Marshall: Five Questions For The Tigers

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the top five question marks for the Tigers heading into the 2006 season.

It was just after noon on Sunday and Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges was in his office.

"I'm watching Jason," Borges said, nodding at his television. The Washington Redskins and former Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell were playing the New York Jets.

"Jason has to be the starter pretty soon," Borges said. "(Redskins coach) Joe Gibbs loves him. They didn't draft him in the first round to be the backup."

Campbell is a link to Auburn's glorious recent past, the 13-0 season of 2004. But Borges was more concerned about the immediate future, the 2006 season that is loaded with high expectations.

A No. 4 preseason ranking can be a burden in college football. With the opener against Washington State rushing closer, Auburn, like every other college football team, has some serious questions that can only be answered on the field.

Borges doesn't have as many as defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, but he has some.

"We have some questions for sure," Borges said. "The thing is, we think we have some answers. They might not be great answers in every case, but I've been places where you didn't have any answers. You try to cover up with scheme, but that doesn't work for long."

Finding answers to difficult questions is an annual challenge for college football coaches from coast to coast. The teams that find the best answers are the ones that will contend for a championship.

For many of those questions, the answers won't be known until it's time to play.

Commentator Reece Davis asked me in my brief and unremarkable interview (I'm no TV guy) on ESPN last week what would be the one thing for which to watch that would show the Tigers are national championship contenders. My answer was to watch how they play on defense.

Looking at it more indepth, here are five positions at which questions must be answered positively on the field if Auburn is to live up to its ranking:

Linebacker.

The suspensions of Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon before the start of preseason camp created a difficult situation. The loss of Steve Gandy to a freakish injury made it even more difficult.

When the Tigers take the field against Washington State, only outside linebacker Karibi Dede will have any significant experience as a linebacker. Will Herring is a preseason All-SEC choice, but he's never played a down at linebacker. In the middle, Merrill Johnson has played sparingly.

It's still not clear who the top backups will be. Whoever they are, they'll be players who have played little or not at all. Freshman Craig Stevens, who looks to be in the rotation, has never even been to a game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Merrill Johnson is expected to be the starter at middle linebacker for the Tigers to open the season.

Safety.

Junior Eric Brock is the bellcow, and he lost his starting job halfway through last season. Otherwise, there is virtually no experience. Aairon Savage, Tristan Davis, Lorenzo Ferguson and Zach Etheridge all have talent, but there is no way to know how they will perform until the whistle blows and it's time to play.

Defensive line

The comeback of sophomore defensive tackle Pat Sims has been one of the more heartwarming stories of preseason camp. The same goes for junior nose guard Tez Doolittle. Overall, the defensive line, anchored by throwback nose guard Josh Thompson, appears to be stronger than most expected.

But that doesn't change the reality that Sims has played in one game in his career, that Thompson has never been a starter, that backups Tez Doolittle and Sen'Derrick Marks have precious little experience. Performing in practice is one thing. Performing in front of 87,000 when the pressure sits heavy on your shoulders is another.

Offensive tackle.

Will King Dunlap and Jonathan Palmer have the physical attributes to be high NFL draft choices, but will they develop the same kind of toughness and ferocious competitiveness that characterized departed starters Marcus McNeil and Troy Reddick?

For role models, they need only to look to the inside. Guards Tim Duckworth and Ben Grubbs and center Joe Cope are as tough and competitive as they come. If Dunlap and Palmer follow their lead, Auburn's offensive line could be among the nation's best. If they don't, there could be problems, particularly in the running game.

Wide receiver.

Senior Courtney Taylor is a known commodity. If he stays healthy, he'll be a star. But it's a safe bet that defenses are going double-team and even triple-team Taylor as long as they can get away with it.

The focus on Taylor should create opportunities for others. How many of them are ready to take advantage of those opportunities? We'll start to find out on Sept. 2.

There are other questions, of course. Will the leadership come close to the remarkable levels of 2004? Will key players stay healthy? When the ball bounces, will it bounce Auburn's way.

With positive answers at those five positions, or at least most of them, Auburn will have an opportunity to be a team worthy of its lofty ranking.


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