We spotlight Auburn today and take a look at where the Tigers were the strongest and the weakest coming out of the spring.
Strongest position: Offensive line
Key returnees: Senior left tackle Lee Ziemba, senior left guard Mike Berry, senior center Ryan Pugh, senior right guard Byron Isom.
Key departures: Right tackle Andrew McCain
The skinny: The only negative is there isn’t a lot of experience behind the starters. Otherwise, Auburn has a chance to put one of the best offensive lines in the league on the field in 2010. The Tigers return four senior starters who should be even better the second time around in Gus Malzahn’s offense, not to mention offensive line coach Jeff Grimes’ blocking schemes. Ziemba has 38 starts under his belt and Pugh 32 starts. Both are All-SEC caliber players. Berry sat out the spring after undergoing offseason knee surgery, but should be good to go when preseason practice resumes. The left side of the Tigers’ line should be particularly strong. Junior college newcomers Brandon Mosley and Roszell Gayden battled it out for the right tackle job this spring. Mosley, a converted tight end, ended the spring with a slight lead, but Gayden will give it another shot in the fall. Staying healthy will be key. That and backups Bart Eddins and John Sullen stepping up and providing some quality depth.
Weakest position: Linebacker
Key returnees: Senior middle linebacker Josh Bynes (104 tackles, six tackles for loss), senior outside linebacker Craig Stevens (95 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), sophomore safety/outside linebacker Daren Bates (70 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss)
Key departures: Adam Herring (12 tackles).
The skinny: It’s a wonder Bynes and Stevens are still standing after all of the snaps they had to play last season. They both were on the field for every defensive snap in the overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Both players are solid, too. It’s just that there aren’t a surplus of definitive answers after Bynes and Stevens. The Tigers plan to move Bates to outside linebacker after a stellar freshman season at safety. But it’s difficult to say right now how Bates will adjust to his new position. He was unable to go through spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Junior Eltoro Freeman is also a possibility after an up-and-down first season at Auburn. Freeman, who transferred in from junior college, has to shake his inconsistency if he’s going to be a starter. If Bates can successfully make the transition during preseason practice, he’ll be the third starter and play more of a hybrid role. The Tigers like the idea of getting more speed on the field at linebacker. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof made it a point to cross-train guys at different position this spring. Sophomore Jonathan Evans, who started against Alabama last season, will be a key backup at several different spots. True freshmen Jessel Curry, Jake Holland and LaDarius Owens may also find their way into the rotation. Curry enrolled early and went through spring practice.