Top 5 Storylines for Auburn Tigers 2013 Spring Game
Auburn Tigers Begin a New Era
Auburn may be the team that is eagerly anticipating the Tigers spring game more than any other team in the country after a highly disappointing 3-9 season in 2012 that saw Gene Chizik terminated. Off-the-field allegations of improper behavior tried to stain the program’s reputation and the famed oaks at Toomer’s Corner are in their final days.
After Saturday’s A-Day events the trees will be rolled one last time and will be removed after the two-year battle to save them after they were poisoned by the now incarcerated Harvey Updyke. Gone now is one of the best traditions in not just the SEC, but in all of college athletics.
As sad and disheartening as that is perhaps some, if not a majority of Auburn fans, can attempt to look at Saturday as the start of a new tradition and the dawn of the Gus Malzahn era. He returns to The Plains where he served as the offensive coordinator during the BCS National Championship season and his brand of offense will be a sight for sore eyes after last season’s offensive ineptitude.
A number of questions are on the plate of Malzahn as he prepares for his first spring game as the head coach at Auburn, and while some may not be answered entirely on Saturday, the fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium will get a preview of what lies ahead. These are the five biggest storylines facing Auburn in advance of Saturday’s spring game.
5. Defensive Line Rotation
The defensive line loses Corey Lemonier who could be a second round pick in next week’s NFL draft, but there are some young and intriguing options that are poised to take the next step in their development this season. Among the players I’m excited to see are Dee Ford who had six sacks last year and nose guard Gabe Evans. Auburn finished last in the conference in rush defense, ranked 12th in tackles for loss and 11th in sacks, so a vast improvement will be necessary to contend this season. Freshmen reinforcements arrive this summer, so this is the time for the veterans to step up and show out.
4. Can Tre Mason Carry the Load?
Tre Mason enters 2013 as the team’s best offensive playmaker and perhaps even the team’s best player after a 1,002 yard season on the ground last year. He reached the end zone eight times last season and with Onterio McCalebb now gone Mason will be counted on for an expanded role. He has the potential for a 1,200 yard season but will be supported by JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne. Mason and Artis-Payne will be bolstered by an offensive line that returns four starters from last year’s unit.
3. Ellis Johnson and his 4-2-5 Defense
Ellis Johnson returns to the SEC after a failed stint as the head coach at Southern Miss and brings his 4-2-5 defense with him. The secondary is in good shape with only T’Sharvan Bell departing from the key contributors of last year’s unit, but the depth at linebacker is a point of concern. Only Jake Holland returns with legit experience under his belt, so the development of highly regarded Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy is vital.
Johnson is also experimenting with a 3-4 front and according to Joel Erickson of Al.com, "Johnson also installed a dime package last week that featured both Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie, Auburn's two current "Star" players, on the field at the same time to match up against four-receiver sets." The different alignments are asking a lot of the personnel on the field, but it is done with the hope that they will be able to match up much better against spread teams.
2. Will Kiehl Frazier Develop under Malzahn?
Kiehl Frazier was recruited to Auburn by Malzahn to run his spread offense, so when Malzahn left to become the head coach at Arkansas State, Frazier didn’t fit the offense last year. As a result Frazier struggled mightily and was subsequently benched for Clint Moseley who was later benched for Jonathan Wallace. With Malzahn back I have to trust him and believe that he will transform Frazier into a quality quarterback. If he looks like the Frazier of 2012, then don’t be surprised to see Malzahn pull the plug and insert Wallace who could be keeping a seat warm for true freshman Jeremy Johnson later this season.
1. Gus Malzahn
Malzahn was arguably the most important member of the championship team in 2010 after Cam Newton and Nick Fairley and I’m really excited to see his brand of offense back at Auburn. He is an offensive genius and will be able to develop the talent he originally recruited to campus a couple years ago. The offense was one of the worst in the program’s history last year, so he has his work cut out for him. I don’t envision him to be able to fix it overnight, but it will be markedly improved and I think the Tigers can double last year’s win total with Malzahn calling the shots on The Plains.