After a tough 2012 season cost coach Gene Chizik his job, former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was brought in to try to turn around the Plainsmen’s fortunes. Malzahn, as you may remember, was the architect of the Cam Newton-led offense that led Auburn to the 2010 national championship. Malzahn took over a team that was not without talent, but lacked experience. Even so, with a decent coaching staff, the Tiger faithful expected the team to be at least competitive. It’s unlikely anyone expected this – riding the legs of Heisman finalist Tre Mason and an opportunistic defense, the young Tigers overcame an early loss to LSU to roll all the way to the national championship game, where they came up just short against a powerful Florida State team. Improbable finishes against Georgia and Alabama just helped further the Auburn mystique this season. Now that they’ve reached the top, or at least the upper echelon, can they stay there?
Or Tre Mason, as it was also known. The junior had served notice the previous season that he had the makings of a good running back. After a mediocre start to the 2013 season (206 yards in the first 3 games), Mason tore up the rest of the schedule, including 304 yards and 4 TDs against Missouri in the conference title game. He racked up 1816 yards and 23 TDs on the year, not bad for a kick returner. His backups, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne combined for 1257 yards and 12 TDs on just 157 carries, which isn’t too shabby either. While the offensive system played a big role in creating lanes for the running backs, a lot of the kudos have to go to the offensive line too, and it was a doozy. First team all-SEC center Reese Dismukes was the leader of the bunch, but the rest of the line was great, and didn’t miss a beat when right tackle Patrick Miller was lost for the year midseason. Redshirt freshman Avery Young stepped in and did a good job. Quarterback had been a major concern in 2012, but JUCO Nick Marshall stepped in to right the ship. He was inconsistent as a passer, but he didn’t need to be great in this offense. Marshall made enough plays through the air to keep the offense ticking over, but his real value was a rusher, and a foil for Mason, and he had some huge games against opponents focusing a little too much on the running backs. Marshall had a combined 3044 yards and 26 TDs. The inconsistent passing game hurt the receivers, but Sammie Coates stood out, catching 42 passes for 902 yards and 7 TDs, providing another big play threat.
Auburn only needs to replace 3 guys on offense next season – the bad news is, 2 of them are huge losses. The biggest is Mason, who decided to jump ship early for the NFL. The Tigers look to be in good shape with Payne and Grant both returning, and we can expect a combination of the two in 2014. The major concern is, Mason often made plays when the offense needed him and was heavily relied on, and a new playmaker needs to be found. Bear in mind that this more a case of Payne and Grant being unproven, as opposed to incapable. They will get their chance. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas, who could have a major impact in this offense. The other big loss is left tackle Greg Robinson, who’s joining Mason as an early entrant for the draft. Young’s experience from last season, plus his size and athleticism, could make him an ideal replacement, but first he has to overcome an injury sustained in the national championship game. The other loss is H-back Jay Prosch, who only caught 5 passes for 95 yards and a score, but he was an outstanding blocker. Sophomore Gage Batten saw action last season as Prosch’s backup, and should take his place this season. Another receiver could step up to help out Coates, but they were a young bunch last season, so time is on their side. JUCO D’haquille Williams could make a huge impact. Quarterback is the final matter. Marshall should be better, but he will get some competition from sophomore Jeremy Johnson and freshman Sean White, although it’s likely White will sit for a season or two.
At first glance, the defense wasn’t great last season – 9 teams racked up over 415 yards against the Tigers. But with a little digging, the unit certainly looks better. Consider that most teams were trying to keep pace with the prolific offense, and the Tigers only allowed 25 points per game. They were excellent on 3rd down, allowing just a 33% conversion rate, and only 26 TDs in 52 redzone attempts. Defensive end Dee Ford led the charge, racking up 10.5 sacks and an impressive 17 hurries. Weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy led the team with 75 tackles, 8 for loss, but the real strength was in the secondary. Corner Chris Davis was second on the team with 74 tackles, and broke up 14 passes, while Jonathon Mincy had 56 tackles and also managed 14 PBUs. ‘Star’ Robenson Therezie led the team with 4 interceptions.
The defense returns 7 starters from last season, providing hope for even more improvement, but like the offense, it loses some of its key performers. Ford is the biggest loss, and tackle Nosa Eguae moved over from end early and made some key plays, including a couple of sacks and a blocked field goal against Alabama. End LaDarius Owens and big tackle Gabe Wright return; both do a good job of getting after the quarterback. Carl Lawson played well as a freshman end last season, notching 4 sacks in limited duty, and will likely replace Ford, while Angelo Blackson could take over for Eguae after starting 14 games over the last 2 seasons. Sophomore Montravius Adams could be ready to take over after impressing when given the chance. Middle linebacker Jake Holland also needs replacing, but Kris Frost split time with him last year, and actually had more tackles and made some big plays. He and McKinzy will form a strong unit. Chris Davis is a big loss in the secondary, and he was voted 2nd-team all-SEC despite not making a single interception. His backup Ryan White, another fine player, is also gone. Jonathan Jones and Kamryn Melton, who missed most of the year with a knee injury, will battle to replace Davis. Ryan Smith is gone at boundary safety, but he was an injury replacement for Joshua Holsey, who will be back. Jermaine Whitehead is entering his third year as a starter at free safety, and is the glue that holds the secondary together.
Cody Parkey has been a good kicker since he took over in 2011, and he hit 15 of 21 last season, including a 52-yarder, although he missed a 33-yard attempt in the national championship game. Parkey also led the NCAA with a ridiculous 69 touchbacks on kickoffs. Punter Steven Clark had a fine season, averaging 42.6 yards per punt and dropping 26 inside the 20, with just 4 touchbacks. More importantly, only 5 of his punts were returned. Did I mention Mason returned kicks? Last season he averaged 26.3 yards per return and scored a TD, while punt returner Chris Davis averaged 18.7 yards and also scored. The punt coverage units certainly benefitted from having Clark on board, but the kick coverage was shaky.
All 4 of the top guys are gone from last season, plus holder Ryan White, which makes the special teams a major question mark going into 2014. Alex Kviklys was the backup to Parkey last season, so he will get a shot to take his place, but Daniel Carlson was the top high school kicker in 2012, and will also be in the running. Jimmy Hutchinson was the reserve punter, but redshirt freshman Tyler Stovall and Carlson will also compete for the job. Quan Bray split the return chores with Mason and Davis last season, and will likely continue in both roles, but he could a lot better on punt returns. The absence of the veteran specialists will mean the Tigers may have to tighten up on coverage considerably.
So, two questions on the lips of Tiger faithful – is this the start of something great in Auburn, and will it continue in 2014? The answer to the first part of the question looks very promising. Auburn continues to bring in top talent and there is a fine coaching staff in place to make sure they realise their potential. The second part to the question is a trickier one. The team lost their biggest of big-play makers, and while there is tremendous talent waiting in the wings, they lack the experience of their predecessors. The Tigers will be competitive again this season, and more than capable of beating anyone on their roster, but the inexperience will cost them at times, leading to a 10-2 record and a decent bowl game.
Tags: Alex Kviklys Angelo Blackson Auburn Tigers Avery Young Cameron Artis-Payne Carl Lawson Cassanova McKinzy Corey Grant D'haquille Williams Daniel Carlson Gabe Wright Gus Malzahn Jeremy Johnson Jermaine Whitehead Jimmy Hutchinson Jonathan Jones Jonathon Mincy Joshua Holsey Kamryn Melton Kris Frost LaDarius Owens Montravius Adams Nick Marshall Patrick Miller Quan Bray Racean Thomas Robenson Therezie Sammie Coates Sean White SEC Football Tyler Stovall