AUBURN, Ala. – The Auburn Tigers begin their "new day" with some of the same old issues.
Those include question marks at quarterback and receiver and a defensive front that must show it's ready to stand up to the bullying Southeastern Conference. There are reasons for renewed optimism, too.
First-year coach Gus Malzahn has trumpeted the "it's a new day" theme since his hiring to run a program he helped win a national championship two years before last season's 3-9 freefall. Fans, who nearly filled Jordan-Hare Stadium for the spring game, and players appear to have bought in.
"Coach Malzahn stresses 'a new day' and that's what it feels like," H-back Jay Prosch said. "A new coaching staff came in, brought a new attitude, a new vibe. Brought a fire back into us. Guys are working hard. We're getting our edge back."
Malzahn brought more than a catch phrase to Auburn.
He returns with the fast-paced offense that Cam Newton ran to perfection in the 2010 title season. Malzahn has had a different starting quarterback every year of his college career, so this is nothing new. The former Tigers offensive coordinator even has another junior college transfer quarterback — Nick Marshall — gearing up for a second chance in the SEC, a la Newton.
Marshall had to contend with returnees Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace and freshman Jeremy Johnson in preseason camp.
A bowl bid would be a big step for Auburn, which hasn't missed the postseason in consecutive seasons since 1998-99.
"There's a lot of question marks going into this year," Malzahn said. "It's really hard for me to predict anything other than the fact that we'll learn a lot about or team during fall camp. We'll learn a lot about our team early in the season."
Five things to watch during Auburn's upcoming season:
1. WHO'S THE QUARTERBACK?: Auburn's quarterback play was abysmal during the one-year switch to a pro-style offense. The three starters combined for just eight touchdown passes and were intercepted 15 times and sacked 37. Marshall and Johnson, Alabama's Mr. Football, are trying to get a handle on Malzahn's offense during preseason camp. Marshall, a former Georgia defensive back, is a dual threat who was a 3,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher in junior college last season. Malzahn even removed the quarterbacks' orange, non-contact jerseys for the first scrimmage.
2. DEFENSIVE PROGRESS: Veteran coordinator Ellis Johnson has had Top-5 defenses at South Carolina and Alabama. He takes over a defense that ranked 79th and 81st the past two years in total yards allowed, though Auburn has eight returning starters. He's implemented his 4-2-5 defense. Defensive end Dee Ford led the team with six sacks last season, but the Tigers have especially struggled against the run the past two seasons.
3. NEWCOMERS: It's no surprise for a team coming off a miserable season, but the Tigers need instant help from the new guys, besides the QBs. Ellis Johnson has made it clear junior college transfers like linebacker Kenny Flowers, defensive tackle Ben Bradley and safety Brandon King weren't brought in to ride the bench. JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne could form a formidable tailback duo with 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason. The most intriguing spot is the defensive line, where Auburn brings in coveted prospects Carl Lawson, Montavius Adams and Elijah Daniel.
4. ATTITUDE: Auburn didn't put up much of a fight in late-season losses to Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama — by a collective score of 150-21. Players have raved about offseason workouts compared to last year. Malzahn said they've bought into the "new day" theme. He said the big key for the Tigers is to regain the mental and physical toughness and team-first mind-set. As he put it, "Lose the entitlement." Added Malzahn: "History shows if Auburn has their edge, they can compete for championships and win games."
5. PLAYING CATCH: The Tigers' returning wide receivers had a collective 33 catches last season, 17 fewer than Emory Blake. Quan Bray (14 catches) and Trovon Reed (nine) are hoping to emerge as consistent performers. Youngsters like Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis and Jaylon Denson have shown flashes of talent but haven't produced so far in games. Auburn brought in three freshman receivers.
Predicted finish in SEC: 5th, Western Division.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
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