Schedule: The Tigers opened spring practice Wednesday at 8:50 a.m. ET and will conclude the spring with their annual A-Day spring game on April 20 at 2:05 p.m. ET in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers will hold morning practices this spring.
What’s new: In a word, everything. Gus Malzahn returns to the Plains as head coach after serving as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-11. His offensive coordinator will be Rhett Lashlee, who held that same title at Arkansas State last season under Malzahn. Lashlee also worked under Malzahn at Auburn the first time as a graduate assistant in 2009 and 2010. Former Auburn quarterback Dameyune Craig is co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach. J.B. Grimes is offensive line coach, Tim Horton running backs coach and Scott Fountain tight ends/special teams coach. Ellis Johnson, who was the head coach at Southern Miss last season, is the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. Johnson has previously been the defensive coordinator at South Carolina, Mississippi State and Alabama in the SEC. Rodney Garner returns to his alma mater as assistant head coach and defensive line coach. He’s been on the Georgia staff the previous 15 seasons. Charlie Harbison is co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. He was previously on the Clemson staff. Melvin Smith will coach the cornerbacks after spending the last seven seasons on the Mississippi State staff.
New faces: The Tigers brought in three junior college transfers who will be going through spring practice. Running back Carmeron Artis-Payne is expected to make an immediate impact and share the backfield duties with Tre Mason. Artis-Payne, who signed with Rutgers out of high school and failed to qualify academically, has been impressive in the offseason program. Ben Bradley adds to an already deep defensive tackle stable. His Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College teammate, Devonte Danzey, will have a chance to win one of the starting guard spots on offense. Danzey will be a sophomore and has three years of eligibility remaining.
Question marks: Finding a quarterback who can effectively run Malzahn’s offense is the most pressing priority. Jonathan Wallace, only a true freshman at the time, ended last season as the starter after Kiehl Frazier was benched. Frazier, who will be a junior, will get a second chance in Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense. He was recruited by Malzahn to run that offense, but must improve as a passer. Malzahn said the reps would be split this spring between the two. Both guys are athletic and capable of extending the play, which is important in this offense. But the Tigers finished with just eight touchdown passes and 15 interceptions a year ago. That has to improve significantly in 2013 if the offense is going to take a big step. In keeping with the passing game theme, the Tigers also have to find some receivers they can count on now that dependable Emory Blake is gone. Sammie Coates has a chance to blossom in this offense, and is this the year that Trovon Reed stays healthy and becomes the player the Tigers thought they were getting when they signed him? It's also a big spring for Ricardo Louis and Quan Bray.
Key battle: Even though four starters return from last season on the offensive line, the Tigers will be looking for the right fit up front in Malzahn’s offense. In particular, he wants guys who can move on the interior. Sophomores Greg Robinson, Avery Young and Patrick Miller all made starts last season at tackle. Senior Chad Slade returns at one guard, and junior Reese Dismukes at center. There are several younger offensive linemen in the program who will get their shot this spring. Young is coming off shoulder surgery and could possibly move inside. Redshirt freshman Jordan Diamond could push for a starting spot at tackle.
Breaking out: Defensive tackle should be the Tigers’ strength even though the production up front wasn't what it should have been last season. They have four guys returning who’ve all started games, and Bradley should also be a factor, not to mention prized freshman signee Montravius Adams when he arrives this summer. But the player who could really blossom into an every-down force is junior Angelo Blackson, who led all Auburn defensive linemen last season with seven tackles for loss. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Blackson showed it in flashes a year ago. Look for him to become a much more consistent player in 2013 under the tutelage of Garner.
Don’t forget about: Even though Philip Lutzenkirchen is gone, that doesn’t mean the Tigers are hurting at tight end. In fact, Lutzenkirchen himself thinks junior C.J. Uzomah is primed for a big season in Malzahn’s system. The 6-4, 253-pound Uzomah catches the ball with the skill of a receiver and should be a nightmare mismatch for opposing defenses. He can play on the line as a traditional tight end or split out wide.