1. Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant, all gone. We all know Auburn is going to run the ball, but with an offense featuring Jeremy Johnson and D'haquille Williams seems likely to be somewhat more pass-oriented. Has it looked that way this spring?
I would love to be able to tell you if it's looked more pass-oriented, but I really can't. Auburn is extremely secretive about their practices. They don't even release stats from the scrimmages, and only give vague hints of what's been going on. I'm 99 percent certain it has been more pass oriented, but due to the nature of Auburn's secrecy, I can't say for certain. It's frustrating. It even inspired me to write something on College and Magnolia about it all.
2. Is there any concern about that given all the success Auburn's had being incredibly run-heavy the last few seasons?
I don't think there's any concern. I think there's excitement. Rhett Lashlee said he wants to go deep at least two times per quarter. I remember back in the Tuberville years that I got so frustrated that Auburn NEVER went deep. When Malzahn was hired as offensive coordinator, he initially said once a quarter. Now it's twice a quarter. I think Auburn fans know that having a consistent passing game is important and having a big-time quarterback-receiver combo means some really fun plays in the passing game and it will also open up the running game even more.
3. Will Muschamp is back on the plains and inherits a veteran defense with eight starters back. Are there expectations for a quick turnaround on that side of the ball?
I think there are expectations of a quick turnaround. Auburn has recruited talent on defense, but just hasn't gotten the performance out of them. Last season's lack of a pass rush really doomed the Tigers, and having Carl Lawson healthy along with bringing in true freshman Byron Cowart is getting Auburn fans excited at the possibility of having two great pass rushers in the game.
It's not like Ellis Johnson and his staff suddenly forgot how to coach, though. It was an impressive staff when it was hired, but for some reason it didn't work out. Will Muschamp's intensity has been infectious from what little I've been able to read. The younger staff has connected more with the players. The defensive backs are singing the praises of Travaris Robinson, and having someone like UGA transfer Tray Matthews on defense is going to be huge for that secondary. The defensive players are insistent that they're being worked extremely hard, but that it's fun and they're learning. I think that makes for a big likelihood that the defense will turn around. It's not going to be an immediate jump back to a Top 10 defense like Will Muschamp has put on the field in other places, but it doesn't need to be. Just 2-3 more key stops per game last season and Auburn might have only lost one game.
4. Any surprises so far this spring? Disappointments?
This is another of those questions that I really can't answer. I just don't know. I think one surprise is how quickly Jason Smith made the move from "he'll get a shot at QB" to "full-time wide receiver." Everyone knew it was going to happen, but it happened within the first practice or two. People inside the program are saying he's going to be huge this season at the position, too. He also gives Malzahn the perfect Wildcat player, since he is a true threat to do anything a QB can do, but is also a great wide receiver. In a perfect world, Malzahn never has to substitute players on a drive, and Smith gives him that ability.
As far as disappointments, maybe its that no one has really stepped up into the Sammie Coates role. At least not that we've heard. Ricardo Louis and Tony Stevens were the most likely candidates. We've been hearing that Stevens (who at 6'4 is the perfect speedy deep guy) has made some great plays, but also has issues with drops. Of course, it's not like that's any different from Sammie was. I haven't heard a whole lot about how Ricardo Louis is doing. Again, it comes down to that secrecy thing. We just really don't know what's actually been happening behind those black-out fences and inside the indoor practice facility.
5. 2014 was a season of highs and lows, and ultimately an 8-5 record. What are the expectations for 2015?
Expectations are high for 2015. Probably higher than they should be because of how fickle college football games can be, but there's a reason they're so high. Duke Williams came back, and he's as electric of a receiver as you'll find in college football. He'll have a true NFL-caliber QB throwing the ball to him. That QB is also no slouch in the running department, even though he hasn't shown that part of his game in the few appearances he's made the last two seasons. The offense replaces 8 starters, but no one is really worried. Auburn is going to have two Jay Prosch-like athletes capable of helping bust holes open for the running backs, and even though the two top backs from last season are gone, Malzahn's offense is plug-and-play for running backs.
On the defense, it's more of the same. I am afraid that many Auburn fans are expecting an immediate top-10 defense, so I expect we'll do a good bit of writing trying to temper those expectations before the season starts. There's talent there on defense - a lot of it. If we don't have too many injuries, then the possibilities are there for Auburn to have a defense that's more than good enough to support the offense. This is where expectations get to even me. I really think that if the offense plays the way it did last year (minus the inexplicable fumbles on the first play of the game against MSU, A&M, and Alabama [all of which led to opponent TDs, too]), and the defense is Top 25, then Auburn is in the College Football Playoff.
So, yeah, expectations are pretty high. Even with me, who usually tries to not think about that type of thing and just enjoy the ride that is college football.