2010 SEC Preview: Auburn

Finding a new starting quarterback and building depth on defense were two of the primary concerns for Gene Chizik in his second spring as head coach at Auburn.

Chizik says he saw significant progress on both fronts as his Tigers try to improve on last season's 8-4 record that included a bowl victory over Northwestern in Tampa.

The strength of the 2010 Auburn team should be its ability to score points even though offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has to replace starting quarterback Chris Todd, who surprised almost everybody by bouncing back from offseason shoulder surgery to put up impressive numbers as a senior.

Newcomer Cameron Newton goes into preseason as the No. 1 quarterback after leading Blinn College to the juco national championship last year. The 6-6, 250-pounder features a very strong arm and will be a major upgrade from Todd when running the football. A redshirt junior, he began his college career as a backup to Tim Tebow at Florida.

Backup quarterbacks Neil Caudle, a senior, and redshirt sophomore Barrett Trotter, also played well in the spring for the Tigers and made the decision to pick the No. 1 quarterback a challenge, Chizik says.

The quarterback will be protected by what should be one of the better offensive lines in college football with four NFL prospects returning as seniors. The group includes Ryan Pugh at center, Mike Berry and Byron Isom at guards and Lee Ziemba is back to start for a fourth consecutive season at tackle. The only vacant spot is at right tackle where a pair of talented juco transfers who participated in spring drills, Brandon Moseley and Roszell Gayden, are competing for that spot.

The Tigers are known for their outstanding running backs. While they will miss NFL draftee Ben Tate, the Tigers have an interesting replacement in Mario Fannin, a talented 5-11, 228 senior who is making the move from wingback to full-time tailback. Fannin has 976 career rushing yards at 5.6 yards per carry. That average was an impressive 8.4 yards per rush last fall in the first year of Malzahn's offense. Big-play threat Onterio McCalebb is back at tailback for his sophomore season. He helped the Tigers to a 5-0 start last year, but he limped through the second half of the season with injuries that slowed the offense. Blue chip recruit Michael Dyer is also expected to get a chance to run the football.

Auburn features a deep receiver corps led by junior Darvin Adams, who caught 60 passes for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. Terrell Zachery, a senior, caught 42 passes for 413 yards and rushed for 221 more yards on just nine carries.

Defensively, the Tigers were hit hard by injuries in the secondary and at linebacker last year. Former starting safeties Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil are expected to be back after missing the 2009 season. Another injured secondary starter, safety Zac Etheridge, is questionable for 2010, but starting cornerbacks Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington are back.

The Tigers will count on seniors Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes to lead the linebacker group and the defensive front will feature proven seniors Michael Goggans, Antoine Carter and Zach Clayton along with Mike Blanc and Nick Fairley, a pair of juniors with starting experience.

SEC All-Freshman safety Daren Bates is moving to outside linebacker to bolster that position which should also be helped by the addition of Jessel Curry, an early high school graduate who participated in spring drills.

Chizik says he is a believer in having a strong kicking game and returns senior Wes Byrum, who made 15-of-16 field goals last season. Although starting punter Clinton Durst must be replaced, Ryan Shoemaker, who was one of the top punters in the SEC as a freshman, is back this fall as a senior and should reclaim his starting spot after playing a backup role the past two seasons.

The schedule features eight home games with the toughest non-conference challenge expected to come from Clemson, which visits Auburn Sept. 18.

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