Spring Forward

staffBy: Harvey Birdman

With the second of the three seasons of college football behind us (Recruiting, Spring Football and Football Season) it’s time to take stock in some of the things that came out in Spring Practice and where this program appears to be headed. Mind you, this is merely the observations and perceptions of this feeble minded author who is still waiting to coach his first college football game.  Most of the insight into the current state of the program comes from the Spring game itself.  Coach Chizik purposely kept a fairly tight lid on the actual practices leading up to the glorified scrimmage at JHS on April 18th.  Approximately 45,000 fans were treated to a short, but very entertaining show that featured a glimpse of the new offense under OC Gus Malzahn and served to answer some questions, but raise a few more.

The two most burning questions in my mind centered around the quarterback position and who might step forward as a playmaker on offense, something sorely lacking in 2008.  Injuries forced the quarterback race down to two in Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle.  I doubt very seriously that question number one was answered; however, if it were based on that one performance, our starter in 09′ would be Caudle.  For the first time in the few occasions I’ve had the opportunity to watch him perform, Caudle looked sharp and comfortable in the offense.  Granted, logic would tell you that they were running a base version of Coach Malzahn’s offense, but if his scheme does not require the QB to make numerous reads and go through countless progressions…in other words, break the huddle knowing what option one and option two will be and just distribute the ball….Neil Caudle might possibly be the man to run the show.  Maybe!  Unfortunately, Burns did nothing in my mind to show he had progressed any from 2008.  But again, it was just one game.

The issue of playmakers may have been answered through the size and intensity of Mario Fannin and the emergence of newcomer Onterio McCalebb.  Late in 2008, Fannin produced several highlite reel plays.  He came into this Spring several pounds bigger and apparently, stronger.  Keep in mind that it was in fact a Spring game and most of the scrimmage pitted the first strings against the seconds.  However, that didn’t take away from the fact that Mario Fannin obviously came to play and easily proved himself to be the leader of this offense.  Throughout the Spring, we heard reports that Onterio McCalebb consistently made eye opening plays, breaking several long runs.  The fans in attendance weren’t disappointed as he continued his good work, displaying quickness and true break away speed that has been missing from the backfield for some time.  Listed at 165, he certainly cannot stand the rigors of an every down back in the SEC, but that shouldn’t be an issue with the experienced Ben Tate carrying the bulk of the load at tailback.  It was hard to find any fault in Tate’s performance as well, with the senior to be looking fast and running with confidence.

It appears that Malzahn’s system and the receivers getting some actual coaching, will not require anybody to be Superman from the wide receiver spot.  Numerous times, the same plays were run in the scrimmage with the exact same pattern run by multiple receivers…each time with some success.  Auburn did not recruit a group of rejects at that position.  There’s plenty of talent there. They just need some direction and a system to thrive in.  Hopefully, this will be the one.  The starters across the front on offense have put the weight back on that Tony Franklin insisted they lose.  6’8″ Lee Ziemba is finally listed over 300 lbs. for the first time in his Auburn career.  Ryan Pugh, Mike Berry, Andrew McCain etc. are all big, physical and experienced.  They’ve been to war on the biggest stages college football has to offer.  The issue is finding 3-4 solid backups.  This could in fact, be a huge issue.

Defensively, not much needs to be said other than stressing my feelings from the earlier article.  The starters at every position are guys I’d gladly line up against anybody in the country.  Eltoro Freeman looks to be the instant impact player we all thought Trey Blackmon would be.  But, like the offensive line, a few key injuries could very possibly devestate this unit.  There’s a ton of “Potential” behind the starters, but very few proven performers.  Overall, I think this team is not in as bad a shape as some of the media “Experts” would have us believe.  But, I can’t let go of my glass-half-empty anxiety over what a few injuries might do to this team.  Until I see Jomarcus Savage or Andre Wadley or any number of DB’s get it done on Fall Saturdays, I’ll still be holding my breath.
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So, Summer workouts begin soon and the team learns to develop and gel a little more under this new staff.  Meanwhile, the new staff is continuing it’s in-your-face style of recruiting.  As of yesterday, “Tiger Prowl”, the 7 member limo tour is officially underway.  A bit gimmicky?  A little cornball?  Maybe…maybe not.  But, their early assault on Mobile area schools yielded some very positive comments from top recruits.  This comes on the heels of the top two running backs in the nation raving about their visit to Teh Planes and vaulting Auburn to the top of their lists.  Will it net results come February 2010?  Time will tell.  However, while I may cast a wary eye towards an all-orange limo tour, I fully realize that I have an 18 year old daughter myself…which firmly establishes that I have no earthly idea what appeals to kids.  Not a clue!  Maybe this staff does. And somewhat of an analogy comes to mind when I think about the antics of Lane Kiffin in his short tenure at Tennessee.  I have heard more than a few comments from UT faithful who say, “Whether you agree or disagree with his tactics, Kiffin is doing everything possible to make people take notice of Tennessee again.”

I’d say a quick look at the final tally on UT’s recruiting class, shows he’s off to a damn good start.  In their own way, Chizik and his staff appear to be taking a similar approach in saying, “You may point and laugh now, but you WILL have to deal with us later.”  There are many who simply cannot bring themselves to jump on Gene Chizik’s bandwagon, if there even is such a thing.  The confusing selection for Auburn’s head coach still has some entrenched in their foxhole, awaiting the impending doom and end of Auburn Football as we know it.  Whether or not Mr. Chizik is assembling and directing a program that will make Auburn a player on the national scene again…only time will tell. But, whatever happens won’t be for lack of effort and innovation.  The next couple of years should be quite a ride.

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