Auburn's biggest offseason questions
After a disappointing 6-6 regular season, Auburn fans had to be happy capping off the year with a satisfying bowl game victory over a good Memphis team.
While it was a nice sendoff for the seniors and those who will not return, it did not necessarily put everyone or everything at ease. Auburn’s program has many areas that need to be addressed. So while a bowl win may have helped some teams feel good about where they are heading into the offseason, Auburn’s felt more like a temporary respite before the real work begins.
Let’s talk about some of the biggest offseason questions facing the Auburn program:
5. Who will replace the coaches that have left?
Gus Malzahn searched for a long time before filling Auburn’s defensive coordinator needs with former LSU DC Kevin Steele. He has still more searching to do before Auburn is fully staffed for the 2016 football season. New South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, the former DC at Auburn, has poached four members of Auburn’s staff, including secondary coach Travaris Robinson, who will be in DC at South Carolina, and former linebackers coach Lance Thompson. Those are some quality coaches heading out the door.
4. Who are the go-to wide receivers?
Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray, two top targets in Auburn’s struggling passing game, will not be on the team next year. Who will fill their shoes?
We’ve had a chance to get a glimpse of many different options on the offense during the course of the 2015 season. Jason Smith, the converted quarterback, has had a hand in making key receptions. So has Tony Stevens. Rising senior Marcus Davis, better known for his kick return ability, also has contributed at times and is the leading returning receiver by the numbers.
3. Who will lead the defense?
It’s going to be interesting to see which players become leaders for new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
The Auburn defensive line will be losing a good chunk of seniors. The futures of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams could also be in doubt, as both ponder their options with the NFL. A leaderless Tigers defense was a problem at the beginning of the 2015 season, and it was frightening. The Tigers can’t let that happen again.
2. What will the defense look like with Kevin Steele?
Steele has spent a lot of time in the SEC. Most recently, he spent a year at LSU. Prior to that, he held coaching positions at Alabama and Tennessee. In between, he’s spent time at other major programs such as Clemson, Florida State, Baylor, Nebraska, and even the Carolina Panthers in the NFL. Now, he’s at Auburn.
Will he stay for longer than a year? Unfortunately we don’t know yet, but we can attempt to piece together what Auburn’s defense may look like under his management. Steele has mentioned that he looks forward to improving the defense’s quality in the future by looking back at what won Auburn championships in the past. He wants to refocus on “hard-nosed, physical” defense. But honestly, whatever he did at LSU would suit Auburn just fine. LSU ranks fifth in the conference in total defense and third in rushing defense. The only weakness was the Tigers’ pass defense, which ranked 12th out of 14 teams.
1. Johnson, White, or someone new at QB?
The biggest storyline of Auburn’s offseason will be the search for the Tigers’ next quarterback, and it will be repeated ad nauseam until that person is found. It’s no surprise that struggles at that position throughout the season caused the entire team to stumble through 2015, which makes it the top priority for Malzahn this offseason. There is always the chance that if Malzahn picks the wrong starting quarterback again in 2016, he could be paying for it with his job.
Sean White and Jeremy Johnson switched positions during the Birmingham Bowl. During the regular season, Johnson was the one doling out interceptions until White stepped in to replace him. During Auburn’s bowl game, White threw two interceptions in less than five minutes. It was Johnson who came into the game to get two Auburn touchdowns in the second half.
But in no way does this mean Johnson will get the nod in 2016. Sure, Johnson helped put points on the board, but he only threw the ball once in the time that he was on the field. White was able to recover some dignity as well, including a nice 30-yard throw to Melvin Ray. And let’s not forget the new options which will become available to Auburn during the offseason: top-ranked dual-threat JUCO quarterback John Franklin III, four-star freshman Tyler Queen, and four-star freshman Woody Barrett.