cornerback.

Waiting in the wings: Much depends on whether sophomore Steve Gandy plays at linebacker or moves back to safety. If he moves back to safety (which I expect), he might well claim a starting job. Sophomores Lorenzo Ferguson and Tristan Davis also could emerge as starters when all is said and done.

PUNTER

Starter: Senior Kody Bliss is the SEC's best.

Waiting in the wings: Patrick Martyn has a tremendous leg if needed.

There'll true freshmen who shake things up once two-a-days start, but none are mentioned here. No matter how highly rated a player is out of high school, he's an unknown quantity at this point.

Until next time...

2006 Inside the Auburn Tigers Auburn Football Guide


Inside The AU Tigers Top Stories