Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pre-Season Preview: Auburn Tigers

2009 Record: 8-5 (3-5 in SEC)
2009 Bowl: Outback Bowl (beat Northwestern 38-35)
Final 2009 AP Ranking: #32
Head Coach: Gene Chizik (8-5 at Auburn, 13-24 All-Time)
Non-Conference Schedule: Arkansas State (9/4), Clemson (9/18), Louisiana-Monroe (10/2), Chattanooga (11/6)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 33.3 points per game (3rd in SEC, 17th in Nation)
Rushing Yards/Game: 212 (4th in SEC, 13th in Nation)
Passing Yards/Game: 219 (5th in SEC)
Total Yards/Game: 431 (2nd in SEC, 16th in Nation) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 27.5 points per game (last in SEC)
Rushing Yards/Game: 156 (10th in SEC)
Passing Yards/Game: 218 (10th in SEC)
Total Yards/Game: 374 (11th in SEC)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: +0.15 per game (7th in SEC)
Penalties: 65 yards per game (11th in SEC, 103rd in Nation)

Returning Starters
Offense: 7
Defense:  8
Kicker/Punter: 1

Phil Steele All-SEC Pre-Season
WR Darvin Adams (First Team)
OT Lee Ziemba (First Team)
LB Craig Stevens (First Team)
RB Mario Fannin (Second Team)
LB Josh Bynes (Second Team)
CB Neiko Thorpe (Second Team)
C Ryan Pugh (Third Team)
DT Mike Blanc (Third Team)
QB Cameron Newton (Fourth Team)
OG Mike Berry (Fourth Team)
K Wes Bynum (Fourth Team)

SEC Unit Rankings
QB- Athlon Sports #6; Phil Steele #7
RB- Athlon Sports #5; Phil Steele #5
WR/TE- Athlon Sports #8; Phil Steele #3
OL- Athlon Sports #4; Phil Steele #3
DL- Athlon Sports #9; Phil Steele #9
LB- Athlon Sports #3; Phil Steele #3
DB- Athlon Sports #6; Phil Steele #5
ST- Phil Steele #6

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Neil Caudle, Sr (15 of 20 for 170 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT)
Rushing: RB Onterio McCalebb, Soph (105 carries for 565 yds, 4 TD, 5.3 ypc, 51 ypg)
Receiving: WR Darvin Adams, Jr (60 rec, 997 yds, 10 TD, 4.6 rec/game, 16.6 ypc)
Tackles: LB Josh Bynes, Sr (104); LB Craig Stevens, Sr (95)
Sacks: DT Mike Blanc, Sr (3.5)
Interceptions: CB T'Sharvan Bell, Soph (3)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Athlon Sports: #22
Phil Steele- #15
Scout- #19
Sporting News: #17

2010 Pre-Season SEC West Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #3
Phil Steele: #2

2010 Bowl Prediction
Athlon Sports: Chick-Fil-A (vs. FSU)
Phil Steele: Capital One (vs. Penn State)

Auburn came out firing on all cylinders at the beginning of 2009 and under new Head Coach Gene Chizik won their first 5 games. They scored at least 37 in all but one of those wins. After those 5 wins they fell back to earth with 3 straight SEC losses (2 to SEC West foes Arkansas and LSU). They bounced back with 2 wins but then fell to rivals Alabama and Georgia (both in close games) before topping Northwestern in the bowl game. The decision to hire Gene Chizik was controversial in certain circles after he posted a 5-19 record in two seasons at Iowa State but it looks like the fan base is exciting that the team appears headed in the right direction. Friend of the Blog and Auburn fan Forrest Lynn gives us some insight on what to expect from the 2010 Auburn Tigers.

What are the major strengths of the team?

The major strengths are the Offensive Line (we return 3 senior offensive lineman with T Lee Ziemba, G Mike Berry, G Byron Isom, and C Ryan Pugh) and Wide Receiver. We're bursting at the seams with receivers, with reliable target and deceptively speedy WR Darvin Adams returning after a near 1,000 yard year and big-play threat WR Terrell Zachery again starting opposite him. Zachery actually gained a ton of rushing yards and scored a couple of touchdowns (including a big one in the Iron Bowl) on reverses, as well as the longest play in the history of Auburn football when he scored on a 97 yard pump fake from Chris Todd against Louisiana Tech. Two players who made big strides in spring were WR Emory Blake (son of former NFL QB Jeff Blake) and WR DeAngelo Benton. Blake figures to be more an underneath and intermediate route runner, where he uses his size and know how to get open and snare in balls. Benton may actually be the most physically gifted WR to ever play on the Plains at 6'3 with 4.4 speed and mit hands, but lost much of last year to rounding back into football shape after he was away from the game for 2 full years in a circus of attempts to sign and re-sign to play college ball. Trooper Taylor thinks he's going to set records while he's at Auburn and I'm inclined to believe him. He's the type of player where you can throw it up and tell him to go get it, which makes him unlike anyone else on our roster.

Another strength is our veteran duo of linebackers Josh Bynes (who mans the D on the field and does just about everything) and Craig Stevens (who is a tackling machine). They have been productive and steady their whole careers, and figure to do it big in their senior seasons.

Looking at the schedule who will be the first major test and why?

Clemson. They are the first team we face with comparable talent as we break in a new QB and RB. Should Kyle Parker return to the football team after being a first round MLB draft pick, it will be very interesting to see how our secondary handles him, especially with the uncertainty at our safety spots. We should be set at CB with Aairon Savage, Demond Washington (who lit it up during spring) and veteran junior Neiko Thorpe. Savage is at Auburn for his sixth year after 2 consecutive season-ending injuries in summer camp, hopefully he can contribute. He is just about the most high character and experienced guy you could hope to find. There are also capable backups in T'Sharvan Bell and D'Antoine Hood, Bell played exceptionally well in the bowl game and took well to his permanent move to corner.

Safety is a bit uncertain: junior Mike McNeil is set to return after redshirting last year with a broken leg, and Zac Etheridge hopes to return as well after coming within inches of losing his life against Ole Miss last year when he suffered a broken neck (!) on an ill-fated hit. McNeil went through spring drills but struggled the whole way with his still healing leg, and Etheridge has not yet been cleared for football drills but is out of his neck brace and working out with the team. He expects to be cleared for fall. True freshman phenom Daren Bates played all of last year at free safety but is expected to be a safety/LB tweener this year. Veteran backup help comes in the form of Mike Slade, and Savage may also be likely to play just as snaps at safety as he does corner.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

Probably Arkansas. With QB Ryan Mallett and their ability to go 4 or 5 wide and also their ability to keep you off balance for a running game and their coach's ability to pick out and and exploit match-ups, they're incredibly dangerous. Their strengths play against our weaknesses, but so do ours (virtually our entire offense vs. their total lack of defense). The fact that the game is in Auburn should help a lot.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?
Who is the best offensive player on the team?

The answer to both of these is probably RB Mario Fannin. Fannin is already a known quantity to Auburn fans, and has been very productive at wherever he's been stuck while at Auburn. I think he's just probably a couple catches away from 1,000 career yards receiving, and made several tremendous plays out of an H-back role last year, most notably his 80 or so yard catch to score vs. West Virginia. Fannin is a thoroughbred of an athlete and a supremely talented runner, he has just been the victim of bad luck with injuries and being stuck behind other players while he's been in Auburn. He has had SERIOUS problems with fumbling (which has prevented him from hitting super-stardom in the past, even when he flashed major ability along the way, like in 2008 vs. Georgia and 2007 vs. South Florida) but has appeared to somewhat shore that up during spring ball this year. He has been anointed THE guy by Curtis Luper, and is expected to have over 1,000 rushing yards this year, according to Luper himself. Obviously he is a very capable receiver as evidenced by his resume, but is also very talented as a rusher, as his 8.4 yards per carry from last year show you. With his tremendous spring performance (which by all accounts was really something to behold) and a big vote of confidence behind him from the rest of the team, Fannin looks to finally cash in on his potential and become another one of the great Auburn backs.

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?

If you asked me this during the season, the answer would undoubtedly have been FS Daren Bates. However, he is in a state of flux right now, having being moved from free safety to linebacker in the offseason and not actually getting experience at the position during spring, recovering from shoulder surgery on a shoulder that he apparently injured early in the season. Bates has the ability to cause fumbles and electrify the crowd with one hit; he was a fan favorite after about 2 or 3 games. He also displayed a knack for making big plays at the right time, whether it be a timely pick or a great tackle to prevent a first down. Whenever he was in the vicinity of the ball carrier, he was going to attempt to crack someone's skull. It will be interesting to see how he fares playing not in space for the first time.

With Bates in question, the player on defense who may make the most impact is DT Nick Fairley. Fairley showed a lot of flashes in his first year in Auburn out of junior college, and many fans were openly wondering all over message boards why Fairley wasn't getting more snaps. He is DISRUPTIVE. He causes havoc, gets to the quarterback and ball carrier, and generally tries to terrorize the passer. He was all over Mike Kafka in the bowl games, and got a big sack that was negated by an unfortunate face mask penalty. If Fairley can keep this up, and by all accounts in the spring, he had stepped it up, he will be absolutely key. If Auburn can manufacture a pass rush with only the first level and not have to send extra men to blitz, it will set up great for our very experienced defensive backs.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach it's full capability?

There are several. DE Antoine Carter is our most experienced edge rusher, but has gotten sporadic playing time throughout his career due to a lot of strong depth as well as injury problems. With Antonio Coleman gone, who led the SEC in tackles for loss in 2009, it's Carter's job to take on a very vocal and visible role for the defense. His ability to rush the passer (along with the other ends and tackles) will determine the success of our defensive backs to a degree, where CB Neiko Thorpe REALLY needs to capitalize on his enormous potential. Thorpe has tremendous size and speed, but has not always had his head in the right places and is prone to several mental lapses a game. This has to end, because CB Demond Washington really asserted himself late in the year as a highly versatile player (even playing some strong safety) and dominated all of spring ball at corner. His name was mentioned more than any other defensive player, and he has seemed to seize the role of shut down corner vacated by Walter McFadden, now with the Oakland Raiders. If Thorpe can play to his level of ability, corner should be a position of great strength with sixth-year senior CB Aairon Savage returning from 2 (!) consecutive season ending surgeries, one on a torn ACL and one on a torn achilles tendon

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

Obviously, the answer is QB Cam Newton. Newton is a familiar name to anyone who has followed the modern age of recruiting, as he was a 5 star prospect out of Westlake High in College Park, GA. He signed with Florida and was to be the successor to Tim Tebow, but a very naive mistake of buying a laptop out of the trunk of someone's car pretty much more or less curtailed that. Newton is a good kid and is not a behavioral or grade risk, he just did something really stupid and has done all of the work to clear his name and then some. But nevertheless, the incident will be fodder for opposing fans all year. Following that, he went to Blinn College in Brenham, TX, and led them to a JUCO national title on the strength of his arm and legs. He was again afforded 5 star status by Rivals, and signed with Auburn on New Year's Eve. He began school during the spring semester and went through drills, and having instantly immersed himself in Gus Malzahn's spread scheme, began to turn heads with his very first practice. Newton competed with 5th year senior QB Neil Caudle, Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley, but in talking to people close to the program, the gap was always wide between them. Newton was on the tip of every WR on the team's tounge, who had nothing but positive things to say about him all spring. They spoke of him in almost reverential terms; it was almost strange. By all accounts, Newton began to assert himself as a team leader very quickly and is a fiery and excitable leader. Chizik described him as a "competitor." With his tremendous arm strength, size (6'7, 250 according to Gus Malzahn) and speed (4.5/4.6 in the 40), Newton has the physical ability and talent that Chris Todd simply did not possess. If Newton can learn the offense like Todd did (and Todd only practiced Malzahn's offense in the summer practices, having sat out the spring season with a shoulder injury), the sky is the limit for the entire unit, almost scary when you think of the production they already had last year. From all accounts, he is well on his way.

Also one to watch on offense is true freshman RB Michael Dyer from Little Rock, Arkansas, especially following the departure of RB Dontae Aycock following a very unimpressive spring. Dyer was one of the top 15 overall players in America and the top player in Arkansas, and is a rocked up ball of muscle. He stands about 5'9, but weighs somewhere around 215 pounds. He runs hard, fast, and churns his legs like his life depends on it. He's also fluid in his movement and cuts and hard to get your hands on, especially with his low center of gravity. He will get a lot of carries behind Mario Fannin, especially because I don't have faith in Onterio McCalebb maintaining his health due to his small size. McCalebb started out hot, but faded down the stretch and seemed allergic to contact. Still, when healthy, he has the ability to be an absolute game-breaker with his legitimate 4.4 speed.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

In short, all of them. Lack of bodies on defense was one of (if not THE) main culprit to many of Auburn's losses late in the year. Three linebackers (Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, Jonathan Evans) played something like 90 to 95 percent of all the linebacker snaps in the final series of games (Georgia, Alabama, Northwestern). In fact, against Northwestern they played EVERY snap. I think Northwestern ran over 100 plays. When you play behind an offense as breakneck as Auburn's, where drives can last as short as 5 seconds on the clock and usually no longer than 5 or 6 on scoring drives, keeping fresh (and talented) bodies is at an absolute premium. Tommy Tuberville's recruiting woes in his final years really showed up in this area, as there were many times where all that needed to happen to end a drive was a tackler wrapping up a ball carrier, but were simply too tired to get there to do it or too gassed to take the guy down. It was incredibly frustrating. A quartet of linebackers (Jake Holland, LaDarius Owens, Jawara White, Jessel Curry) figure to be on the 2 deep almost instantly along with pass rushing specialist Eltoro Freeman. Several backers (like Adam Herring and Spencer Pybus) are no longer with the team due to "injuries," so these young kids will have to step in and provide meaningful snaps almost instantly. Thankfully, they're all talented enough to do it, especially LaDarius Owens, who I think will be an impact pass rusher from an outside spot. Ted Roof, the defensive coordinator, appears to be ready to mix and match his new toys, as he had the 3 veteran LBs all play every spot in spring. I imagine we will see a lot of Owens in pass rushing situations with Bynes and Eltoro Freeman, or perhaps even Daren Bates, who was an impact freshman at free safety but was moved to linebacker after the season. Bates sat out spring drills with a shoulder injury, but will be healthy for the fall. His role is still to be determined, but he is an incredibly violent hitter who could also play some safety as well.

Some of the defensive lineman should make an impact as well, most notably DE Corey Lemonier and DT Jeff Whitaker. Lemonier is a tall, lean DE (6'6, 235) from Hialeah, FL who shocked the recruiting landscape when he chose Auburn over FSU on signing day. He has arms for days and already has quite a mean swim move, and with Auburn lacking edge rushers, someone as talented and as good at lateral pursuit as him will have to see the field. Jeff Whitaker is a massive defensive tackle who pushes the pocket back into the QB, basically shutting down the run game and allowing his linebackers to make all kinds of plays. With his tremendous size and pedigree, it's hard to imagine him not seeing the field on third downs.

Gene Chizik was not a popular hire in certain circles. He started out going 5-0 including a win over West Virginia but faltered down the stretch when Auburn lost 5 of their last 6 SEC games (they did beat Furman and Northwestern during this time also). It seems (from an outsiders perspective) that he has growing support. What is the general feeling towards Chizik from the Auburn faithful?

Chizik has the Auburn fanbase in the palm of his hand. He came in and totally changed the culture of this program from something stale and static to something people really, really believe in. It's hard to quantify what that really means, but people here believe in this program right now. He hired an absolutely tremendous staff (Curtis Luper - RBs, Gus Malzahn - offensive coordinator, Trooper Taylor - WRs, asst. head coach and heart and soul of the team, Ted Roof - defensive coordinator, Jeff Grimes - offensive line, Tommy Thigpen - safeties, Tracy Rocker - defensive line) that can recruit with the absolute elite of the elite, which goes right in line with our consensus top 5 class. The class of players they signed is unparalleled in the history of Auburn football and the overall talent level is on a huge climb, enabling us to compete very soon with the elite of the game. They sold the family aspect of the program, went against college football's titans, and won way more battles than they lost. That fearlessness is something Tuberville didn't have- he resigned himself to look for the diamonds in the rough rather than the stars. Chizik grabbed the bull by the horns, and that has everyone buzzing.

The SEC is an interesting conference because there are so many rivalries. Besides Alabama, who are the teams that Auburn fans want to beat the most?

LSU and Georgia. The Georgia rivalry is intriguing because it's very sporting and somewhat respectful, with all of the cross pollination from various legends and dignitaries from one school to the other. There's not much real hatred there, but a sense of respect. LSU because they're assholes.

Gut feeling on the teams final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

Because of the way the schedule is laid out, with 8 home games (with our hardest games with the exception of Alabama at home), it's very favorable for a strong Auburn run. 10 or 11 wins is not out of the question, but I think the youth on defense will show and limit us and cost us one or two. I think 9 wins is a very realistic goal, with 10 being better and 11 probably being our ultimate ceiling if everything went perfect and no one got hurt and we had luck on our side. I just don't see how we beat Bama this year. Next year could be the year, but not this one. Everyone else on our schedule we have a fair shot of beating, but you have to think the youth catches up with us at one point.

Next Up: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

2010 Previews
ACC- Maryland Terrapins
Big 12- Kansas State Wildcats, Missouri Tigers, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Big East- Cincinnati Bearcats, Pittsburgh Panthers, West Virginia Mountaineers
Big Ten- Michigan WolverinesMinnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers
Conference USA- Houston CougarsTulane Green Wave, UTEP Miners
MAC- Ball State Cardinals, Bowling Green Falcons, Buffalo Bulls, Temple Owls, Toledo Rockets
Mountain West- Utah Utes
Pac-10- Oregon Ducks, USC Trojans, Washington Huskies
SEC- Kentucky Wildcats, Mississippi Rebels, South Carolina Gamecocks, Vanderbilt Commodores
Sun Belt- Troy Trojans
WAC- New Mexico State Aggies


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