Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Best5Zach's Best 5 Offensive Questions Heading Into Spring

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Spring practice is HERE and I am DYING to read, write, and talk Auburn football. 

That being said, I am going to try and avoid repeating the same stuff you have undoubtedly read from our beat reporters. Those guys get paid to give you their opinions, and those opinions are already all over the web. If I say the same thing, why would you want to come on the blog and read what I have to say?  I want you coming here to read a differing opinion. 

Ok ok ok. So a lot of it WILL be similar. After all, it's easy to see some of the glaring holes and huge story lines. It's easy to get SUPER HOPPED UP ON JEREMY JOHNSON. 

K. Well, I'm getting ahead of myself....

Let's talk offense, and before I get started...let's cherry pick what you have already read about. Try and read past a lot of the sarcasm in some of these bullets. 

CAP (SEC-leading rusher) is gone. Auburn will have to decide between Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson. 

Coates is gone. Duke returned. Whoop. Whoop.

Jeremy Johnson is a better QB than Marshall. 

Golson is going to slide over to center and replace Rimington Award winner, Reese Dismukes. 

I have to admit, the flavor I get from all of the articles I have read is that Auburn is upgrading errrwhere and that the offense will be bigger and better than ever. 

But Auburn losses almost all of its offensive production and *perhaps* the most valuable interior lineman in the modern era. It also losses guys like Uzomah and Fulse, who provided stability at their position for 4 years. Toss in a bonus early departure in Pat Miller and you have an offense that losses more men than it returns. 

Let's talk it out. 

The Jeremy Johnson Era

Am I excited about JJ taking over? Absolutely. But, in a different sense than most Auburn fans. College fans have this annoying habit of dismissing players who don't go out on top in favor of "the next man up." In this case, Nick Marshall exits Auburn as *perhaps* the greatest clutch player in Auburn history. Sound like heresy to you Cam fans? Sorrynotsorry. Cam is certainly the most dominate player to play at Auburn, and in the SEC, for that matter. But Cam didn't face the week to week struggle of winning games *despite* his defense....for two years. For all intents and purposes, Marshall was virtually UNSTOPPABLE. Yet, he didn't finish on top, so fans are eager to move on. Years from now, he will be forgotten as his stats slide down the ledger and we will forget the stats that matter. Things like how Auburn lost 3 games this year despite scoring 30 or more points. Of the 7 games he lost in his career, he was held under 20 points JUST ONCE. 

No. I am NOT excited because Johnson is a better QB than Marshall. 

I am excited because the QB that takes snaps on opening day won't be a total mystery. In 1994, I had pretty high hopes for Auburn, despite losing Stan White. Why? Not because I thought that Pat Nix was BETTER. But because, in the limited action I had seen (as a 12 year old, mind you), he wasn't worse. I was reasonably certain that Auburn wouldn't face "breaking in a new QB." Teams are extremely vulnerable, regardless of the rest of the pieces around them, when breaking in a new QB. Let's keep in mind that Auburn opens up against an EXTREMELY formidably Louisville team who has had a game wreaking defense predicated on turnovers. While they allow points, they are a top 10 fantasy team because of the amount of sacks, fumbles, and INTs they produce. Other than Houston, I can't think of another team that did it better in 2014. If Johnson hadn't benefited from playing time early in his career, I might actually be a Louisville lean, as it is a neutral site. But, Johnson has a handful of starts under his belt. His start against Arkansas in 2014 was nearly flawless. 

Now, let me clear up some things. Jeremy Johnson is a polished passer who can make every single throw, and do it with a cannon of an arm. Is he better than Marshall, as a passer? Yes. I think so, but not by as wide a margin as I read about. First off, regarding arm strength, we tend to dismiss Marshall's arm strength. This is the guy who had all Auburn fans salivating when his highlight reel showed him throwing a 70 yarder....on the run.  I think back to many throws he made, like one in the SEC Championship game where he threw a rope on a dead sprint to a tiny window in the endzone. I am not belittling Johnson. I am setting expectations. And, let's be real...we all really want JJ to be a success for reasons other than winning

Everything I read outright states that Auburn's offense with Johnson will be a pass-happy offense that will be much more efficient than the previous mode. I see Marshall's completion percentage put into question, but the truth is, Coates was targeted more than any other receiver by a wide margin in 2014, but he caught 40-something percent of those passes. Though he was rough in 2013, Marshall was as sharp and crisp as any other QB in the country, yet he had a receiver core that had struggles with dropsies, Coates most of all, who put that on display at the NFL combine, proved many of my observations about him. He needed another year in college

To sum up, again, Johnson is a different animal, not necessarily better or worse. Just different. To me, the arm strength comparison is a push. The accuracy is a slight edge to Johnson, though we have not seen him under real pressure. Escapebility and the ability to create yards has to go in Marshall's favor. Is there a reason for hype? Sure. Auburn won't take a big step back on opening day, and that is worth getting excited about. Will Auburn have an even better offense BECAUSE of JJ? Well, no. That depends on the parts around him, which is a lead into....

The Development of Receivers OUTSIDE of Duke

This time last year, I was preaching about how Auburn MUST develop other receivers outside of Coates, specifically a slot receiver. Duke came exactly as advertised, but Auburn really rolled when Bray was involved. Bray turned in his best year in 2014 with 40 something chain-moving catches. Louis continued his status-quo with another inconsistent year. I learned my lesson with Trovon Reed. You can get better in a lot of areas in college. You can get faster. You can get stronger. You can run routes better. But, if you can't catch....you can't catch. And, Louis can't catch. He is a fine speed-sweep guy. If he can get better blocking the perimeter, he can really contribute. But he will not be what Bray was. 

To that extent, Auburn must bring on the veterans who have seen so little playing time. Ray, Davis, and Stevens have all shown flashes any time they have been targeted. One might think that their limited use in the passing game may come down to their play away from the ball, but they are almost always in the game in running situations. So, I simply don't understand why they haven't been used more. It makes you wonder if they just aren't that good. These guys are good targets, but i haven't seen any game-breaking skills after the catch. What I have seen leads me to believe that they are at least AVERAGE. But, average doesn't win national titles. Auburn needs elite playmakers with the ball in their hands.  If these guys aren't it, who is? 

During the National Signing Day week, I wrote about Auburn's need for another game-breaking WR. Truitt has been billed as a shifty speedster who can take it all the way after the catch. But, we didn't see him do it last year after spending all year on the bench with injuries. Auburn signed two guys who both have the ability to fill in for Bray's absence and even provide an upgrade.  

Kerryon Johnson may be the next McFadden or Bush. Ok. So, I don't REALLY believe that. That isn't a slight on KJ, honest. I REALLY think he is a great player. And, I REALLY think it is amazing that Auburn retained him, despite the late push from every other school.  No, I believe that because I don't think Auburn is that lucky. Or maybe it's the step-child syndrome kicking in. Maybe it's my evaluation of his talent. So, though I don't think he is as great as those 2 guys, I do think that he is as flexible and electric as Auburn has seen. And, since he won't be the focus of the offense, it gives him the ability to really shine when he does get the ball.

The other option is Slayton, who really jumped out to me on film. I won't say much about him, but if you want my thoughts on him, go read them here. Suffice it to say that I am really excited about this receiver and what he can do. 

So, long story short, Auburn has Duke, which is AWESOME in and of itself. But, if the offense is going to evolve into a big time passing unit as everyone expects, the rest of the receivers need to come along...and soon. 

Who is Next at Tight End
Honest question here. I don't know. Now, I admit that I was puzzled this year with the limited use of the tight end, so many may say "who cares?" Uzomah is probably puzzled as well, as a good year in 2014 would have translated into a solid NFL pick. However, it wasn't in the cards and he saw fewer targets than many had figured. He was snubbed at the NFL combine, but showed out at his pro day. Auburn also losses fellow senior tight end, Fulse, who was more of an in-line blocker. Ricky Parks, a consensus top TE prospect, was kicked off the team TWICE. Who will fill in? Regardless of if the need is for a pass catcher OR for a blocker, Auburn lost a TON of talent AND experience....and no one is talking about that. I kinda want to see Braden Smith continue to line up out there. I don't know if he can catch, but I know he can block. The kid is an athletic monster who reminds me of JJ Watt. 

Next at Center
To me, this is the biggest question of the spring. This is the guy who makes all the coverage calls. Who handles the ball on every single play. Auburn is losing perhaps the best one it has ever had, and certainly the best in the country in 2014. Everyone loves talking skill positions, but this is the position where we lose the most talent and experience, bar none. How do you replace a 4 year starter who was the best at his position in the entire country? More importantly, how does this happen and no one talk about it? We all want to talk about who will get carries out of the backfield, but no one wants to talk about how or if the ball will get there.

The speculation is that Golson will take over center duties after sitting out a transfer year. The highly touted kid from Ole Miss is a terrific lineman who turned heads at Ole Miss before he left. He was one of the top prospects in the country coming out of high school. But can he play center in the SEC? I read things like "sliding over to center" like it's no big deal. It is. Which is why I stated that center was an understated need for Auburn at signing day. Auburn did land Kim, who was one of the top centers in the country. But, the last kid to start as a true freshman is the guy he is replacing. And, the chances of Kim being as good as Dismukes are.....slim. 

Auburn has Dampeer, who backed up Dismukes. That's about all we have heard about him. 

So, it's down to Dampeer and Golson. One of them will be making their first starts against a very good foe in 6 months. Sure hope we get the right one! I wouldn't be surprised if this battles goes into the fall. 

Will Auburn Copy Bama's RB System

Ok, so bear with me. This may be a stretch. 

Most of the conversation about Auburn's backfield has centered on who is taking hand-offs  between Barber/Thomas/Robinson. Or, if Thomas is going to take over the 2 back duties that Grant leaves open. However, I look at their skill sets and I wonder if we are thinking about this all wrong. We shouldn't be thinking in terms of hand-offs, but in total touches. We shouldn't be thinking about  forcing players into a mold, but how to better use them. 

Since Saban arrived at that stinky city on the river, Alabama has used a 2 (or sometimes 3) back system. Coffee and Ingram. Ingram and Richardson. Etc etc. To me, it has gotten better each and every year, culminating in 2014 with an absolutely electric backfield that took a backseat in Kiffin's pass happy offense. Despite not being as featured, Bama's system works, and works well. Auburn, under Malzahn, has used a differing approach. Though it also uses 2 backs, the backs are used very differently. Instead of lining up behind the QB, Auburn lines the 2md RB up all over the field, using pure speed.  It appears to me that while Bama's approach has gotten more efficient, Auburn's 2-back- attack was stifled outside of CAP. The speed sweep was not a factor in 2014. And, Grant wasn't featured in the passing game. Yet, Auburn used the same look all year without success. I imagine we might see more of the same in 2015, yet the current cast isn't set up nearly as well as the previous. 

What makes Bama's attack so efficient has been the use of backs in the passing game, a thing that has been all but forgotten by Malzahn. Whether it's hand-offs, screens, or short passes, Henry, Yeldon and Drake have been absolutely deadly with the ball in different ways despite lining up in the same position. I got to thinking about it. The more efficient use of Auburn's 3 backs isn't by putting them in different positions using them for only 1 use, but by using them in different ways from 1 position. Much like Drake, Thomas has shown promise with the ball in space after the catch. Robinson is a bruiser. Barber is somewhere in the middle. So, none of these guys can really be an every down back, yet, none really fit the mold of the backs Malzahn has used. 

The easiest solution would be to adopt the system that Bama has used. Line them all up in the same position and use them different ways. Auburn's offense has been labeled as using window dressing by moving players all over to confuse defense. But, sometimes the best camouflage is to use the exact same look to do differing things. Bama did this to near perfection for nearly a decade now. 

So, most fans are discussing which big time back will get all the hand offs and who will line up in Grant's place. But, I am willing to bet that we will see a departure from that in 2015. 

So, that's my best 5 questions for offense leading into spring. I'd love to hear your thoughts!