Offensively the Tigers tried the spread attack last season under Tony Franklin with disastrous results, finishing as one of the worst offensive units in the country. New coordinator Gus Malzahn takes over this season with his hurry-up/no-huddle attack that focuses on being physical in the running game and also very multi-dimensional. That should be a better fit for Auburn with running backs such as Ben Tate, Mario Fannin and Eric Smith all returning with the talent to make plays out of the backfield.
On defense Coach Ted Roof takes over a unit looking to replace NFL draft choices Sen'Derrick Marks and Jerraud Powers as well as four linebackers that played significant minutes in 2008. With senior defensive end Antonio Coleman returning the defense has a dominant defender to build things around but still plenty of questions remain.
With that in mind, we take a look at the top five position battles or questions surrounding the Auburn Tigers when fall camp opens:
There's no doubt this is the biggest question mark for the Tigers heading into the 2009 season. Auburn is coming off a dreadful season at quarterback as junior Kodi Burns and senior Chris Todd split time as the starter with junior Neil Caudle also getting a little action. Those three appear to all be in the race for the starting job with redshirt freshman Barrett Trotter out of the running after injuring his knee during spring practice. If Todd's shoulder can handle the wear and tear of two-a-days after surgery in December and sitting out spring practice then he could make a serious run at the job. Talented freshmen Tyrik Rollison and Clint Moseley will add to the competition but will be hard pressed to make a run this season.
2. Right Tackle
With junior Ryan Pugh moving to his natural position of center in 2009, the job is open at right tackle and is perhaps the only real question mark up front on offense. Senior Andrew McCain is the top candidate at the position and had a solid spring but must continue that through two-a-days if he wants to be the guy. Sophomore Vance Smith will be one to watch now that he's pushing 290 pounds after moving from tight end. If neither of those can get the job done then it could fall to a freshman such as Andre Harris or John Sullen. The wildcard could be Florida State transfer Aubrey Phillips, another true freshman, if he's given a waiver by the NCAA. Also a possible candidate at the position is Rudy Odom.
3. Linebacker Depth
Starters Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens return and should be the backbone of the linebacker corps. Expected to be the starter on the weak side, junior college transfer Eltoro Freeman could bring some explosion and energy to the group. Challenging for a starting job is sophomore Spencer Pybus after he had a strong spring practice. Behind that group of four is where the question marks abound. Walk-on Wade Christopher had a strong spring and will battle with Adam Herring behind Bynes provided Herring can stay healthy. Among the newcomers Harris Gaston is the most likely to work into the rotation on the strong side because of his size. Fellow freshman Jonathan Evans could work on the weak side or even in the middle.
4. Kicking Game
With a new coaching staff comes new ways of doing things. There won't be any bigger changes than what the Tigers will do on special teams. Jay Boulware brings a spread punt formation and directional kicking to Auburn and that will challenge both the kickers and punters to not only have strong kicks but also put them in the right places as well. Wes Byrum had a sophomore slump last season, hitting just 11-19 field goals and getting him back on track will be a key for the Tigers. Punters Clinton Durst and Ryan Shoemaker are back to form what could be one of the top duos in the country.
Tim Hawthorne was injured over the summer and his health is in question as the Tigers prepare to open fall practice.
5. Wide Receiver Production
Gone are Rod Smith, Robert Dunn, and Chris Slaughter from last season's team. The trio combined for 63 catches, 604 yards and four touchdowns while all of the returning wide receivers for the Tigers had just 47 catches for 612 yards and no touchdowns. That means the need for playmakers is a high priority for Malzahn on offense. It could be one of the older guys such as Montez Billings, Tim Hawthorne, Quindarius Carr or Terrell Zachery steps into that role but newcomers DeAngelo Benton, Emory Blake, Anthony Gulley and Travante Stallworth will all be given a chance during two-a-days to show they can get the job done and create some excitement on offense.
How these questions are answered and how quickly will help determine how well the 2009 Auburn Tigers perform as Chizik tries to get the program back in postseason action.