Auburn Football: Air Is In The Spring
By Dan Harralson
It's hard to believe that passing and Auburn could be in the same sentence after the Tigers had a somewhat non-existent passing game a season ago.
After only averaging 20 pass attempts per game between Nick Marshall (239 attempts) and Jeremy Johnson (41 attempts) a season ago, the Tigers will transition to a faster and more pass-oriented offense in 2014.
Credit coach Gus Malzahn for the transition on two counts: He plays to his teams' personnel strengths year-in and year-out, and he has recruited well at wide receiver.
Will depth at receiver allow Auburn to be a passing threat in 2014? I sat down with former Auburn center and current ESPN and CSS college football analyst Cole Cubelic to get his view on where Auburn stands.
"The receivers are going to make a big difference," Cubelic said. "Duke Williams gives them a guy on the perimeter to win some 1-on-1s. Sammie Coates is obviously a deep threat with speed, but Williams is a physical kid.
"But to have a guy when you get into the red zone or if you just want to stretch the field, if the coverage is there and toss him a ball and chances are it's going to come down in your favor, that's a huge deal."
The first area of concern centers around the health of Marshall within the run game. Can Marshall sustain another 170-plus rushes 1,000 rushing yards unscathed? Or will Malzahn's approach call for fewer quarterback runs?
"It's tough to really project that," Cubelic said. "I think Gus Malzahn will take what the defense gives him. In my opinion most defenses will look at this offense and say we're going to take our chances with the quarterback running the ball because number one we can potentially knock him out of the game and number two we can get him tired, and if he has to throw later in the game at least we got him tired. I don't think defenses ever want passing through the air to be the first option to give up."
Parallels: 2001 And 2014 Auburn
Auburn's 2010-13 four-year period is similar to Cubelic's 1997-2000 stint on the plains. The Auburn freshman of 2010 experienced early success with a national and SEC championship followed by a mediocre 2011 campaign and a losing season in 2012. The Tigers went through a resurgence in 2013, returning to Atlanta for the SEC championship, as well as a surprise trip to Pasadena.
Cubelic experienced early success as his 1997 Tigers won the SEC West and played Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the SEC championship game. Head coach Terry Bowden stepped down during the season in 1998, and Tommy Tuberville's inaugural 5-6 season followed in 1999.
Auburn reached Atlanta again in Cubelic's senior season, running into Florida coach Steve Spurrier's final SEC championship Gators team.
"We didn't have a boat load of talent. We had Rudi Johnson, Kendall Simmons, Heath Evans and some other guys, but we had leadership," Cubelic said. "We saw good times and we saw bad times. We all got together that last year and said we have to get back to Atlanta, we worked hard and met our goals.
"Offense is where it's going to start with this team. How good will the defense be? I think it will be as good as it needs to be. If the offense needs to score 25 points a game they'll do it. If they need to score 38 a game they'll do it. The offense has a chance to be that good."
Cubelic's Tigers followed success with adversity, mediocrity, a coaching change and renewed success. The 2013 Tigers have that in common. The 2001 Tigers maintained the success of Tuberville's early program, and came within one win of taking the SEC West again. The 2014 Auburn squad finds itself in an equivalent situation, and what will happen?
"With this year's team you look at the leadership," Cubelic said. "You have a senior center (Reese Dismukes), a senior quarterback (Nick Marshall), Sammie Coates, upper-classmen running backs and other senior offensive lineman that have been around. Even key leadership on the defensive line. These guys are what it takes to get back to Atlanta and potentially another national championship game to keep it going."
The Underrated Engine Of Malzahn's Offense
Behind every great run and pass game is a solid offensive line. The Tigers bring back experience to an offensive line that may be the best in the SEC.
"You've got a situation now where depth is a little more impressive than last year," Cubelic said. "Now you have the option because guys have been around the system and understand the terminology, the players know the expectations, and now you can experiment a little bit.
"You saw this in spring with Avery Young getting a look at right guard. Reese Dismukes being held out of the spring game allowed for Xavier Dampeer to get time at center, to see if he is ready to backup this fall or redshirt. So the options are there and that's a good problem to have, especially on the offensive line where you're almost never going to go through an entire season without guys getting banged up. So, to me it's not only the most talented and experienced groups in the conference, but they're one of the deepest.
"The offensive line is not only pass blocking efficient, but they have already proven the ability to run block after last season. Alex Kozan looked incredible in the spring game, Shon Coleman looked good, Chad Slade on the right side."
The ability to run block for quality backs is what will make this offense special and dynamic.
"Corey Grant gives you a pretty dynamic presence at the running back position. He's one of those guys that can score from anywhere on the field, but the thing that I like about him is that he's not a true outside guy," Cubelic said. "He's not a LaMichael James type. He can run over you if he needs too. Cameron Artist-Payne is more physical and will have the ability to bounce outside."
Breaking Down The Spring Game
Marshall finished 13-of-22 for 236 yards and a touchdown in one half of play. The converted safety showed a much better long ball.
"I am a way better passer than last year," Marshall said. "I took note of all the little things and what the coaches told me to put it towards my progress. I just focus on putting the ball in a place where my receivers can catch it."
Putting the ball in place for his receivers will be an easier task with Auburn's dynamic playmakers. These new additions may allow the 2014 Auburn Tigers to do what no SEC school has done since the Tennessee Volunteers of 1997-98: Win the conference in back-to-back seasons.
Junior college transfer and early enrollee D’haquille "Duke" Williams reeled in five receptions for 88 yards and scored one touchdown in the spring game. Fellow receiver Sammie Coates approved.
"Duke's just a playmaker," Coates said. "He just goes out there and plays ball, and that's what he did today. He went out there and showed everybody that he belongs in this league."
Adding Quan Bray (3 catches, 89 yards, 2 TDs), Melvin Ray (4 catches, 69 yards) and Tony Stevens (2 catches, 58 yards, 2 TDs) to the receiving corps should make for a well-oiled passing attack this fall. Former NFL quarterback Dameyune Craig, Cubelic's former teammate and now the wide receivers coach for the Tigers, also likes what he is seeing from his position players.
“I didn’t see many guys waiting for the ball to come to them," Craig said. "They were hungry."
Here are highlights from Auburn's spring game, courtesy of Football.com: A-Day Video