1. Nobody saw Auburn's run to the SEC title and BCS title game coming last year. How's that impacted this particular session of spring football practice? What has the vibe been like over on the Plains?
There's definitely more hype and higher expectations this time around. In fact, expectations haven't been this high since the build up to the 2003 season. Hopefully for our sake, 2014 will work out a little better.
Auburn's won three SEC titles in the last 10 years, and in each of those seasons, the Tigers came out of nowhere. For the first time in a long time, they're not only one of the favorites to win the conference, but also to take home the national championship. With so much talent coming back on offense, plus the addition of future superstar receiver D'haquille Williams, and a defense that should be better, it's pretty difficult to temper the excitement. Those of us who are trying to stay rational are looking at a worst-case scenario of 10-2, so yeah, we're hoping for big things.
2. Nick Marshall was effective, but very up-and-down as a passer last season. How's he progressing, and how will Auburn complement the power rushing attack we've come to expect out of Gus Malzahn teams?
Marshall's probably never going to be considered a great passer, but with a little improvement, he can turn Auburn's offense into an out-of-control train that can't be stopped. He completed 59 percent of his passes last year, and throughout the spring, the coaches have been saying that they'd like that number to get up between 65 and 70. I seriously doubt that happens, but if he's in the low 60s, the passing game will be lethal.
There were a few significant signs of improvement on A-Day. On a couple of wide-open deep balls, Marshall put the pass right on his receiver, something he couldn't do on opening drives against Alabama and Florida State. And on timing routes over the middle, he was spot on. He struggled a bit on throws down the sideline, leading receivers too far out of bounds, but overall, he looks like a better quarterback going into the summer. Having a ridiculous set of wideouts -- Williams, Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray, etc., etc. -- won't hurt his chances, either.
3. Tre Mason takes a lot of production out of town with him. How are his replacements looking so far, and what new names should opposing fans get to know?
When you lose a guy who broke Bo Jackson's single-season rushing record, it seems absurd to believe the running game won't see a drop off, but the Tigers should be fine. It's unlikely we'll see one guy put up Mason-like numbers, but with Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant, Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas at running back, and Nick Marshall getting his share of carries on the option, there's plenty to like in the backfield.
If any one back is going to consistently receive the bulk of the carries, it's probably Artis-Payne. At 5'11 and 210 pounds, he doesn't sound like a guy who can run over people, but he's a bruiser. And while he doesn't have great top-end speed, his vision and shiftiness make up for it when he's carrying up the middle (a similar skill set to Mason's). Grant (5'11, 203) is the speed back, but he is fighting to be the every-down guy, and a few players have said he's pound-for-pound the strongest guy on the team. I don't know if he can be the feature back, but he can absolutely fly -- think of Onterrio McCalebb, only with the ability to lower his shoulder into a DB.
Barber (5'11, 225) and Thomas (5'11, 196) are a bit more mysterious. The former is a redshirt freshman -- the biggest back on the team -- who's received rave review from players and coaches throughout spring practice. But he was injured on his first carry of A-Day, so fans still haven't had a chance to see what he can do. I'd expect him to make an impact in the fall. The latter is an incoming freshman and probably won't see too much action. But, he's a former five-star prospect, so it wouldn't be a huge surprise if Gus draws up some packages for him.
4. The Auburn defense really came together down the stretch, but it has to replace key playmakers like Dee Ford and Chris Davis. What's that unit looking like through spring practice?
When the spring game format is No. 1s vs. No. 2s/scrubs, it's hard to take too much away from the defensive performance. However, the first-team D allowed only three points and 85 yards, which means there were no big plays given up due to missed assignments, busted coverage, poor tackling and whatnot. That's all you can ask for.
Losing Dee Ford is a drag, but the line is going to be nasty. Sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel are former five-stars and should be pretty special at the end positions, and at tackle, Gabe Wright, Ben Bradley, Jeff Whitaker and Montravius Adams have the ability to clog up the middle.
Linebacker and secondary are bigger questions marks, but both units shouldn't be any worse than last year, and they'll likely be at least a little bit better. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost have the potential to be solid linebackers; they just have to put it together. JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief is going to be a standout at safety. Robenson Therezie is once again going to be a big hitter at the hybrid star position.
Obviously, offense is going to be the story in 2014, but barring significant injuries, the defense will be able to hold its own.
5. Any surprises, pleasant or otherwise, through the spring?
Part of the reason I think the D will be fine is due to a couple of unexpected solid performances on A-Day. At linebacker, Kenny Flowers earned defensive MVP. Again, it was against backups, but he was always around the ball and getting into the backfield. If those instincts hold up against real competition, he'll provide much-needed skill and depth at his position.
The biggest A-Day surprise had Trovon Reed. LSU fans might remember him as a highly touted receiver who got away from his home state, but he's been a bust at wide receiver during his entire tenure on the Plains. He moved to cornerback shortly after the start of spring practice, and a few weeks later, he looked like one of the best DBs on the field. Reed never let his man get away, he made good plays on the ball and got off blocks to jump a couple of screen routes. I'm not going to get too excited since he's disappointed me too many times in recent years, but it appears he could potentially be one of the surprise stories for Auburn in 2014.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Shon Coleman. He was a five-star offensive line prospect in the Class of 2010, but was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia shortly after signing. Coleman beat cancer, and now appears to be the favorite to replace Greg Robinson at left tackle. There might not be a better story in college football.