Monday, December 22, 2014

Where Does Auburn Look to Replace Offensive Production in 2015

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By now you know that Sammie has declared for the NFL. Am I surprised? No. Did I think he should stay? Well, you can read my article about why I thought he and Duke should return for 2015. With Sammie's departure, all eyes look to #1. To me, he is a more NFL ready player than Sammie and many project him as a 1st rounder. 

Let's assume for a minute that Duke does declare for the NFL. By a quick estimation, losing the seniors in addition to these two would be devastating to the future of the 2015 Auburn Tiger team. That's over 6,700 yards and 46 TDs from a total of 8600 and 51 TDs. That's a 78% loss. 
***Writer's Note: Duke WILL return for the 2015 season as per 247sports on 12/29***

The last time we saw such a departure of talent on the Plains was the 2011 draft. Auburn lost Cam Newton, Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery, Mario Fannin and many parts of it's terrific offensive line. That added up to roughly 75% of the Tiger's offensive production. 

The key difference lies in  the 4 offensive line starters the 2010 team lost,  more  than the future 2015 squad will have lost.  However the key cog, Dismukes, that the 2014 line will lose weighs much heavier . In the last 3 years, we have seen the talent and execution split between Dismukes and his backups. All in all, the losses between these two squads is an even push, though I do recognize that you can't easily dismiss what Dismukes meant to this team. After all, he is the only player that touches the ball 100% of the time.  Last year, I write that he would be more important to the Tigers than Tre Mason.  The difference relies on the returning talent.

The 2010 squad returned or replaced a fair amount of talent. Guys like Greg Robinson, Dyer, Lutz, McCalebb, and Emory Blake would eventually make their way into the NFL (minus Dyer), so the talent was there. Yet, the Tiger's were a one pony show with a predictable running game between Dyer and McCalebb. The Tigers passed for nearly 1,000 yards less in 2011 (the two starting QBs combined) than Cam threw for in 2010. And, to be fair, much of that yardage was against inferior competition. Down the stretch, the Tigers were simply terrible in all offensive facets. 

While I expect Malzahn to have a good offense next year, without the 2014 playmakers, what can we expect?

Offensive Line
It all starts up front, so lets talk about the big uglies. Auburn losses one of the best, if not THE best center in the country in Reese Dismukes. Replacing him will be no easy task and Auburn will look to its returning starters to shuffle. As I mentioned, Auburn has struggled mightily at center when anyone other than Dismukes has played. Additionally, Chad Slade will be lost to graduation. However, the Tigers are stacked on the line. After all, Braden Smith comes off his freshman season as one of the most praised linemen in the group, though he didn't make a start at an interior line position. Auburn also returns All SEC Freshman from 2013 Alex Kozan, who missed the entire 2014 season. Miller, Young, Leff, and Coleman return. Austin Golson, an amazingly talented transfer from Ole Miss, will likely replace one of the aforementioned part time starters. Of those names, at least 3 are potential NFL prospects. This group wasn't as good as the 2013 road graters, but they were good enough to win. With another years experience, this group may be the best in the SEC in 2015. But, as I have said many times, none of this matters if the center can't make the right calls and make good snaps. That is a prime concern for this unit heading forward. 

Running Backs
Auburn's running back corp appears to be one of the deepest in the country, if you want to add up those mythical stars. Few teams in the country have a single 5 star running back on their roster. Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson are both 5-Star guys. Peyton Barber and Kamyrn Pettway are both 3-Stars, though each have had accolades heaped on them by the coaching staff. Additionally, Auburn may boast a future 5-star recruit in Kerryon Johnson in 2015, if they can fend off all of the pressure to flip him. though I expect him to play WR. Realistically, Alabama is the only school in the country that can boast at having such a deep and talented running back committee. 

Though most of us celebrate National Signing Day as some form of championship, games aren't won on high school talent ratings. We can only go with what we have seen. What have we seen?

We saw Barber for exactly one play in the A-Day game in a terrific 14 yard run that ended with a fumble and an injury. He made sporadic appearances in the 2014 season, but was a non-factor.

We saw Roc Thomas sporadically throughout the year. He ran his way to 214 yards on a 5.0 average, which was the lowest of anyone on the Tiger squad that had more than 10 carries. We also saw him catch 6 passes for 27 yards, none more important than the first play of the Iron Bowl, which he muffed and failed to cover. He also returned kicks, but the Auburn return game was notably quiet in 2014 after being a legitimate threat at all times in 2013.  Perhaps I am being unfair to him. Most of the time, he looked great as he ran behind the Auburn line. However, he was pulled after some very good series throughout the year, which left many of us scratching our heads, none more notable than the 1 series he played against Mississippi State. 

To me, Jovon Robinson is the best chance Auburn to continue the pipeline of Auburn backs. I have said it many times. Stars are great, but playing against high school kids is one thing. Playing in college is another level. And playing against SEC-caliber teams is on a different planet. When considering expectations, I will take a successful JUCO transfer all day, any day. There are many factors that play into becoming a successful college player, and they aren't all talent. Give me a kid that has proven over 1 or 2 years that he can 1)make the grades, 2)stay out of trouble(cue the Jason Smith comments) and 3)produce against equal competition.  Robinson has done all of these things and is practicing RIGHT NOW. The twice-committed Auburn player is a 5-star guy who is 6 foot and 225 pounds. He ran for almost 2400 yards and 34 TDs on 272 carries. Do the math. 

It is hard for me to really think that Auburn can continue to pump out NFL back after NFL back. But, over time, Auburn has proven that it CAN and WILL do just that. I can think of only 1 back (Brad Lester) in the last 20 years that hasn't been an NFL-caliber back. It's hard to argue with those kind of numbers, especially with how well Malzahn has proven to do with recruiting and use of these players. Only time will tell if Robinson is as good as Mason and CAP. But, I firmly believe that Thomas is an upgrade at the speed back or backup position than Malzahn has featured in past years. In this regard, I believe the Auburn RB core is on par or slightly above previous squads, especially considered the POTENTIAL of Barber/Johnson. There is a very real chance that Robinson/Thomas could be the best back duo at Auburn since Cadillac and Brown. That comparison has been thrown around a lot since those boys left the Plains in 2004. We have said similar things about Tate/McCalebb, Dyer/McCalebb, Mason/Grant, etc. And while all these combos were dangerous, this one is unique. Brown/Williams were do-it-all backs. They didn't have unique things each could do that the other could not. Both of these guys could play 3 downs, and both did. I expect Robinson to be a mostly 3-down back with Thomas spelling him on 3rd and longs, though I do think Thomas can ALSO play all 3 downs. The duo reminds me of the typical RB combo that Alabama features, specifically the Henry/Yeldon combo. While I detest most everything about the Tide, they get it right when it comes to RB recruiting and implementation.

While many Auburn fans fret about having a guy like Thomas as a 3rd down back, who contributed immediately in 2014, I ask that you read the next paragraph. Auburn will have a terrific line and limited ability at the wideout and tight end position. The Auburn running back core will revert back to 2013 form, with touches aplenty for these guys.

Assuming Duke leaves, Auburn loses the entirety of its receiver production.  Yes, I do know that several guys that have caught passes over the last few years will return, but these guys have not produced much. Of the 21 TD catches in 2014, only 4 return. In addition to Sammie, Duke, and Bray, Auburn also loses Grant, Uzomah and Fulse.

Many Auburn fans will note that Louis, the instrument of the Prayer in Jordan-Hare returns, but despite all the talk to the contrary, he remained the exact same player we have seen in his previous 3 years. Drop prone. He does remain a threat to run the ball, as he has blistering speed. Sometimes I wonder if the offense wouldn't be best served by using him in the backfield exclusively.

Melvin Ray and Marcus Davis have caught almost every ball thrown to them. They both have shown the ability to catch in traffic, which is something that only Duke showed in 2014. While Coates is one of the best deep threats in the country and he has amazing measurables, he is unable or unwilling to catch the ball coming across the field. There were times during the season (TAMU and UGA) where the offense desperately needed a 1st down and the opposing defenses locked down the outside and forced Marshall to throw inside. With his borderline consistency throwing in lanes and the receivers inability to catch in traffic, defenses were able to make the Tigers very predictable. Without the deep threat in 2014, the Tigers must be able to throw across the middle. Johnson is extremely accurate and Ray/Davis have shown great flashes in this area.

But do the Tigers have the ability to stretch the field? I haven't seen anyone on the roster that is capable of doing it. Stanton Truitt has won a lot of praise from coaches. He has a 40 time of 4.3, giving him the ability to blow past guys, but at 5'10" he may not have the physicality to do what Coates has been able to do at the point of attack. He may have the ability to replace Bray as a chain mover. With is speed and moves, getting him as many quick touches will be the key. Tony Stevens may be the key to stretching the field. Though he was limited in 2013 and 2014, coaches were willing to burn his redshirt to get him on the field. At 6'3" with good speed, he has a chance to be the deep threat and redzone target.

One of the most interesting, and telling, moves in the offseason has been the move for Johnathan Wallace to receiver. Obviously much of that has to do with the two guys in front and the one guy behind him on the depth chart. But, there are other positions that he could play, or he could transfer to another school to play QB. Instead, his move could offer us a glimpse into a potential reality. Auburn is bare with receiver production and Auburn has to shore up the depth chart with guys who have game experience. Recall the 2010 team again. Kodi Burns didn't get moved to receiver because he was awesome at the position. He was moved there because Adams/Zachery were the only proven play makes aside from a sophomore, Blake.

Auburn has theoretically recruited well at the receiver position, but unlike the running back position, the production tells the story. For whatever reason, Malzahn limited these guys in the last 2 years. In addition, while the recruiting says these guys are great, you will not replace 2 potential first rounders AND your top two tight ends without a dropoff.I go back to what I said before. Recruiting sites are great, but they hardly tell the whole story. When it comes to stars, there are as many busts as booms, which Auburn has had PLENTY of at the WR position.  I DO think that 2016 will be a magical passing year, 2015 will be struggle, but not because of the QB (which we will discuss shortly) but because of the newness of the receiver core, the recruiting whiffs, and simple inexperience in games. With the lack of depth at this position and a potential SEC-best offensive line, expect a 2013 like season featuring 50-60 running plays a game.

There is no more important position on the field than the quarterback position. Though the Ohio State program has proven that it might have the deepest quarterback pool in the country, many regarded Auburn as having the best backup. I won't take much time to discuss it, because unlike the other positions mentioned above, Auburn has showcased Jeremy Johnson on multiple occasions in his first two seasons at Auburn. Johnson has simply been better in every category than Marshall, though one can't knock Marshall too much because he has proven to be one, if not the best, clutch QB in Auburn history. A pure passer, Johnson posted a 201 passer rating, completing 28 of his 37 passes for 3 TDs and no INTs in 2014, backing up a 195 rating where he was 29/41 and 6/2 as a true freshman in 2014. He was simply perfect against Arkansas, who may be the most improved team on 2014.

Most fans need no introduction to the 6'5" passer. Most fans would agree that Marshall was exciting and clutch, all would agree that the ceiling for Auburn with Johnson is a lot higher. Though he isn't the outside runner that Marshall was, he has many benefits that Marshall did not. Standing almost half a foot higher with a ridiculous release point, Johnson will not be affected by defenders in passing lanes, which was the cause of the losses at Mississippi State and against TAMU. Though Marshall improved drastically in his throwing and decisions, his INTs rose in 2014, thanks to at least 3 batted balls that were picked. Auburn may very well stand at 10-2 right now, had Marshall stood a little taller.

Auburn's success in the last decade has been on the shoulders of JUCO transfers. Auburn has failed to be able to recruit a player from HS and turn him into a winner. Since 2009 Auburn has won the vast majority of its games by Todd/Newton/Marshall. Only Brandon Cox can boast being a winning recruit. Auburn has featured Burns/Trotter/Moseley/Frazier as players who were whiffs at the QB position. JUCO transfers are 42-14 while recruits are 15-18. Coincidentally, Johnson is responsible for 3 of those 15 wins. Yikes. Just think about that for a minute.

You can see why Auburn is so excited about Johnson and it isn't all about his ability. Auburn has been heavily criticized for using "mercs" to win. Auburn faithful are ready to win with a player that doesn't have baggage, real or imaginary. The upside to Johnson is limitless and it wouldn't be foolish to name him as a Heisman darkhorse for 2015. However, his lack of receivers around him will hamper those abilities. Of the teams replacing QBs in the SEC, Auburn can boast of being the most comfortable. They already have a guy who has started games and looked flawless.

Auburn will bring back one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, if it can replace Dismukes. The running back position is in as good of shape as it has been in previous years, which is just par for the course for a team who has put more backs in the NFL than any other. Though Auburn has tremendous talent at the QB position, I feel like 2015 will be a throwback to 2013. That would be a 50 running play per game, road grating offense. Additionally, the rebuilding of the defense will be enhanced by taking loads of time off the clock in each offensive possession. But, don't be surprised if Johnson still posts a 15-17 TD year with a completion percentage bordering on 75%. Cam wasn't a great intermediate route passer, but he had the ability to set up play action passes due to the thumping ground game. As a result, he posted a ridiculous passing percentage (66%) on 30 TD passes, which were almost entirely deep passes. The question on if Auburn can produce at receiver will be the largest concern moving forward, as it hasn't shown any growth in the last 2 years outside of Coates/Williams. I wouldn't be surprised if the Outback Bowl isn't a featured game for new wideouts. Don't be surprised if neither Coates or Williams sees the field. In all, I expect this unit to be on par with 2013 in terms of running back production, though it is enhanced with Johnson at the helm. 2015 might not be as good as 2013, but it will provide a year of growth for a magical 2016 campaign.