SEC: Robert Leff

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
10:00
AM ET
Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
This is Part IV of a week-long series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn opens practice next week, there’s no doubt that the best position battle of the spring will be at left tackle. It’s one of the most important positions on the field, and depending on the winner, it could shake up the entire offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAvery Young
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter securing the right tackle job last season, Avery Young could make a move to the left side this spring.
At this point, it’s too early to predict who’s going to win the job, but don’t be surprised if the staff waits until fall camp before naming a starter.

The good news for Auburn is that there are plenty of candidates. The bad news for the fans is that the coaches will likely explore all of those options and take their time in making a decision. There will obviously be a player who starts with the first-team offense in the spring game, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the starter come August for the season opener.

Don’t forget that ESPN 300 offensive lineman Braden Smith, a highly regarded member of the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class, isn’t even on campus yet. He enrolls this summer, and though it’s unlikely he’ll start at left tackle, he could still factor into the two-deep depth chart.

“He’s very athletic, one of the strongest guys in the entire country,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of Smith. “He’ll fit in very good for us, and I think he has the ability to help us early.”

For those doubting that Smith can earn a significant role in his first year, just look at what Avery Young did two years ago as a true freshman. He also arrived in the summer, and by the season opener, was Auburn’s starting right tackle. It didn’t last as a shoulder injury forced him to miss the majority of the season, but it shows that it’s possible.

Speaking of Young, many consider him to be the best offensive tackle on the roster. His injury opened the door for Patrick Miller in 2012, but when Miller missed three games last year due to off-field issues, it was Young who stepped in and took advantage of an opportunity. He started the team’s last eight games, and now he’ll almost certainly have a starting job.

The only question is will he stay at right tackle where he’s played his whole career at Auburn or will he move over and fill the void left by Greg Robinson at left tackle?

If Young stays put, that means the competition will ultimately come down to Miller, the team’s opening day starter at right tackle a year ago, or redshirt sophomore Shon Coleman, Robinson’s primary backup last year.

“I think Coach [J.B.] Grimes is going to open it up to those two guys,” Malzahn told reporters last month. “Robert Leff will get an opportunity, Avery Young ... Spring is a great time for coaches to kind of mix and match, put people in different positions. The good thing is we have some depth up front going into this year.”

Either Malzahn is a master at not tipping his hand or he has no idea who his left tackle is going to be next season. That’s what spring is for, though. He doesn’t have to name a starter the first week. He doesn’t even have to name a starter by the last week -- not one that’s etched in stone, anyway. He just needs to find a starter by August 30 when Arkansas comes to town.

The only real prediction that can be made right now about Auburn’s left tackle competition is that it’s going to take time to find the right guy.

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