SEC Football Preview: Auburn

Gene Chizik

Casual Auburn football fans will need a game program when they arrive for the season opener versus Utah State to know who is in the starting lineup for the defending national champion Tigers.

NOTE: Auburn is picked to finish No. 5 in the SEC West by Scout.com publishers/writers.

As Gene Chizik begins his third season as head coach of the Tigers, he must replace eight starters on offense including the Heisman Trophy winner and SEC Player-of-the-Year, Cameron Newton.

The Tigers must also replace tackle Nick Fairley, the Lombardi Award winner and SEC Defensive Player-of-the-Year, who joined fellow junior Newton as a first-round selection in the NFL Draft.

Additionally, the Tigers must replace four-year starting kicker, Wes Byrum, the leading scorer in Auburn history, along with starting punter Ryan Shoemaker.

If that wasn't daunting enough, the Tigers have to replace the largest senior class in recent AU football history that featured 23 players along with Darvin Adams, the team's leading receiver, who is trying to make a pro roster after declaring for the draft following his junior season.

Raising the bar even higher for the Tigers is the fact that Chizik has dismissed five players this year for violation of team rules, including safety Mike McNeil, the leading tackler in Auburn's BCS Championship Game victory over Oregon.

The good news for Chizik is that there is still a lot of talent on campus, although much of it is young and inexperienced. There is ample opportunity for redshirt freshmen, sophomores and even true freshmen to compete for starting spots and playing time.

The offense will build around a pair of running backs who are coming off outstanding seasons. Michael Dyer broke Bo Jackson's Auburn freshman rushing record last fall and speedy Onterio McCalebb, who will be a junior, is one of the most dangerous ballcarriers in the SEC.

Who will replace Newton at quarterback is a still unanswered question. His top backup last season, Barrett Trotter, returns as a redshirt junior. Although Trotter was the favorite to win the No. 1 spot in the spring, in the eyes of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn the competition between Trotter and redshirt sophomore Clint Moseley was too close to call in April and will continue during preseason drills in August. Scout.com five-star quarterback Kiehl Frazier will join the mix after putting up impressive numbers as a passer and runner at Shiloh Christian in Springdale, Ark.

How well the quarterback plays will be partially determined by how quickly the Tigers can rebuild an offensive line that must replace All- America tackle Lee Ziemba, All-SEC center Ryan Pugh and two other multi-year starters. Line coach Jeff Grimes has talent to work with, but a limited amount of starting experience outside of senior tackle Brandon Mosley, who started the final 11 games last season after A.J. Greene was injured and lost for the season. Greene, a senior, is back and will likely be No. 1 at left tackle.

Proven juniors Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen will lead the receiver corps that was hit hard by graduation and the loss of Adams. Redshirt freshman Trovon Reed is a receiver to watch.

Defensively, the Tigers will miss Fairley and NFL draftee Zach Clayton plus Mike Blanc at tackle along with Antoine Carter at end. Nosa Eguae, who broke into the starting lineup last fall as a redshirt freshman, leads a solid group of ends, but the Tigers are short on depth at tackle and will count on newcomers to provide help behind sophomores Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof must replace multi-year starters at linebacker, Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, but could have a faster, more athletic group on the field featuring senior Eltoro Freeman, juniors Daren Bates and Jonathan Evans plus sophomore Jake Holland. Bates, Freeman and Evans all have starting experience.

The only returning starter in the secondary, senior Neiko Thorpe, made the move from cornerback to free safety in the spring and it looks like that will be his spot.

Chizik wasn't happy with the cornerback play last fall, but has potential there with young players like Chris Davis, Ryan White, Jonathan Mincy and Jonathan Rose in the mix along with junior T'Sharvan Bell, who looks primed for a big season.

Cody Parkey will likely be the kicker and fellow sophomore Steven Clark, who won the punting job last fall only to lose it during the season, has a strong leg.

Auburn's players say they believe they will have another talented team in 2011 and expect to make a strong run at defending their SEC title, however, that won't be easy to do with a demanding schedule and the loss of so many key players.

The road tests look particularly challenging with the Tigers playing at Clemson and South Carolina early in the season and later facing games at Arkansas, LSU and Georgia. Throw in home games against teams with Florida and Alabama and the Tigers will be challenged early and often in 2011.

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