SEC spring football forecast: Auburn Tigers

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With the offseason officially underway, SDS will examine what’s next for spring football for all 14 teams. Next up, Auburn.

Auburn opens spring practice Tuesday, and the annual A-Day game will be held April 19th. The Tigers had the SEC’s highest spring game attendance last year, with 83,401.

What’s changing?

After architecting the biggest turnaround in college football – and maybe in history, Gus Malzahn has familiar faces returning personnel-wise, including his entire coaching staff. The Tigers have to replace the team’s three best players in Tre Mason, Dee Ford and Greg Robinson. With another year of added depth and offseason development, it’s hard not to figure Auburn will be a College Football Playoff contending team.

RELATED: Auburn finished No. 1 in SDS’ final 2013 rankings

Position of concern

The most immediate concern is the defensive secondary. With corner Chris Davis and safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White all gone, there are holes to fill. The two returners are corner Jonathon Mincy and safety Jermaine Whitehead. If you dive into the numbers, the secondary has to improve its play in 2014. Watch for JUCO transfer safety Derrick Moncrief to compete for a position immediately. Also, Robenson Therezie returns at the Star position, and he was clutch with his four huge INTs last season. There are plenty of players on campus and coming this fall; Auburn just has to find the right pieces to the puzzle.

Position of strength

The defense loses Jake Holland, but it returns two fantastic linebackers in Casanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. McKinzy was the team’s second-leading tackler with 66, including 7.5 for loss, and he’s going to be a star. Frost played in all 13 games, making 52 tackles, including six for loss, and two forced fumbles. Because Auburn plays a 4-2-5 defense, major linebacker depth isn’t that necessary.

RELATED: SEC Pre-Spring Power Rankings

Three signees who will get you excited

1. D’haquille Williams, WR: Williams is a raw talent who has a tremendous ceiling, and assuming Nick Marshall’s passing game improves, Williams could be a gamebreaker.

2. Roc Thomas, RB: With Tre Mason gone, it opens the door for Thomas to compete with Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant for vital freshman playing time. He’s talented enough to make an instant splash.

3. Tre Williams, LB: Williams may not make a major instant splash, but he’ll see the field, because he’s too talented to keep off of it. Williams is the future face of the Auburn linebacking corps.

MORE: Auburn National Signing Day recap

Spring’s primary position battle

The primary battle will come at running back. With Tre Mason gone, 600-yard rushers Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will compete for the starting gig. Both will play, and Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford will also get a shot this spring. Barber redshirted last year, and Ford will also compete for playing time at corner. With the addition of Roc Thomas this fall, this will be a deep and talented backfield. The biggest question is which running back will emerge as the primary ball carrier.

Emerging spring player prediction

We saw flashes from Carl Lawson that screamed ‘boss’. Lawson had a fine freshman year, making 20 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, along with seven QB hurries and two forced fumbles, but with a year under his belt, Lawson will blow up this spring. Lawson is ready to assume a leadership role and wreak havoc in backfields. That starts this spring.

Offseason’s burning question

Can/will Gus Malzahn open up the offense in 2014?

Tigers’ offseason crystal ball

I love Nick Marshall’s game to improve this spring. He was one of the SEC’s most impressive and increasingly improving players throughout 2013. Remember, he only had fall camp to win the job, and he started game one. Now, he gets to sit back, relax and learn from Coach Malzahn in the passing game. He has all the athletic skill to play quarterback at the next level, but the short and intermediate passing game has to improve dramatically. Last year, it was all about Marshall not costing the Tigers the game; this year, it will be more about him making more plays to win games.

Photo Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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