Hey remember two weeks ago, when I started counting down the JCCW's five biggest issues to keep an eye on (or theoretically keep an eye on) during spring practice? Probably not. But I haven't, and so we're continuing now with Nos. 4 and 3 on the countdown just ahead of tonight's 7 p.m. kickoff to spring practice.
Great story. Great linebacker?
4. Who's filling the holes on the front seven?
For a defense that's returning seven starters and might get a functional Aairon Savage back on top of that, Auburn's 2009 unit sure has a lot of questions to answer. The biggest ones just happen to also be the biggest players on said defense: the two defensive tackles.
With Tez Doolittle's graduation and Sen'Derrick Marks bolting for the monetary joys of the NFL, Auburn will have to replace both interior players with new starters while playing opposite a no-huddle offense that promises to put a heavy strain on the d-line's conditioning. So things are already pretty scary. They get even scarier when you consider that only three players on the current roster--Mike Blanc, Jake Ricks, and Zach Clayton--saw any meaningful time at DT last season.
But even if the middle of the line weakens, at least Auburn will have an experienced linebacking corps behind them with Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens returning, right? Well, sort of--Bynes and Stevens are the only members of the two-deep to return after three seniors graduated and, of course, a certain Mr. Blackmon sets his sights northward.
So across the front seven, spots will be there for the claiming during spring. Things look a little more clearcut at the open starting linebacker spot, where Eltoro "The Toro" Freeman should step right in for Messrs. Evans and Johnson. But it will bear watching--spring will be our first real look at Freeman, and if he follows in the footsteps of Auburn's other recent JUCO busts, the above-pictured Great Story Pybus could make a push for an even greater role after popping up now and then as a true freshman in 2008. And that's even before we get to the other backup slots--Adam Herring made an appearance on the two-deep after Blackmon's departure and could seal up a role in the rotation.
At tackle ... well, Nick Fairley's inability to get himself eligible and enrolled early hurts, since from here it looks like he should be able to lock up a place in the DT rotation. But now, unlike Freeman, we'll have to wait until fall to find out if he's the difference-maker we've been hearing about. In the meantime, Clayton, Blanc, and Ricks will likely do battle for the inside track on starting positions while behind them ... I honestly don't have any clue. Most of the remaining d-linemen on the roster are end-sized. With Tracy Rocker potentially shaking things up, maybe large gentlemen like Jomarcus Savage or Derrick Lykes get shifted inside?
So there's a lot to pay attention to up front, especially since the no-huddle means that the backups are likely to see even more time this fall than we'd normally expect. Here's to hoping spring gives us a clearer picture of exactly who those players are going to be.
3. Uh ... who's going to catch the ball?
Only in the Auburn receiving corps could the combined loss of a solid-if-unspectacular possession receiver in Rod Smith and an erratic drop-plagued jitterbug in Robert Dunn--and their combined height of 12' 1"--be considered major blows.
But ah, that's why it's the Auburn receiving corps, and why no unit on the entire team is more collectively wide open. Malzahn's offense will put three or four of them on the field at a time, minimum, and there's zero guarantee any receiver on the roster will be one of those first three or four. The competition will very likely continue well into the fall as Malzahn and Trooper Taylor figure out who they trust out there, but I think there's three guys who can really make a move during the spring:
1. Phillip Pierre-Louis: Tony Franklin, as we all know, had some big plans for Auburn's answer to Trindon Holliday before he missed the season with an injury. Now two big questions loom for him: first, how much of his old explosiveness does he still have after the injury, and will Malzahn--much more interested in throwing downfield than Franklin was--be able to find a use for him if he does?
2. Tim Hawthorne. Speaking of going deep ... does Auburn have anyone on the current roster who can? Hawthorne's never been particularly fast, but he's got size and decent hands. He's not the prototypical deep threat, but Malzahn's going to have to recruit someone to do it. Is it going to be him?
3. Terrell Zachery. Hey, remember when this guy was going to be a big-time playmaker for Auburn? He finished last season with two receptions, or two fewer than Derek Winter and one fewer than Gabe freaking McKenzie, who spent most of the year at defensive end. Maybe Taylor can turn him into a worthwhile reclamation project. Maybe not. We start to find out over the next couple of weeks.
Even aside from those guys--can Montez Billings be more than Smith's replacement? Is Winter or Darvin Adams capable of a breaking out into a bigger role than capable-handed third-stringer? What does Quindarius Carr bring to Malzahn's table? We'll see.