SEC spring practice preview: Auburn

Auburn Tigers
2009: 8-5 (3-5)

What a difference a year makes for the Auburn Tigers. On the eve of the start of spring practice last season, Tigers fans couldn’t help but be pessimistic about the opening of the Gene Chizik era. After all, his tenure at Iowa State wasn’t exactly a success.

But after storming out to a 5-0 start following a win over Tennessee to open 2009, expectations for the program under its new head coach soared. While the Tigers endured their ups and downs in SEC play, it was clear that Chizik had the team going in the right direction.

Following a tremendously successful recruiting season, Chizik’s Tigers are ready to begin preparations for 2010 with the opening of spring drills on Wednesday.

Once again, Auburn fans will have front-row seats for the team’s annual quarterback competition. Former Tigers signal-callers Jason Campbell, Chris Todd and Brandon Cox have all been combatants in the yearly derby that takes place each offseason. The participants this year? While junior-college transfer and former Florida Gator Cameron Newton seems like the choice of Auburn Nation, fifth-year senior Neil Caudle is the lone quarterback to have ever taken a snap for the Tigers — but he has only 28 pass attempts in his career. Redshirt sophomore Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley are also in the mix, but it’s likely this will become a two-man race.

Tyrik Rollison, one of Chizik's top signees from his first class at Auburn, would have made the competition even more intriguing, but he opted to transfer to Sam Houston State. The 6-6, 247-pound Newton seems like the best bet to win the job because he can run and throw, which perfectly fits what Gus Malzahn wants in a quarterback running his spread offense. He threw for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns for Blinn Community College in Brenham, Texas, last season while adding 655 rushing yards. While no decision likely will be made in the spring, each signal-caller would love to establish himself as the front-runner heading into the fall.

At running back, all the talk centers around top signee Michael Dyer, who’s expected to make fans forget about 1,300-yard rusher Ben Tate. But Dyer won't be on campus until the summer, so senior Mario Fannin will have a huge opportunity to grab a big chunk of the carries this fall with a good spring showing after being moved around the offense throughout his career. He averaged an astounding 8.4 yards per carry in ’09, but he only carried the ball 34 times. However, he has the body to establish himself as an every-down SEC back. Onterio McCalebb also could get his share of carries, but his production was way down in league contests. Combined, Fannin and McCalebb rushed for 850 yards in ’09. Redshirt freshman Dontae Aycock, who played quarterback in high school, is a perfect fit to take Fannin’s multi-purpose role as Chizik wants to utilize his athleticism in the open field in a variety of ways.

Darvin Adams, who became one of the SEC’s breakout players of ’09, leads the Tigers’ receiving corps for 2010. He averaged 16.6 yards per catch and caught 10 touchdowns while racking up 997 yards, and he has productive Terrell Zachery taking pressure off him on the other side. Undoubtedly, whoever wins the quarterback job will have plenty of weapons to work with on offense.

The Tigers’ steady offensive line returns four starters, led by 6-8, 310-pound Lee Ziemba, who will be one of the best left tackles in the conference. Center Ryan Pugh was a second-team All-SEC pick in ’09, and two junior-college transfers — Roszell Gayden and Brandon Mosley — will be on campus for spring drills. The unit stayed healthy last season, but if anyone goes down this year, there will be plenty of talent to step in.

With SEC sacks leader Antonio Coleman departing, who will step up as playmakers on the Auburn defense? Senior Antoine Carter will likely fill Coleman’s end spot, but freshman lineman Nosa Eguae may ultimately have the most impact. He redshirted last year after injuring his foot shortly before the season began. Junior tackle Nick Fairley could be disruptive inside but has battled inconsistency from week to week. Senior linemen Michael Goggans and Mike Blanc also return to a unit that ranked only 78th in the country last season in rushing defense. Craig Sanders, a defensive end early enrollee, could compete for playing time right away, and the Tigers also add five freshmen linemen this summer, including defensive tackles Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker.

The Tigers have questions at linebacker — but only because of depth and not for a lack of starting talent. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens were stellar last year, leading a unit that had only four available scholarship linebackers. Junior Eltoro Freeman has a year under his belt after coming over from junior college, while sophomore Jonathan Evans played well in his first season as well. Daren Bates, who was fourth on the team in tackles as a freshman in ’09, might get a look at linebacker this offseason, but he’ll be limited in spring and held out of most contact work as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Redshirt freshman Harris Gaston and freshman signee LaDarius Owens should also help the unit’s depth.

College football fans across the country will be able to watch the Tigers’ spring quarterback battle from their couches on April 17, as ESPNU will televise the team’s annual spring game from Jordan-Hare Stadium at 2 p.m. ET. Perhaps then, we’ll find answers to some of spring’s burning questions at Auburn. Has Newton matured from his days at Florida? Will Fannin have a leg up on Dyer heading into fall camp? And how much of an impact will the exciting early enrollees have on the spring depth chart?

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