It’s been a kind of recurring theme amongst Auburn fans since the moment Jordan-Hare emptied itself out last Friday: Man, can’t wait for 2010. Can’t wait for next year.
This is because waiting for next year is going to prove very difficult indeed, even for expectations-dousing rationalists like your humble Auburn Blogger. Auburn will be in their second year with their current coaching staff, the transitional speedbumps of ’09 behind them; the depth issues that required our defense to utterly exhaust itself over the course of 11 weeks and helped lead to repeated breakdowns in special teams coverage won’t be solved, but they won’t be nearly as severe, either; and of course all of Auburn’s returning players will be a year older, a year more experienced, and a year better.
So no, I can’t wait either. And I’ve decided that, you know what, screw it: even though we’ve got 10 freaking months before the 2010 season kicks off and a bowl to worry about–an awesome, totally-deserved New Year’s Day bowl at that!–I’m going to take a quick n’ dirty unit-by-unit look at the 2010 lineup, and take a mostly-uneducated guess at whether we can expect to see better or worse production from that position.
Offense here, defense later.
Losses: Chris Todd
Returnees: Neil Caudle, Tyrik Rollison, Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley
Outlook: Before the season, I’d have wagered a relatively substantial sum of money on Rollison going into 2010 as the starter. He seemed (and still seems) like such a perfect fit for Malzahn’s offense–the accuracy, the athleticism, the raw arm strength–that with a year’s worth of seasoning, it was tough to see how he wouldn’t get the nod over a career disappointment like Caudle.
But then, of course, we actually got to see Caudle play this season, and aside from that one (admittedly serious) misstep against Ball St., he looked … well, capable at the very least. Maybe even good. The zone read touchdown against BSU? That picture-perfect throw between the linebacker and the corner along the sideline against Furman? The calmness with which he led that garbage-time TD drive against LSU? They don’t mean a whole heck of a lot, but I’d like to think they meant something. And so now, yeah, maybe we’re still talking about a disappointing career for Caudle … but we’re also talking about a highly-recruited fifth-year senior with a legitimate arm, some ability to run, and a year’s worth of experience in the system already under his belt.
Then there’s the wild cards: Moseley doesn’t have Rollison’s recruiting hype but the reviews from the scout team have been overwhelmingly positive, and he too is built for the job from an athletic standpoint. Trotter will have some ground to make up after his ACL injury but his alleged accuracy has to be a big selling point for Malzahn if he’s healthy.
The bottom line is that whoever takes over the position, they’re going to be more mobile, more athletic, and very likely stronger-armed than Todd. Matching Todd’s accuracy and decision-making won’t be easy, but then again, that accuracy and decision-making tailed off at the end of the year and whoever takes over will also have the advantage of having played in the system for longer than just fall practice. The guess here is that either Rollison or Caudle wins the position and–with the bounty of help available on the line and the other skill positions–actually improves on Todd’s numbers from this year.
Production Level: Up
Losses: Ben Tate
Returnees: Mario Fannin, Eric Smith, Onterio McCalebb, Dontae Aycock, Anthony Gulley (?)
Possible impact newcomers: Michael Dyer, others (?)
Outlook: On the one hand, you look at what Ben Tate has accomplished this season and how damn good he’s been, and you think there’s no way Auburn can match what they got out of their running backs this year.
But then on the other, consider the following:
— Next year’s top back will run behind an even more experienced line with even more experience in the Spread Eagle 2.0.
— Onterio McCalebb, fingers crossed, will not miss big chunks of the season through injury
— We didn’t see Tate coming. Curtis Luper and the offense combined to create the kind of back we hadn’t seen him be before. Who’s to say Luper can’t do it again with Fannin–who’s shown more physical potential already, frankly, than Tate ever showed entering this season–or Dyer or someone else?
That last point is especially valid, I think, when you consider how many bullets are in the chamber for Auburn here. Maybe Fannin stays at H-back. Maybe McCalebb gets hurt again. Maybe Dyer isn’t quite that good. Auburn would still have Eric Smith, whose shown the kind of flashes that make you think he could carr ythe load if he had to, and a prize recruit on Dontae Aycock whose blend of speed and power should fit the offense beautifully.
So, yeah, with this much raw material to work with, I can’t see Luper not finding someone to fill Tates shoes … and if McCalebb stays healthy, watch out.
Production Level: Even at the very least
Losses: Tommy Trott
Returnees of note: Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery, Tim Hawthorne, Quindarius Carr, Emory Blake, Deangelo Benton, Travante Stallworth, Philip Lutzenkirchen
Possible impact newcomers: Trovon Reed, Antonio Goodwin (?), Shaun Kitchens, Jeremy Richardson
Outlook: Auburn will miss Trott’s commitment to blocking on the edge and will likely need Lutzenkirchen to take a step forward in that department.
Other than that, it’s imposible to see how Auburn takes a step back in any aspect of this unit. Everyone who caught a pass this year returns, the studs of the 2009 class have a year under their belts (nice to see Blake fight his way into the rotation there at the end of the season, huh?), and Trooper will have an even more highly-regarded set of freshmen to throw into the mix. At tight end, Lutzenkirchen’s receiving skills are probably already on par with Trott’s; no drop-off there.
In short: nothing but good news here.
Production Level: Up
Losses: Andrew McCain
Returnees: Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Ryan Pugh, Byron Isom, the entire second-string
Possible impact newcomers: JUCO lineman TBD (?), Ed Christian, Shon Coleman (?)
Outlook: Don’t have time to add up all the starts today, but with Ziemba and Pugh four-year starters and Berry and Isom three-year vets, I’ll be surprised if Auburn doesn’t enter next year with the most experienced offensive line in the country.
Replacing McCain is a drag … but the other four guys should be able to give the fifth guy plenty of slack, and it’s not like McCain has any better of a resume entering this season than any of his potential replacements will have entering 2010. (If Bart Eddins can move to tackle, the replacement would have more of a resume, actually.) Toss in the fact that the second string will have loads more experience than this years and a lot more help from the incoming class, and there’s no reason in the world other than “sometimes lines don’t meet expectations” to think Auburn won’t have one of the best lines in the SEC next season.
Production Level: Up
WILDCAT OPERATOR-SLASH-RECEIVER-SLASH-TRICK PLAY QB
Returnees: Kodi Burns
Outlook: Burns will be back to do all the things he does, and will presumably do them even better after not having spent the spring and part of fall camp taking his final shot at quarterback.
The caveat here is that the Wildcat has lost a ton of its novelty and may not be as big a part of Malzahn’s plans going forward, but Burns’s contributions should increase anyway thanks to an increasing level of comfort at wideout and better execution of the Wildcat when Auburn does turn to it.
Production Level: Even, at least
It’s pretty simple, really: Auburn’s offense projects to return everyone from the entire two-deep except for one (not-quite-impact) tackle, one running back–still arguably the deepest position on Auburn’s entire roster–and the starting quarterback. And every one of those players, unlike this year, will already have a year’s worth of experience in Malzahn’s system and Malzahn will have a year’s worth of experience with them.
Stipulated: a thousand things could change between now and next fall. But unless one of those things is “Gus Malzahn leaves” or the new quarterback fails and fails hard–and here’s where I point out that there’s precisely zero precedent for that in Malzahn’s extensive track record, and that the precedent is instead that the new quarterback will exceed all expectations–Auburn’s offense should be capable of taking a major step forward next year.
Like I said: can’t wait.