With spring practice just underway, here is a breakdown of the Auburn offense by position and some of the concerns and expectations for the 2008 season.
Auburn loses three-year starter Brandon Cox, which opens up an intriguing quarterback race for the Tigers. Kodi Burns has the most experience as an Auburn quarterback but junior college transfer Chris Todd will challenge for the No. 1 position with his vast knowledge and experience in Tony Franklin's spread offense. Whoever obtains the starting role, the pressure will be there to improve on a disappointing 2007 passing game that finished with a 114.7 rating. Over the past 22 seasons (1986-2007), Auburn's 114.7 rating in 2007 was 19th best. Even the 2006 pass offense finished at No. 5 on the list with a 136.8 rating. The 2004 Auburn passing game was No. 1 with a 173.6 rating.
Last season the Auburn passing game averaged 178.2 yards per game, which was 16th best since 1986 but a slight improvement from 2006, when Auburn averaged 172.7 yards passing per game. The 1997 Auburn passing game was No. 1 in terms of yards per game with an average of 273.5 yards. Against Division I opponents with a winning record, Auburn's 2007 pass offense finished with a rating of 100.5, which was 18th best from 1986-2007. The 100.5 rating was a huge drop from 2006, when the Tigers had a pass rating of 128.5 against opponents with a winning record or 10th best on the list. In terms of yards passing per game, the 2007 Auburn pass-offense averaged only 160.3 yards per game against opponents with a winning record. This was the 19th best performance from 1986-2007 but higher than the 128.5 yards per game in 2006.
Since 1986, Auburn has fielded 10 primary starters at quarterback, marking their first season as the Auburn starting quarterback. Those 10 quarterbacks combined for a rating of 122.2 with Cox having the best season in 2005 with a rating of 132.6. The lowest rating by a first-year starter was Gabe Gross in 1998 with a 96.3 passer rating. The combined record of Auburn's first-year starting quarterbacks from 1986-2007 was 74-41-2. Seven of the 10 quarterbacks lost at least three games during their first season as the starting quarterback.
Brad Lester, Ben Tate return from last season and Tristan Davis from 2006, giving Auburn a reliable running game with plenty of room for improvement. Rating Auburn's running game based on yards per game, average yards per carry and touchdown ratio, the 2007 Auburn rushing attack was No. 13 from 1986-2007, with a rating of 79.8. The 1986 Auburn running game was No. 1 on the list with a 110.2 rating and the 2006 Auburn running game had a rating of 79.3, which finished at No. 15.
Comparing the Auburn running game against opponents with at least a 7-4 record, the 2007 Auburn rushing attack was No. 11 from 1986-2007 with a 65.8 rating and 118.8 yards per game. This was an improvement from the 49.0 rating in 2006, which was No. 19 on the list, averaging only 93.6 yards per game against quality opponents. Once again, the 1986 Auburn running game was No. 1 with a 92.5 rating, gaining 181.6 yards per game.
Though Mario Fannin was moved to the slot receiver position, he should continue to contribute to the Auburn running game in 2008. Brad Lester is the player to watch for in 2008 because of his physical attributes being more conducive to the spread offense. Of the 2,040 yards gained by Auburn running backs in 2007, 1,881 yards returns in 2008 or 92.2 percent of the production.
Auburn returns its three primary receivers in Rod Smith, Montez Billings and Robert Dunn in 2008. Though their names might not strike fear into opposing teams, it provides a strong foundation for the 2008 offense. Last season Auburn's wide-receivers averaged only 12.2 yards per reception, which was 20th best from 1987-2007. The 2007 Auburn receivers accounted for 58 percent of the team's total receptions, which was 16th best from 1987-2007. An increase in contribution should be expected in 2008 with the spread offense featuring the wide-receiver position.
Last season, Auburn's wide receivers caught only eight touchdown passes from 118 receptions, which was 15th best from 1987-2007. This is a far cry from the 23 touchdowns on 129 receptions in 2004 (No. 1 on the list). Because Auburn will deploy more four and five receiver sets in 2008, look for Tim Hawthorne, Chris Slaughter and James Swinton to have a bigger impact in the passing game. This is also a position that could be impacted by a true freshman.
Franklin will also have the luxury of two quality tight ends in Gabe McKenzie and Tommy Trott. Both possess good hands and a trimmer version of Trott in a more pass-oriented offense could be major weapon in 2008. Of the 2,317 yards gained in receptions in 2007, 1,873 yards returns in 2008 or 81 percent of the production from Auburn's receivers, backs and tight ends.
Needing more production out of the passing game in 2008, the return of all five starters from last year's offensive line unit should help the cause.
This perhaps is the strongest unit on the offense. All five starters return in 2008 with the return of Ryan Pugh, Tyronne Green, Jason Bosley, Chaz Ramsey and Lee Ziemba. Bart Eddins, Mike Berry, Byron Isom, Andrew McCain, Jared Cooper and Kyle Coulahan should provide plenty of depth. The lumps the freshmen took in 2007 should pay major dividends in 2008. During the first 178 pass attempts of the 2007 season, the Auburn offensive line allowed 16 sacks. During the last 178 pass attempts of the season, Auburn's offensive line allowed only nine sacks. Against Clemson, Auburn allowed one sack in 43 pass attempts and gained 190 yards rushing.
The above numbers would indicate how much the offensive line progressed during the season becoming a more cohesive unit. Auburn's young line made up for the lack of experience with effort, making Coach Hugh Nall's decision of playing so many freshmen an easier option. Despite a few mental miscues during the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Auburn offensive line adjusted well to the new offense, resulting in high expectations for the upcoming season.
Franklin will finally have the luxury of preparing his offense for the 2008 season. Limited to less than 10 days of practice for Auburn's bowl game in 2007, Coach Franklin was able to install enough of his offense to field a competitive unit against Clemson. Spring Practice will provide Franklin with the opportunity to evaluate his returning players and to pick up from where he left off in December of 2007.
Auburn has the majority of its skill players returning but the focus of concern will obviously be at the quarterback position, where experience could become an issue. Auburn supporters will see a quarterback competition like no other under Tommy Tuberville. Early on, Franklin has already spoken of the potential of playing multiple quarterbacks, so a clear-cut front-runner might not be in place at the end of spring.