Inside Look At the Auburn Offense

A detailed report is featured on the Auburn football team's offense.

Auburn, Ala.--While a fairly clear picture has emerged of who Auburn's likely opening night starters will be on offense, it's still difficult to get a handle on who the top backups will be at many positions.

With the Tigers yet to have a major preseason scrimmage because head coach Tommy Tuberville is waiting for more players to return from injuries, probably nobody is certain of who the second stringers will be at each position.

Starting quarterback Brandon Cox notes that he is among those interested to see how the depth chart shakes out. "Hopefully we will get a scrimmage in sometime so we can find out where everybody is at," Cox tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "Hopefully we can get everybody in the positions where they belong and get our top guys out there. I expect next week we will start on Washington State."

Cox says it is too early to get a good feel on where the offense is this preseason, but he notes that he is optimistic. "I think we will be able to tell a lot more after the scrimmage," he says. "I do believe we are a few steps ahead of where we were at this time last year.

Brandon Cox takes a snap during two-a-days.

"A big question this year is how would we replace the receivers from last year's team, but I have seen a lot of guys step up at the receiver positions," Cox says. "I don't think that will really be a question.

"With the experience we have returning in the offensive line and in the backfield, I think we are definitely ahead of the game," the quarterback adds.

Cox, a 6-2, 205 junior, is expected to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. His position coach, Al Borges, is one of the people who has made that statement. "We are excited about seeing what he can do in his second season as a starter," says Borges, who doubles as Auburn's offensive coordinator.

Borges says he likes what he has seen from the number two QB, Blake Field. The 6-2, 209 redshirt sophomore goes into the season as a much better backup than he was at this time last year, Borges says. "Blake has a lot more experience and his bigger and stronger and understands the offense better," Borges says.

The only other QBs on the roster are true freshmen Steven Ensminger (6-3, 207) and Neil Caudle. Borges has given both rookies extra work in 11 on 11 drills in recent practices, but notes that neither player has separated himself from the other in the competition for the number three spot. Both Caudle and Ensminger have displayed good arm strength in practice, but are prime candidates to be redshirted as they learn the offense.

While Cox is the unquestioned number one man at quarterback, the situation is very different at fullback. Several Tigers are expected to line up there in the opener such as junior Carl Stewart (6-2, 224) and senior Tre Smith (5-10, 195), a pair of veterans who know how to play the hybrid F-back role. They can line up as fullbacks, tailbacks or receivers.

A more traditional fullback is 6-0, 225 junior Andrew Turman, who will be counted on for his blocking skills. A walk-on, Turman is backed up by two more walk-ons, Danny Perry (6-2, 236, Jr.) and Stephen Gowland (6-4, 225, RFr.), who are neck and neck in the pecking order, says position coach Eddie Gran. Another fullback, 6-1, 236 sophomore Mike McLaughlin, is still recovering from knee surgery and is not expected to contribute on opening night.

It will be a major surprise if the tailback position isn't a team strength. Kenny Irons, a 5-11, 200-pound senior, has played better in preseason 2006 than he did in preseason 2005 before leading the SEC in rushing. An NFL prospect with his combination of speed and power, Irons is a potential All-American.

Behind the senior is 5-11, 195 redshirt sophomore Brad Lester, who has run well this preseason. Gran notes that he has been particularly pleased that Lester has been 100 percent, full-speed ahead for every practice this year after being limited by groin pull and hamstring problems last year.

More depth at the position comes from Smith and Stewart, who have won praise from Gran for their running out of the tailback slot this preseason. Even more depth is provided by true freshman Ben Tate, a powerful 5-11, 204-pounder, who has been on campus since graduating high school early back in December.

A wildcard in the mix is 5-11, 214 Mario Fannin, a talented true freshman who has improved significantly in the last week of practice. He has plenty of speed and athletic ability.

Adding more versatility to the running backs group this fall is that Lester and Tate have learned the F-back role, giving the Tigers four players who can handle that assignment.

The running backs should have a veteran group of linemen to open holes even though there will be two new starters in the lineup.

At left tackle, redshirt junior King Dunlap (6-9, 321) is the likely starter where Marcus McNeill was an All-American in 2005.

At right tackle, redshirt senior Jonathan Palmer (6-4, 325) looks like he has found a home in the starting lineup at a spot where Troy Reddick was the first stringer the past two seasons.

However, who the backups will be is still to be determined. Injuries have played havoc with line coach Hugh Nall's depth chart.

Oscar Gonzalez (6-7, 294, RFr.) has seen very little practice time after suffering a dislocated toe. Sophomore Andrew McCain (6-6, 262), a player likely to redshirt, has seen a lot of work in the past week and a half, but will need to get larger to be effective after making the move to OT from the defensive front in the spring. McCain has missed practice time

Junior Leon Hart (6-4, 300), who was expected to challenge for a starting job, has missed practice time with injuries and that has put him behind, Nall says. Hart, who looks to be more effective at guard, can play either tackle spot, too.

Adding further complication to the depth chart situation is that 6-5, 286 sophomore Antwoin Daniels, who plays both tackle and guard, has also missed practice time this preseason. That prompted Nall to move true freshman Mike Berry (6-3, 329) to tackle where he has shown promise after beginning preseason drills at center.

At guard the Tigers feature returning starters in All-SEC candidates Ben Grubbs (6-3, 318, Sr.) and Tim Duckworth (6-4, 318, Sr.). Both have performed well in preseason following strong springs.

Depth at guard comes from a pair of sophomores--Tyronne Green (6-2, 317) and Nathan Farrow (6-3, 301), a walk-on who has had a strong preseason. Green has played well this preseason, too, but missed AU's last practice after suffering what coaches said was a stomach virus. AU only signed a pair of offensive linemen this year. Lee Tilley, a 6-5, 303-pounder who has worked at guard and tackle in preseason, is expected to redshirt this fall to work on getting bigger and stronger.

Ben Grubbs will be counted on this season as one of Auburn's top players.

The center position looks to be in the capable hands of 6-0, 276 returning starter Joe Cope. Although he missed a week of workouts with a knee problem, he is back in action and his return to the offensive front was a boost to the team. Jason Bosley (6-4, 279, So.) is Cope's backup and Palmer can play center if needed.

Commenting on when he expects to have a depth chart, Nall says, "My goal is to have it done by Sunday. We certainly have some questions with Leon missing so much and Antwoin has been out and Tyronne out. Those guys have certainly got to figure in, but where they are going to figure in I don't know. This has really hurt them."

Nall adds that although the likely starting five is a veteran group, he still isn't sure how they will perform as a smoothly functioning unit. "They have experience, but they don't have experience together."

There is a lot to like at tight end with the Tigers featuring a proven senior, Cole Bennett (6-4, 261), who is expected to take over for last year's starter, Cooper Wallace. Depth comes from redshirt freshmen Gabe McKenzie (6-4, 248) and Tommy Trott (6-5, 254) and true freshman Michael Goggans (6-3, 260).

Trott had a strong spring, but will have to step up in preseason to play ahead of McKenzie, who has made a strong push for playing time the past two weeks with improved receiving and blocking skills.

A key to the offense will be to keep 6-2, 210 senior Courtney Taylor healthy. One of the SEC's most talented players, he is good enough to draw double coverage. Last Friday he gave the coaching staff a scare when he went down with a knee injury. Fortunately for the Tigers, it turned out to be a sprain and he is expected back in action soon.

Courtney Taylor fought through a high ankle sprain to play last season.

With Taylor out, Montez Billings (6-2, 180, RFr.) has stepped up and played well this preseason. Junior Prechae Rodriguez (6-4, 200) is a player being counted on to perform well by position coach Greg Knox.

Senior Lee Guess (5-10, 181) is catching the football well as is sophomore walk-on Rodgeriqus Smith (6-0, 181). Both are battling to get into the playing rotation as is 6-0, 177 sophomore Robert Dunn.

The Tigers have a pair of freshmen wideouts with promise. Tim Hawthorne (6-3, 207) looks like he will be on the field running routes on opening night. Terrell Zachery (6-1, 197) has a chance to join him there if he makes improvements before opening night when Washington State comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Hawthorne has potential to be a physical wideout who can make tough catches in traffic.

More depth comes from sophomores Anthony Campbell (5-10, 192) and James Swinton (6-0, 176), a pair of Tigers with good speed.

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