Those are reasons for optimism heading into the 2010 season, but it doesn't mean there aren't question marks surrounding the Tigers.
With SEC Media Days just over a week away and the start of two-a-days in early August, it's time to take a look at the Tigers position by position. Because of the struggles on defense and the lack of depth there is no better place to start than at linebacker.
For 21 consecutive games seniors Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens have lined up side-by-side for Auburn's defense and the seniors are expected to be two of the key components in an improved unit for coordinator Ted Roof.
A physical linebacker who made more plays in space last season, Bynes led the Tigers with 104 tackles. A consistent performer in 2010, Bynes should only get better with more available depth coming from the incoming freshman class.
Josh Bynes is one of the leaders on defense for the Tigers.
The same is true of Stevens. With 26 straight starts the Tallahassee native and Auburn graduate is coming off his best season as a Tiger. Second on the team with 95 tackles, Stevens had three double-digit tackle games, added eight tackles for a loss, two and a half sacks and one interception that he returned for a touchdown.
Expected to make the move from strong side to weak side linebacker, Stevens should fit in even better in a role that keeps him closer to the line of scrimmage most of the time against today's offenses that use multiple receivers and spread the field. Behind Stevens sophomore Jonathan Evans should get plenty of work after playing in all 13 games last year with one start. He finished with 28 tackles.
That same philosophy could bring about one of the biggest changes on defense for Auburn heading into the new season. Last season Daren Bates was the impact newcomer for the Tigers on defense as he started all 13 games at safety for the Tigers and finished with 70 tackles and an interception. With more depth coming at the safety position this year and the size to make a move up, Bates is expected to get a shot at strong side linebacker this fall following offseason shoulder surgery.
Daren Bates will take on a new role this season.
Winning the job won't be easy for Bates though as he'll have to hold off the challenge of junior Eltoro Freeman. Expected to be the biggest newcomer on defense for Auburn last year, Freeman struggled with injuries for much of the campaign and finished with just 31 tackles in seven starts. All but 10 of his tackles came in two games as he finished with a dozen stops against LSU including a sack and added nine more against Ole Miss.
Part of the reason for his lack of tackles came because spread teams forced Auburn's defense into nickle and dime packages with five and six defensive backs. With Bates or Freeman on the strong side it would allow the Tigers to keep linebackers on the field even facing three and four receivers.
With sophomore Adam Herring forced to give up football because of injuries the Tigers are once again left without any real experienced depth in the middle heading into a season, but this time around there are more than enough capable bodies to get the job done. Redshirt freshman Harris Gaston is back after an injury forced him to take a medical redshirt in 2009. He played in four games before the injury and managed nine tackles. He'll likely work behind Bynes in the middle to start the year.
Auburn's depth at linebacker should get a big boost from four incoming freshmen that were part of one of the best linebacker classes in the country last year. Looking for help in the middle, the Tigers signed the physical Jake Holland out of Pelham High. At nearly 240 pounds and with good speed, he should be the prototypical middle linebacker in Auburn's system.
The newcomer who may have the best chance of playing this season is speedy Jessel Curry from Buford, Ga., High School. Coming in for spring practice and getting a head start on learning the defense, Curry will likely get his first look on the strong side as his ability to play in space should work well in a similar role as Bates.
On the outside both LaDarius Owens and Jawara White have the ability to be instant impact players because of their combination of size and speed. Playing mostly defensive end in high school, Owens is physical at the point of attack and has more size. The all-time leading receiver in Charles Henderson (Troy) history, White is an excellent athlete who can run and make plays all over the field.