Published August 15, 2012 - 11:15am
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Auburn heads into the 2012 football season with tons of questions, both on the field and off. With the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic less than three weeks away, let’s examine the strengths and weaknesses, between the lines for the Tigers.
The most noted strength for the Tigers may not be an actual position. Highly regarded defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder takes the reins of a defensive unit that allowed 408 yards of offense per game in 2011. With SEC and NFL experience, VanGorder brings intensity and focus many feel has been missing from the Plains in recent years.
VanGorder will have the task of turning around a relatively young, but somewhat experienced unit that consists of a solid defensive front anchored by dynamic pass rusher Corey Lemonier, a linebacker corps that features leading tackler Daren Bates (104), and a much maligned secondary that seemingly has not played up to its capability.
Lemonier, who led the team in sacks with 9.5 in 2011, will not be the only defensive lineman expected to make an impact in the trenches. Nosa Eguae, last year’s starting DE opposite Lemonier, was injured in the spring, and has not yet won his job back from Jr. Dee Ford. Ford received high praise from VanGorder in the spring, and has not relinquished his role to this point. It must be a good feeling for a defensive coordinator to have an experienced player like Eguae from a BCS championship team coming off the bench. The Tigers could rotate as many as five capable defensive ends, with special teams stalwart Craig Sanders and former Under Armor All-American LaDarius Owens getting into the mix.
On the inside, veterans Jeff Whitaker and Kenneth Carter look to fill the gaps that were all too prevalent last season. Sophomores Devaunte Sigler, Gabe Wright, and Angelo Blackson will see significant action, and any of the three could challenge for a starting role.
The front four’s ability to get push up the field should certainly be a strength on defense and improve all facets of a group that still has an unsettled depth chart at linebacker and in the secondary.
At linebacker, along with Bates, look for junior MLB Jake Holland to have a big season in VanGorder’s defense. Besides Bates and Holland, senior Jonathan Evans is the only other experienced linebacker. There are definite holes to fill and concerns about depth at the linebacker spot, and this position is key in VanGorder’s system.
The secondary could be a wild card, with talented players returning in the form of sophomores Jermaine Whitehead and Robenson Therezie, senior T’Varshan Bell, and Chick-fil-A Bowl defensive MVP Chris Davis. The talent is there, but will the results be?
On the offensive side, questions abound. How will new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler’s offense look? Can it be executed effectively in its first year? How much will former BCS Championship Game MVP Mike Dyer be missed?
Then there’s this: Who’s the quarterback going to be?
With all these questions, it could prove to be a struggle to move the football for Auburn in a conference that doesn’t take kindly to teams trying to score points anyway.
Two proven commodities, TE Phillip Lutzenkirchen and WR Emory Blake, will need to show guidance to a unit that looks to find playmakers in the backfield, as well as a youthful line that boasts sophomores and redshirt freshmen throughout.
Though some of the freshmen offensive linemen have recently received high praise and could possibly be talented enough to start when kickoff comes around, one has to wonder how effective they can actually be. It is even more troubling to know that the youngster’s source for wisdom will come from the old-timer who’s started every game in his career, true sophomore center Reese Dismukes.
By all accounts, players at every position have embraced Loeffler’s system and his down-hill, run-first style that the Auburn faithful have become accustom to over the years.
At running back, the Tigers may be giving up the bruising style that Dyer took with him, but sophomore Tre Mason, transfers Mike Blakely and Corey Grant, and established senior speedster Onterio McCalebb should prove serviceable in the new pro-style offense. Add transfer fullback Jay Prosch, and the aforementioned backs may not need the gritty style Dyer used to grind out three to four yard runs. The holes might actually be there.
At quarterback, many see the unwillingness of Loeffler and head coach Gene Chizik to name a starter by mid August as an ominous sign. Take into account that Clint Moseley has been nursing a sore shoulder since spring, and Auburn fans everywhere are wondering why former high school blue-chipper Kiehl Frazier has not seized the opportunity to be the man.
There are theories that suggest that the Auburn coaches know Frazier will be the starter, but they want to make him feel that he must win the job on his own merits, not by default. Whether you subscribe to that line of thinking or not, it is hard to see a positive in not having a starting quarterback named with just over two weeks from kickoff.
Another possible weakness on offense for the Tigers could be at wide receiver behind Blake and tight end Lutzenkirchen. Names like Trovon Reed, DeAngelo Benton, and Travante Stallworth have had fans questioning the validity of recruiting service rankings for at least two years. Big names, small results.
Auburn must get more production from the receiver spot behind the Blake and Lutzenkirchen in order to take pressure off the running game, as well as complement the newly crowned quarterback.
Great special teams play could be manifesting into an annual occurrence on the Plains. Ray Guy Award finalist Steven Clark is one of the best punters in the nation, and kicker Cody Parkey finds himself on the Lou Groza Watch List for the 2012 season.
The return game should be in good hands as well. Quan Bray looks to handle the punt return duties, with Grant, McCalebb, and Mason vying for kick return spots.
There seems to be no lack of confidence in this Auburn team, which is never a bad thing. But once the lights come on in the Georgia Dome on September 1st, how will that mix with youth, inexperience, and new systems on both sides of the football?