Auburn Spring Ball: Catching Up With The SEC Champs
The Auburn Tigers are coming off a season to remember. Not only have they won the SEC championship and appeared in the BCS national championship game, but also they have turned their football program around completely.
After a horrendous 3-9 campaign in 2012, the perfect remedy was to bring Gus Malzahn back. Back then, Nick Saban and Alabama were attempting a "three-peat," and there was not much life in the football program of the loveliest village on the plains. Now, Auburn's reinvigorated competition has their in-state rival worried.
I wanted to get a better idea of Auburn's progress leading up to the 2014 season. So this week I went 1-on-1 with Klell Lawrence of AU Tiger Bloggin' for an inside conversation about Auburn's spring ball practice.
The most immediate question for the 2014 Tigers is who will replace Tre Mason?
Lawrence: Cameron Artis-Payne is the heir apparent to the lead position at “Running Back University,” at least to start the season. There won’t be a learning curve with Corey Grant and Artis-Payne, both having plenty of touches last season, resulting more than 600 yards apiece.
The unknown to all of this is redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. Mason hinted that Barber may have the complete package and the most ability of all the Auburn backs. The thing about running back in the Malzahn offense is finishing the fakes, and the blocks. Will Barber have all that is required to start for this offense? I don’t think he will initially, although by season’s end, he may be the man.
Auburn has the most experienced offensive line coming back within the conference. Where does it rank compared to other great Auburn O-lines?
When I think of truly great offensive lines in Auburn football history my thoughts go back to Pat Dye and when he roamed the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium. By 1983, Dye had recruited some really tough men to pave the way for the likes of Bo Jackson and company. Steve Wallace played then ended up with a long pro career with the 49ers and the Chiefs. As a group, the 2013/2014 bunch reminds me of the group that won the BCS Championship in 2010. That season Auburn’s offensive line was chock full of seniors. It was their second season in Malzahn’s offense. There was a lot of optimism heading into the season. The parallels are obvious, but this year’s group has the talent to be so much better.
Out of the new recruits in spring ball practice, who stood out?
Derrick Moncrief has had the biggest impact so far. What Moncrief has done is learn the system much faster than anyone had hoped. His ability is unquestioned, but his work ethic is tremendous. That has allowed Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s defensive coordinator, the freedom to make some moves with his suddenly healthy defensive backfield.
Considering the talent both lost and returning, who has had a good spring defensively?
I think the key will be: How good is Auburn at the linebacker position? Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy both know the defense now, and are the starters. It’s the depth here, and Cameron Toney has had a really good spring. So has Justin Garrett. Garrett has dealt with injuries so much of his early career; the hope is that those days are behind him. We have talked about Moncrief already. Another defensive back that is starting to turn heads is T.J. Davis. Davis has a knack for finding the ball and being physical when he gets to the point of contact. Brandon King is becoming comfortable at safety, and that means his best days are ahead of him. That is really good news for Auburn fans.
On a final note, does D'haquille "Duke" Williams live up to the hype?
Duke is as good as advertised. Tough, fast, sure-handed and vocal have all been said about him and he’s been on campus barely three months. His ability is off the charts. Williams needs a little more polish before he goes to the NFL, but there is little doubt that he will end up there. I am not sure there has been a receiver at Auburn you can compare Williams to. Think about that a minute. In all the years of Auburn football, and this may be the best receiver ever to play for the Tigers. Don’t start the coronation just yet, but don’t be surprised if it comes to fruition.