Monday, March 3, 2014

The Auburn Realist: What Will A-Day Tell Us About the Offense

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Yes, I do realize that spring practice hasn't even kicked off quite yet. But this state is All Football-All the Time. Cause it sure ain't basketball OR baseball. Ok, maybe that's a low blow. Yes, I expect Coach Galloway to turn things around, but it ain't looking great. Coach Barbie has one foot out the door, looks like.

So, with National Signing Day behind us and Spring Practice ahead, what else would there be to talk about?

The beat reporters have done a job on keeping up to date with football in this lull between seasons, but it's their job after all. Most of the reporting seems to be centered around the 10-second rule or the upcoming NFL draft. Every once in awhile you catch something team related. I figured I would give yall something else to sink your teeth in to, though I don't claim it will be tasty. But, hey, if you listen to Finebaum and read the beat reporters, then I figure you will enjoy this JUST FINE.

It's true that I appreciate our former players and I sure hope they do well in the NFL. But I don't follow players. I follow a program, so while I do spend some time reading the headlines from the combine, I don't devote any  real effort to it. And, with the shape of the baseball and basketball programs, I would only attend if it's free. Which it usually is.

I will try not to be very generic or repeat anything else that you might have already read. And, if I do stumble upon one of those topics (which I know I will), please forgive me and rest assured that I will try to throw a fresh spin on it.

Ok, let's go stream-of-thought on you guys. What will A-Day possibly tell us about the season? On offense, not likely much. The two most dominant players to don the Orange and Blue in the last quarter century were Tre Mason and Cam Newton. Mason didn't take a snap in A-Day last year and Cam threw a total of like 89 passes in A-Day 2010. It should be noted that it wasn't by design. Mason was still nursing an injury that paved that way for Artis-Payne to become the Offensive MVP of 2013. Additionally, Mason didn't secure himself as the premier back in the fold until midseason, really. Personally, I pencil in the TAMU game as his official Heisman map marker game. With Cam, nobody understood what "6-6-2fiddy" was capable of until he was "live" in games. I think everyone knew he could  throw the ball, but he wasn't accurate in the spring game, though I thought at the time that it wasn't accuracy as much as the velocity he was throwing at his hapless receivers. Additionally, he hadn't learned "the system" quite yet, since he hadn't been there for very long. In fact, it took fall practice to name him a starter, if we call recall.

The Development of Cameron Artis-Payne
It would be easy to see CAP reclaim his Offensive MVP as he did last year. Yet, he saw the number of snaps in last years game due to Mason's injury and a lack of real depth behind him. I do expect CAP to be the full time starter this year. Unlike Mario Fannin circa 2010, CAP doesn't seem to have a fumbling or pass dropping issue that Fannin displayed his entire career. Fainnin shot himself in the foot time and time again, giving a true freshman in Mike Dyer the opportunity to see the field far earlier than he really should have. Though Roc Thomas may be as good or better than any of the aforementioned backs, I don't think CAP will relinquish any real meaningful snaps during the season, especially since Thomas won't be arriving until summer. Furthermore, CAP has displayed the skills needed to be incredibly successful in the SEC, it just so happens that he was competing with the best Auburn back since Bo, which includes a laundry list of NFL talent. What CAP doesn't have behind him at Spring Practice is serious depth. Ford has shown "flashes", so we read, in small games. But, I don't think he is a real contender to the Auburn Throne. Grant isn't, nor will he ever be, an inside runner. So, what will we see at A-Day? We will see exactly where this coaching staff sees CAP fitting into the picture. I see him getting 1-2 series. I see him getting 10 touches on the ground and maybe 1 in the air, then be done for the day. If that is indeed the case, expect him to be the premier back in this offense for 2014. If he plays the whole half, even if he doesn't get the touches, it would tell us that he hasn't set himself apart from the field. Whether that is attitude, pass blocking, or running skill, will remain to be seen. But, like I said, I expect him to get a little sweaty, then get cleaned up for autographs....which I will be getting.

Who Plays Behind CAP
The real question will be who comes in behind CAP. Will Ford be the next in line? The coaching staff still hasn't decided just what they will do with the young and versatile player. What color will he don for the game...or will he don both. If he plays for the defense, that will be very telling about the development of the defensive backfield.....but we will discuss that later. I do think it will be interesting to see where he lines up in the offense. He doesn't seem to be cut from one mold or the other, speaking of the speed back vs the tailback. When he comes out from the tunnel this spring, we will see what his body shape has done. Will be scale down and get the speed up, or maybe add those critical 15 or 20 pounds to make him an inside threat? Of course, if this is anything like the A-Days of yonder times, expect one half of premier backs and a half of the punching bag.

The Development of Receivers
Unlike the running backs, starting receivers can stay on the field far longer than their beefier counterparts. And this group needs every snap it can get. Going back even to Malzahn's first year in 2009, other than an occasional deep threat, there has been one genuine talent at receiver in Emory Blake. He has been the only receiver that could be thrown to in any position OTHER than wide open or on a sideline. Darvin Adams struggled mightily in the open field. The only time he was a legitimate threat was on the sideline or wide open. Don't get me wrong, getting open is a skill. Outside of Adams and Blake, there is a Christmas List of talent that simply has not produced from the receiver corp. While I blame the talent sources like 247 and Rivals for hyping up the talent levels of some of these players and our expectations of them, a kid who drops the ball should never see the field in the SEC. Never. It's not up for debate. That means you either have to find someone who can come in and catch the ball or develop what you have to catch it.  This past years seemingly meager aerial game wasn't nearly as much a product of Marshall's inability to throw as much as it was the receivers inexplicable ability to drop balls. That's one reason cupcakes games are scheduled off the bat. Get those drops out. And yet we STILL saw them in every game this past season. Sammy Coates has been a great feel good story and fantasy football option, but even as the CLEAR number 1 target, he still dropped balls that had no business being dropped. That doesn't even scratch the surface of players like Louis, who can ONLY catch passes that are tipped over his head(though I am glad he can) and 5-Star Busts like Trovon Reed who can't catch a cold. Look, I know that sounds harsh, but it is what it is. I want them to succeed, obviously, but if they can't catch a pass, they can't be on the field.

Whew, that was a bit of a rant to say this: We should see zero drops from our possession receivers. I will be specifically interested to see how Reed and Bray look in the slot, come A-Day. I have waited....patiently.....for both of these guys to make SOME sort of impact, Bray especially. If we see drops from these guys, we will be in trouble. Their position on the field as a quasi-slot players carries the responsibility of catching the ball in traffic and making yards after catch. They are the chain movers. Neither one of these guys have been able to do that yet. If they can go through A-Day, be productive, and not drop balls, we will learn that the offense will indeed be balanced. Even as a 80/20 run team, the ability to bust the long ball will always be there, but that doesn't mean a team is balanced. This is perhaps the most important thing to see on A-Day in terms of overall effect on offensive production.

The Emergence of D'haquille Williams and the Effect on Sammy Coates
Another important thing to learn from A-Day will be just how D'haquille Williams will be used and it's effect on Coates. I feel confident that Sammy Coates will continue to develop. Additionally, we should see the return of Denson and the emergence of D'haquille Williams, though not all 3 of these guys can be stars. No offense to Denson, but I don't think he fits here.  It will be interesting to see what happens to Coates when he has a legitimate threat in Williams to compete against. It's quite possibly that Auburn hasn't had anyone to challenge Coates for playing time for the last 2 years, which may ultimately push him down the deep threat depth chart or up the draft boards. So, what to watch? Does Williams come out with the starters on A-Day? If he does, what other personnel are on the field with him? If he and Coates are on the field at the same time for a whole series, which we expect to happen early, it will be very telling on what to expect from the receiver corps. The fact is, there can only be so many receivers on the field at one time and Williams didn't come to sit on the bench. Couple that with statements like "once in a lifetime receiver" and you wonder if this is the perfect storm for the Auburn offense or the demise of a folk hero in Coates. Ultimately I expect to see both these young men on the field at the same time with either Bray and/or Reed. I expect Coates yards per catch to come down to a more Earth like number, but I expect the number of catches to go up with the development of the slot receivers and an additional deep threat in Williams. So, again, come the first couple of series, check on the the receiver rotation. Who is in with whom? If Williams and Coates come out with different groupings, then obviously one or the other isn't quite what everyone thinks they are. If Williams and Coates are in together, we may be seeing a 2004-like receiver corp in the making with an electric QB to guide them. Of course, none of that matters if they can't get open, catch the ball, or get it thrown to them.

How Little Will We See Marshall
I admit that last year I fully expected Wallace to be the starter for the first 3 games. I fully believed that Marshall would be a great athlete and would start, but I didn't think he would be the starting QB. I admit that after the Mississippi State Game, I *ALMOST* went so far as to say that I expected Marshall to play receiver this year and Jeremy Johnson at QB. To be fair, none of us saw Marshall until the first game, so it was kinda hard to tell WHAT we were getting. And, his first two games weren't exactly stellar. So, you have the future 2 year starter (at least) in Jeremy Johnson waiting in the wings, Sean White coming in, Tyler Queen behind him. All of these guys are supposed to be "The Future" and, to JJs credit, he has played lights out. I almost want to be mad at burning his redshirt last year. Almost. I expect Marshall to play 2 series, 3 at most, and 1 series wouldn't surprise me. If he comes out and hits 5/5 on his first possession, I wouldn't be surprised that he takes a seat. More likely he will misfire a pass or two, have a few throwing possessions and go 8/10 and 2 TDS, then spend a series handing the ball off. We won't see that scrambling we all love and I have serious doubts that Coach is going to showcase just how good a pocket passer Marshall can be on National TV. If he comes out as I have said, hits 8/10 for 120 and 2 TDs, life will be good on the Plains.

How Much will We See Jeremy Johnson
Like many fans, I am foaming at the mouth to see this kid play. I admit that we bought the Western Carolina game JUST to see him play and we weren't disappointed in the slightest. From all we have heard, he is THE FUTURE. But, none of us expected Marshall to do what he did last year. Not a person on this earth saw it coming. I think many of us were more excited at the prospect of NOT seeing Wallace/Frazier/Whomever play QB than we were to see JJ become the starter. So, I am looking for Jeremy to show just how good he really is against what I think will be a much improved Auburn defense. Just how many series he sees and against what defense he plays against will tell us about the coaches plans for him.

How Will the Line Replace Greg Robinson
Midst the great season, none of us appreciated this young man until the draft board said he was a potential number 1. Yet, everything you needed to know about him was well documented over the course of the last few years. The previous (not to be named) offensive coordinator had the line playing a zone-block scheme that wasn't good for Greg's freakish athleticism. A man like that doesn't need to wait on the pass rush. He needs to dominate, and so he did. Waiting in the wings are several great alternatives, but none as good. Otherwise we wouldn't be discussing it. Since the raw talent and obviously great technique isn't there, it will be up the vets to shoulder the load early as they break in a new starter. Not a problem, I think. Since we have a great leader up front who is as mean as a snake. I expect Dismukes to have an outstanding senior season and to lead the newcomer, whomever it may be. This is the second most important thing to see on A-Day. Will there be a clear number 1 or a rotation to see whom a starter will be? This is a position that needs to be locked down ASAP. If we see someone start for 2 or 3 series in a row at that spot, rest assured that Auburn will be successful.