The Tigers' make or break 2012 season starts with major questions this spring.
By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Auburn Tigers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Spring Practice: March 21-April 16
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 9
Passing: Clint Moseley, 66 of 108, 800 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: Onterio McCalebb, 112 att., 641 yards, 5 TD
Receiving: Emory Blake, 36 rec., 613 yards, 5 TD
Tackles: Daren Bates, 104
Sacks: Corey Lemonier, 9.5
Interceptions: Three tied at 2
Redshirts to Watch: OT Greg Robinson, OT Christian Westernman, ATH Kris Frost
Zeke Pike, QB (6-6, 225), Edgewood (Ky.) Dixie Heights
Patrick Miller, OL (6-7, 275), West Palm Beach (Fla.) Dwyer
Shane Callahan, OL (6-6, 285), Parker (Colo.) Chaparral
Javiere Mitchell, LB (6-2, 209), Leeds (Ala.) High
Jay Prosch, FB (6, 250), Mobile (Ala.) UMS-Wright
Sept. 1 Clemson (Georgia Dome, Atlanta)
Sept. 8 at Mississippi State
Sept. 15 Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 22 LSU
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 Arkansas
Oct. 13 at Ole Miss
Oct. 20 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 27 Texas A&M
Nov. 3 New Mexico State
Nov. 10 Georgia
Nov. 17 Alabama A&M
Nov. 24 at Alabama
Offensive Strength: Offensive line depth. On a team that finished 100th in the nation in total offense, fans can't point to a clear strength. But the Tigers have recruited at an elite level along the offensive line, and this group, particularly the 2011 class, has loads of potential.
Offensive Weakness: Quarterback. There is a need to find athletes who can make big plays at wide receiver and running back, but there is no more important position on the field than under center. There is little experience and huge question marks exist with a talented sophomore, true freshman and physically limited junior battling for the starting gig this spring.
Defensive Strength: Overall depth, especially along the line of scrimmage. The top 10 players from the D-Line return in 2012 and this unit has a chance to lead this squad in the fall. Names like Corey Lemonier, Nosa Eguae and rising stars Gabe Wright and Jeffrey Whitaker should only continue to improve.
Defensive Weakness: Overall experience. While this unit is incredibly deep and highly-touted, new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has to develop some experienced leaders. Five of the top seven returning tacklers were sophomores a year ago. Look for leading tackler and rare senior starter Daren Bates to looked upon for leadership.
Spring Storylines Facing the Tigers:
1. Stabilize the coaching staff. In less than a year, the relationship between national championship head coach and star offensive coordinator soured to the point of divorce. Gene Chizik had to replace both his offensive and defensive coordinators for the first time in his Auburn career this offseason, but it appears that he might have broke even — if not upgraded both positions — when he hired Brian VanGorder from the Atlanta Falcons and Scot Loeffler from Temple. Getting these two heavy hitters, and their schemes, settled into place this spring should be top priority for Chizik. Both will bring what Chizik has apparently been craving for years, a pro-style attack on both sides of the ball. How quickly the deep but youthful defense and inexperienced offense take to these systems could be the difference between a .500 season and challenging for the division.
2. The quarterback position is clearly the biggest issue for new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler. Two of his three options were incredibly highly-touted prospects who player in SEC states and offer big frames and dual-threat ability. Kiehl Frazier threw just 12 passes during his freshman season and Loeffler has no idea if he can excel as a passer in the system. Zeke Pike brings a massive 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame and his own athletic ability to the position. However, he is a true freshman going through his first collegiate practices. Clint Moseley, the least touted prospect of the bunch, has the most starting experience after getting the nod in the final six games on '11. The fact that he hasn't separated himself since the end of the year has to be a concern. Don't expect Loeffler to make an announcement any time soon as he isn't likely to name a starter until deep into the summer months. But make no mistake, how each of the signal callers handles his new offense this spring will speak volumes to how he sets the pecking order.
3. Aside from the obvious issues at quarterback, Loeffler has stated that his "objective, besides running the football, is to find out who our playmakers are," the new OC told AL.com. Emory Blake is a solid place to start at one wide out position and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen can and should be a big part of the passing attack as well. Onterio McCalebb has big play ability but is the only running back with any significant experience whatsoever. Working out the Tre Mason, Corey Grant, Mike Blakely rotation will be key for the Tigers this spring. In the passing game, names like Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton need to step up and help out whoever is playing quarterback.
4. VanGorder's job this spring to ensure the development of a plethora of talented youngsters. In a league where nine teams rank in the top 50 in total defense and the top 36 in scoring defense, Auburn stood (nearly) alone in defensive ineptitude last fall, beating only Ole Miss in both categories. There is no reason to believe, however, that this group won't show marked improvement in 2012. Chizik should see a seemless transition from Ted Roof's 4-3 system. VanGorder runs a similar 4-3 scheme with a desired emphisis on speed. Top tackler Bates returns for his final season as do a host of talented defensive front seven players: Lemonier, Wright, Eguae, Whittaker, Angleo Blackson, LaDarius Owens and Jake Holland, to name a few. Replacing Nieko Thorpe in the secondary and Eltoro Freeman at linebacker are the only two holes to fill on this unit. This spring is all about talent development and installing the new scheme. Like the offensive line, this is one of the most talented units in the nation and there is no reason why they should not be dramatically better in '12.
5. Only two starters are gone from the offensive line that formed the SEC's fourth-rated rushing attack. Much like the defense, development is the name of the game for this unit this spring. Youngsters Reese Dismukes, Chris Slade, Blake Burgess and Tunde Fariyike played every game last fall and will be joined by talented redshirt freshmen Greg Robinson and Christian Westernman in the rotation. Toss in veteran John Sullen and the Tigers have the makings of a tremendous collection of hog mollies. In fact, 16 of the 22 offensive linemen on the Auburn roster last season were underclassmen, so growth and maturation is the key to success for this group.
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