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Spring in review: Five Auburn standouts

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AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn just wrapped his third spring as head coach at Auburn, and it was unlike either of the previous two. The Tigers are coming off a disappointing 8-5 finish a season ago. They’re having to replace the majority of their offense while also adjusting to an almost entirely new staff on defense.

But as Malzahn looked back on the past month, he was pleased. He was happy with the team’s attitude, effort and overall body language. And he was happy because this Auburn team now has an identity heading into the offseason.

“I really think we improved, and I really like where we are at the end of spring,” Malzahn said after the spring game. “Now we’ve got all kinds of areas we still need to improve on, but at least as coaches we know what they are.”

Auburn spring standouts:

QB Jeremy Johnson: Before the spring, there was already talk of Johnson as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and possibly even a Heisman Trophy contender. But in his mind, he wasn’t even the starting quarterback. That’s because the coaches made him earn the spot. There were times early when he struggled, maybe pressing a little too much, but he settled down toward the end and looked like that potential star in the spring game, throwing for 252 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. It was no surprise that two days later Malzahn named Johnson the starting quarterback.

RB Roc Thomas: With all the talk of fellow running back Jovon Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, it was easy to forget about Thomas. But the sophomore quietly had a good spring and then put together a spring game performance that was not so quiet. Thomas took his first carry 36 yards for a touchdown and finished as the team’s leading rusher with 69 yards on only seven carries. Admittedly, the coaches probably didn’t want to show off what they had in Robinson, but Thomas ran with purpose -- or as he called it, he was “running and feeling like you have something to prove.”

OT Shon Coleman: One coach called Avery Young and Coleman the two most consistent players on the offensive line this spring. Young shouldn’t come as a surprise; he’s been consistent everywhere he’s played. But Coleman might raise a few eyebrows. His struggles down the stretch last season were well documented, and there were some concerns heading into the 2015 season. It didn’t help that he missed the spring game with a minor injury. But the coaches say he improved his pass protection, and they are looking for big things from him after a strong spring performance.

DT Montravius Adams: Will this finally be the year Adams breaks through? The junior has NFL talent, but it’s a matter of getting him to play hard on a consistent basis. Maybe the new defensive staff can help with that. New coordinator Will Muschamp included Adams in a handful of players when talking about who stood out at defensive tackle this spring. And in the spring game, there were times when he looked like a man on a mission. He finished with four tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. Adams will be a critical piece on this defense, and a solid spring is a good sign for what’s to come.

DB Johnathan Ford: In a secondary that’s extremely thin right now, Ford might be as important as anybody on the back end. He’s already shown he can play safety, and he led the team in tackles last season. But this spring, the coaches gave him some reps at cornerback, and he more than held his own. In fact, Muschamp said Ford would be the team’s third corner right now if Auburn had a game tomorrow. Now, obviously the plan is to keep him at safety -- the trial run was mostly out of necessity -- but that versatility should help the Tigers next season. And it’s clear Ford is an early favorite of the new defensive staff.