Chris Fuhrmeister of College and Magnolia filled us in on just how practice has gone on the Plains this spring.
1. One would assume that between a) how bad things got in 2012 and b) Gus Malzahn's general popularity among most Auburn fans, there has to be a sense of optimism on the Plains this spring, correct?
For the most part, I'd say that is correct. Last season was so awful, and Auburn fans sort of came to the realization that 2010 was more about Gus than Gene, a fact the rest of the country realized three years ago. After the offensive train-wreck in 2012, most everyone in orange and blue is happy to see a return to Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle attack. He hired a solid staff with a great reputation for coaching and recruiting, and hauled in a top-15 class on signing day, despite all the turmoil over the last year. We're not getting our hopes up too much, but considering Auburn is coming off a 3-9 campaign, we definitely feel better about the program than we probably should.
2. That said, this was a really, really (really) bad football team last season. The threshold for improvement is pretty low, but what areas exactly are you watching for improvement this spring?
The biggest problem on offense last season was quarterback play. Kiehl Frazier was completely out of his element in Scott Loeffler's pro-style scheme, and it resulted in a disaster under center. Later in the year, true freshman Jonathan Wallace took over and performed pretty well, but the season was already down the drain. Moving back to Malzahn's offense, I'm looking for better production from the quarterbacks -- especially Frazier. Many opposing fans have probably written him off, and maybe for good reason, but I have a suspicion he'll win the starting job and be much better this year. He's a former five-star recruit and has spent his entire football life, aside from 2012, running Malzahn-style systems. As long as he, or someone else, can do a good job as a signal-caller, the offense should be better.
3. Are there any players drawing a lot of praise so far?
The player garnering the most praise is probably junior Justin Garrett. At 6'1, 214 pounds, Garrett never picked up much playing time at linebacker in the 4-3 due to his small size. But in Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5, he's gotten a look at the hybrid linebacker/safety "star" position and received rave reviews. Garrett's brought physicality and a ton of effort to the defense -- and he's already earned a reputation as a big hitter. In the traditional 4-3, he likely wouldn't sniff much playing time, but under Johnson, he may turn into the defense's most productive player.
4. Any surprises?
Garrett would have to be the biggest surprise so far. He's gone from being a player many Auburn fans hadn't heard of to the most talked about member of the Tigers' roster.
5. Finally, is there a reasonable expectation for the 2013 Auburn football team?
I think Auburn will finish the 2013 regular season 7-5, and I don't think that's too much of a stretch. There's plenty of four- and five-star talent on the team; it just needs to be developed. If everyone comes along as expected, wins at home over Washington State, Arkansas State, Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic, and on the road against Arkansas and Tennessee should be possible. If the Tigers are ahead of schedule in their development, maybe throw in a home win over Ole Miss; if they're behind, take away the Arkansas victory. Either way, this should be a much better team than we saw in 2012.