Jan. 12, 2014
AUBURN, Ala. – The Auburn football team that came within 13 seconds of the national championship last Monday bore little resemblance to the one that huffed and puffed to beat Washington State in the opener or the one that had to score with 10 seconds left to beat Mississippi State at home or the one that lost at LSU.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about a remarkable Auburn season was how much the Tigers of 2013 improved day to day and game to game. And as we move forward toward the culmination of the recruiting cycle, offseason workouts, spring practice and finally the 2014 season, Auburn is back among college football’s elite.
Gus Malzahn, in his first season, left little doubt he is something special as a head football coach. And he has some special players returning.
Does Auburn have the talent to play for a national championship again in 2014? No doubt, but so do Alabama, LSU, Georgia and others in the still dominant Southeastern Conference. The challenge Auburn players face is to come together and work and play with the same passion that took the 2013 Tigers to the SEC championship and beyond.
It will be the first season of a new era. Auburn and Florida State finished off the BCS era. We now enter the playoff era. Four teams instead of two will be in the big show. They’ll be chosen by a selection committee instead of a ranking system.
None of that means, of course, that the Tigers will win a championship. To do that, they’d have to go at least 12-1 against a schedule that includes road trips to Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Kansas State and home games against LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Arkansas. You can have a great team and not get that done.
Following is a position-by-position look at the offensive players who are on campus now. Other than those who have already enrolled, we can’t write here about incoming recruits. I will look at the defense on Monday.
Top returnees: Sr. Nick Marshall (142-239-6, 1976 yards, 14 touchdowns; 172 carries for 1068 yards and 12 touchdowns). So. Jeremy Johnson (29-41-2, 422 yards, 6 touchdowns).
For the first time in his college career, Malzahn will have the same starting quarterback for the second consecutive season. Marshall’s performance after enrolling last summer was nothing short of sensational. Malzahn said it might have been unprecedented.
The notion that Marshall can’t pass is just wrong. Yes, he missed some open receivers that he probably won’t miss after a full year in the program. But he made some huge throws in huge situations, the last being on Auburn’s final touchdown drive against Florida State.
Marshall will return as the most dynamic dual threat quarterback in the SEC and a candidate for national awards. But perhaps his greatest strength is his cool under pressure. He displayed it time and time again as Auburn won close game after close game.
Johnson is a big-time talent. Will Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee find a bigger role for him? That remains to be seen. Regardless, he could be forced into starting duty at any time should Marshall be injured.
Junior Jonathan Wallace is a steady as they come. Nobody at Auburn would be frightened if they had to try to win a game with Wallace at the helm.
Top returnees: Sr. Cameron Artis-Payne (91 carries, 614 yards, 6.7 ypc, 6 touchdowns). Sr. Corey Grant (66 carries, 647 yards, 9.8 ypc, 6 touchdowns).
No group of Auburn running backs has faced a bigger chore than replacing Tre Mason, who left for the NFL after a record-breaking season.
Artis-Payne and Grant will go into the spring with the benefit of having made big plays in a big season, but don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. At 5-foot-11, he has grown to almost 230 pounds. He is fast and elusive. He will be in the mix in a big way.
Top returnees: Jr. Sammie Coates (42 catches, 902 yards, 7 touchdowns). Sr. Ricardo Louis (28 catches, 325 yards, 2 touchdowns). So. Marcus Davis (23 catches, 217 yards, 1 touchdown). Sr. Quan Bray (23 catches, 195 yards, 3 touchdowns).
Coates led the nation with 22.5 yards per catch and is poised to be one of the game’s best. Louis made the catch of the year on a tipped pass to beat Georgia. Davis, a high school quarterback, made big plays early and late. Bray is a steady leader who does all the little things well.
Former professional baseball player Melvin Ray caught a 50-yard touchdown pass in the BCS Championship Game. He could be ready to make a big move.
Sophomore Tony Stevens, at 6-foot-4, is exceptionally talented and could easily move into the rotation. Senior Jaylon Denson, recovering from a season-ending injury, is a high-level blocker and receiver. If he is healthy, he will certainly be factor.
Perhaps the most-watched wide receiver in spring practice will be junior D’haquille Williams, the nation’s top junior college recruit. He has the kind of talent to make a major impact in a hurry. Freshman Stanton Truitt, who could play several positions, is also on campus and will participate in spring practice.
Whether senior Trovon Reed will permanently move to cornerback or return to wide receiver is a question that won’t be answered until spring practice or later.
Top returnees: Sr. C.J Uzomah (11 catches, 154 yards, 3 touchdowns). Brandon Fulse (1 catch, 5 yards, 0 touchdowns).
Uzomah, who battled injuries in 2013, will be a candidate to be preseason All-SEC. He has wide receiver skills and has improved dramatically as a blocker. Fulse was something of an unsung hero, a ferocious blocker in Auburn’s running game.
Who will replace Jay Prosch, perhaps the nation’s top blocking back?
Sophomore Ricky Parks, dismissed from the team last August for a violation of team rules, is back as a walk-on and has everything you are looking for as tight end or an H-back. Sophomore Gage Batten has the same kind of mindset Prosch brought to the game.
Freshman tight end Chris Laye is enrolled in school and will participate in spring practice.
Top returner: Sr. Reese Dismukes (All-SEC, Rimington Award finalist).
Dismukes returns as one of the nation’s top offensive linemen. Junior college transfer Xavier Dampeer is enrolled in school and will participate in spring practice. Others also could get snaps in case of an emergency.
Top returners: So. Alex Kozan (freshman All-American). Sr. Chad Slade (4-year starter).
Kozan and Slade might be the best pair of returning guards in the SEC. Sophomore Jordan Diamond and junior Devonte Danzy are talented backups who will be ready if needed. Redshirt freshman Deon Mix could also push for some playing time.
Top returners: Jr. Avery Young (started final 10 games at RT). Jr. Pat Miller (started first 4 games at RT). So. Shon Coleman (played in eight games as a backup).
Replacing departed Greg Robinson at left tackle won’t just be difficult, it will be impossible. But the Tigers still will likely have a potential NFL player in his place.
Coleman, who has overcome cancer to return to the field, is a former 5-star recruit who could be a force. Miller lost his starting job when he was suspended for a previous off-field issue and will also likely get a hard look. Malzahn says sophomore Robert Leff will get a look.
Young, who broke his hand on the first play of the BCS Championship Game and played on, is likely to remain as the starter at right tackle. Third-year sophomores Shane Callahan and Will Adams could play tackle or guard.
Auburn will start over with the departure of Cody Parkey. Among the candidates will be junior Alex Kviklys, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson and junior Duncan McKinney. None of them have kicked in a game.
Coming Monday: A look at the defense and punters.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: