Friday, January 30, 2015

Auburn's Understated Needs of 2015 Signing Day: Center

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Social media is currently  inundated with National Signing Day articles. It is a flood of flips and flops, hopes and dreams of a mythical NSD championship. And, for the 5th year in a row, the rest of College Football is scrambling for the Tide's scraps. Yes, it's true (and hard to admit). Alabama will sign the most ESPN 300 players in history on their way to perhaps the greatest recruiting class in modern recruiting history. 

Theoretically...of course.  Talent sure helps, but it doesn't win trophies. Alas, we must press on. 

But, no, I don't want to talk about THEM. I want to talk about the Tigers. And, I don't want to talk about the same things all the beat reporters have already told you. 

It's no secret that skill position players are always glitzy and glamorous. The 5-star studs everyone is talking about, whether at QB, RB, WR or otherwise have fans wringing their hands. Fans simply can't wait to see these talented plays get their hands on the ball. And, why not? They do amazing things when they have the ball. I admit it, I am excited to see Kerryon Johnson take the field for the Auburn Faithful. So much so, that I wrote an article about how it was imperative that Auburn MAKE SURE he makes it to The Loveliest Village on the Plains, called Keeping KJ. Take a second to read it. Across the SEC, schools are stockpiling these skill position players with reckless abandon. Auburn is right there with them. 

When I decided that I wanted to partake in the NSD discussions, I wanted to talk about Auburn's actual NEEDS in recruiting. The needs I came up with, off the top of my head, were the same ones that most all the beat reporters had listed, though I disagree with the priority that they have. Yes, Auburn has some definite needs on the backend of their defense. Auburn has a very understate need at receiver, and it isn't getting talked about....but I will get there.

Looking for some inspiration, I started thinking about the major losses on the offense. Obviously, most expect Jeremy Johnson to be as productive as Marshall, just in a different way. Losing Sammie Coates hurts, but it is almost completely offset by the return of Duke Williams. CAP led the SEC in rushing, but most expect Robinson and Thomas to match his numbers, combined at least. Then, I thought about Reese Dismukes. After the 2013 campaign where the Auburn offensive line was a road grater, I expected Reese to come out with Greg Robinson. I even wrote that having Reese return was more important than having Tre Mason return in my Secret to Success in 2014 post. He returned and was a front runner all season for the Rimington Award, which he eventually won. Because of the late season implosion of the team, the bruised and battered fan base didn't quite grasped the enormity of that award, or what losing the player who won it would feel like. 

The success of this past generation can be weighed on the experience of the center. 2004, 2010, and 2013/14 ...all regarded as the best offensive units in a generation, all featured the same thing: an offensive unit that had gone through trial-by-fire as freshman and sophomores before turning into an all-SEC cohesive unit. Dismukes, like his predecessors in Ingle (2004) and Pugh (2010) were tested early in their career before turning in superior performances later. Dismukes will go on to an NFL career where his predecessors did not, but that isn't surprising as Dismuke was highly regarded coming out of HS as f the best center in the nation by most recruiting services. While I take all of the recruiting with a grain of salt, after reading his bio and watching his game film, I listed him as a "can't miss" All-SEC caliber player before he even arrived on campus. I believed it so much that at fan day in 2011, he was the first autograph I went after. A true freshman center wasn't hard to find, as you can imagine. Dismukes started as a true freshman.

Throughout his career, he missed several games for several reasons, notably the game against Clemson in 2012. In his place, several players made ghastly appearances. for example, Tunde Fariyke managed to snap balls over his QBs head on multiple occasions. With Dismukes out of the game, the drop off in offense was always notable. Dismukes hasn't had the same backup in consecutive years, perhaps a testament to a lack of priority in recruiting.
Dismukes was a blue chip kid out of high school. Getting him on campus paid drastic dividends for Auburn to the tune of a 4 year starter and Rimington Award.  Dampeer was Dismukes in 2014 and seems poised to take the starting job in 2015. Yet, in my eyes, he isn't the tough, hard-nosed punisher that makes all the right calls at the line. 

So, I started thinking, even if Dampeer works out, who is behind him? 

With NSD just a few short days from now, I checked Auburn's current commitments, signed LOIs and early enrollers. Auburn has two guys already with signed LOIs that are offensive linemen, both listed as guards. Those would be 4-Star Tyler car and 3-Star Bailey Sharp. Carr is already one of the best overall prospects in the country, but his size (6-5 320) looks to prevent him from being a center. Outside of these two, Auburn has only 2 commitments playing offensive line. Both Kim and Harrell are 4-star guys. Harrell has prototypical size for a guard or tackle while Kim's size may lean towards the ability to play center. 

Scrolling through the list of centers on Rivals, you have to skip all the way to  #16 to find a kid that hasn't committed. And, from there down are nothing but 2-Star players.

I recognize that, at this point in their career, an offensive lineman could make the transition, but not all CAN. Playing center is a entirely different position than any other position on the line. The center has to make all the coverage calls, pick up the blitz, while listening to audibles from his QB. And, he touches the ball every single play. It doesn't stop there. The center has to also be able to get a good snap  to his QB and get into pass coverage efficiently, something harder than it seems. On run plays, he has to make difficult cut blocks, and is one of the few positions where it is expected to chip AND get to the second level on every play. If you watch Dismukes, you will see that every good between the tackles run is setup by a second level block on a linebacker. 

We talked earlier about how fans can't wait to see a certain 5-Star receiver get his 5 touches a game. But, little is said about the position that touches the ball every play. When it comes to center, it has to be a kid with a cerebral understanding of the game, attention to detail to ensure that every snap is great, the ability to be tough and physical with an oversized defensive tackle and  today's specimen of an SEC linebacker on every play. These jack-of-all-trades are far and few in between.

It is surprising to me that Auburn didn't manage to push for a replacement to Dismukes.  There were 4 4-Star centers in the 2015 class. Notre Dame, Iowa, Alabama and North Carolina managed to snag one of these guys. Kennedy went to Alabama, a line already stacked with potential NFL caliber. He will have to sit behind Kelly, already a multi-year starter. Hoge went to Notre Dame despite being from Idaho. The remaining two went to out of school teams....neither team a potential Top 25 team in 2015. 

Is it possible that Auburn might try a late push to flip one of these guys? You would think that an attempt would be made on Kennedy, who resides in Wetumpka. Despite being committed to the Tide, he is probably the best chance the Tigers have to flip a commitment at the 11th hour. 

Despite the claim that the Hurry Up No Huddle Offense is a faced-paced down hill, run first offense, it sometimes appears to me that Coach Malzahn's recruiting more resembles the West Coast Spread. There is more emphasis on the skill players than the line of scrimmage. Of his 21 current commitments,  HALF (10) are skill position players (and not a one is a straight WR...interestingly enough). Another 4 are LBs, which have been a sore spot at Auburn for some time.  For a team that wants to be physical upfront and limit mistakes, the Tigers have not recruited very well. 4 total OLs and none of those a legitimate center, the position that may be the most understated need on the roster.