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Coaching Staff Report Card: offensive position coaches

Depending on your taste for bowling shirts, they coach every bit as well/poorly as they dress.

This is the first in a four-part series grading the new Auburn coaching staff on their various performances during this (wonderfully encouraging) debut season. Today we’ve got the offensive position coaches, next up will be the defensive position coaches, then the coordinators, and then we’ll weigh the pros and cons of  Gene Chizik’s impact in his first season. Note that I’m only looking at stuff we saw between the lines here–recruiting isn’t taken into account.

Also please note that I’m not really so arrogant to think I know enough to assign hard-and-fast grades to Auburn’s coaches.  Think of it more as a personal, gut response to the way the season unfolded, as a way of recapping the year and figuring out where the team met or exceeded or fell short of (again, my personal) expectations. Your mileage will certainly vary–and you’re encouraged to tell me exactly how in the comments.

On with the arbitrary show.

TROOPER TAYLOR, WRs/TEs

The Good: All those of you who saw Darvin Adams breaking the Auburn single-season record for receptions, spending 99 percent of the season catching everything thrown within arm’s reach, and entering 2010 as a likely preseason All-SEC candidate, raise your hands. Right. You probably also saw Terrell Zachery becoming one of the SEC’s leading big-play threats (finishing 4th in TDs and averaging 24 yards per-carry) and the pair of them catching more touchdown passes than any other pair of wideouts in the league and netting more yards than any pair outside of Arkansas or LSU.

Aside from the sudden rise of Adams and Zachery, there was also the dramatic improvement in Taylor’s unit’s blocking–a handful of holding penalties excepted, Tommy Trott was a powerhouse on the edge and by season’s end Adams was clearing out players twice his size. The overall hands of the Auburn receivers also took a huge, huge step forward–the rampant drops that plagued the Tigers for years under Taylor’s predecessor didn’t disappear completely, but they slowed to such a trickle that their impact was barely even worth discussing anymore.

The Bad: Auburn never did find a third receiver to take any heat off of Adams and Zachery, with Trott only rarely involved in the passing game and no other receiver reaching double-digits in receptions. Some of that is on the scheme rather than Taylor–since Malzahn’s Spread Eagle often kept various H-backs and wideout-in-name-only Kodi Burns on the field rather than bringing in a third or fourth receiver–but between the half-dozen candidates Auburn had on the roster, it’s still surprising Todd never did find a third option.

Perhaps more damningly, the receivers appeared to do little to help the ailing Tiger passing game in the mid-season losing streak. If Todd has to shoulder most of the blame, the many dropbacks in which Todd had time and never found an open receiver mean that he shouldn’t shoulder it all by any means.

Lastly, Taylor also had major input (if he wasn’t outright in charge) on Auburn’s development and choice of its punt returners … a group that represented Auburn’s single weakest position from the season’s start to its finish, and ranked amongst the worst in the country.

Final Grade: A-. Even if Adams’ and Zachery’s numbers are helped immensely by the Spread Eagle, it took Taylor all of one season to produce a receiver better than any Auburn fans have seen the past three years. Add in the healthy portion of credit Taylor’s charges get for the success of Auburn’s outside running game and swing passes–remember Jay Wisner turning Fannin’s long gain into a game-changing TD vs. West Virginia?–and I think he deserves an A.

GUS MALZAHN, QBs

The Good: Malzahn hoisted Chris Todd off the scrapheap and turned him into a quarterback capable of breaking Auburn’s single-season record for touchdown passes. Todd finished the year having completed better than 60 percent of his passes and thrown just six interceptions to 22 touchdowns. His pocket presence still could have used some polishing, but it remained light years ahead of where it was during 2008. By virtually any measure, Todd vastly outperformed even the most optimistic Auburn fan’s preseason expectations.

Neil Caudle didn’t see much time, but it’s also only fair to point out that in the time he did see–vs. Ball St., LSU, and Furman–he looked perfectly capable of taking over for Todd if it had come to that.

The Bad: As nice as Todd’s numbers were, it has to be pointed out that he racked up a sizable chunk of them against the weaker opponents on the Auburn slate. Todd’s TD-to-INT ratio was 16-1 outside of SEC play and a much more pedestrian 6-to-5 against conference opposition; take away the Furman game and his completion percentage drops two full points (from 60.4 to 58.4).

That might be OK if Auburn’s fortunes hadn’t seemed to ride so closely with Todd’s performance, but they did; Auburn never did win an SEC game in which Todd threw an interception (going 0-4). His two crucial turnovers were (in my opinion) the single biggest difference in Auburn finally falling to Alabama, and Todd’s season-worst performance against Kentucky was primarily responsible for that defeat as well. If Malzahn could have gotten Todd to be just a hair more consistent, 9 or even 10 wins were in the offing.

Final Grade: B+. Todd spent the season alternating between wildly overachieving and mildly underachieving, but there’s no way around the fact that he never did put together a performance as complete as his West Virginia or Tennessee outings for the remainder of the regular season. We’d have taken that before the season started, but knowing what Todd was capable of by the time the Kentucky or LSU or Georgia games rolled around meant that Malzahn has to bear some blame for not getting him back to that early-season form.

CURTIS LUPER, RBs

The Good: The offensive system change arguably did more for Ben Tate than it did any other single Auburn player, but it’s also true that Tate looked like a totally different running back under Luper than he had in 2008: faster, more decisive, more powerful, better vision, all with the same tenacity and effort Tate had always given. When a tailback goes from one of the more disappointing–and, frankly, underachieving–individual seasons of recent vintage to one of the best seasons an Auburn back has ever had, that’s some tremendous coaching in my opinion.

Outside of Tate’s renaissance, McCalebb was gangbusters when healthy; Fannin appeared to retain most of his terrific ball-carrying skills despite his limited touches and finished as the team’s second-leading receiver (in terms of catches); and Smith flashed receiving and blocking skills we didn’t know he even had. Luper’s unit was expected to be the strongest one on the Auburn roster, but it lived up to those expectations and then some.

The Bad: Not much. Fannin’s hands and receiving skills could have used more polishing. Blitz pickups weren’t always perfect. McCalebb should have been shut down midseason when his ankle wasn’t right.

Probably the biggest knock on Luper was his inability to get Tate to quit fumbling, a problem which began against La. Tech and persisted right up until the very dying breaths of the season.

Final Grade: A-. Very, very close to an A, but Luper did have more to work with than his colleagues at QB, WR, or OL, and between the fumbling and this nagging feeling that Fannin maybe could have made just a little more impact even in his limited opportunities, I can’t quite give it to him. Still, the Tate transformation was probably the single biggest development on the individual player level for this offense.

JEFF GRIMES, OL

The Good: Took unit that looked utterly, hopelessly lost in 2008–particularly in the run-blocking department–and sculpted a group that was functional at worst and dominant at their best. It’s one thing to finish in the top 15 nationally in total rushing yardage–you can get to that point just by piling up the attempts. To make it in average per-carry while playing in the SEC means you’ve opened up some serious holes.

Grimes and the OL caught some breaks along the way, especially in the injury department–Auburn’s starting five somehow managed to miss zero starts to injury, with Byron Isom’s two-game suspension the only missed time for any of the starting five. But that doesn’t mean Grimes didn’t have his work cut out for him, for a few reasons:

1. He was helping teach his charges a new scheme in which he himself had not coached before

2. Said charges had been ordered to lose weight and focus on passive zone-blocking the year before

3. Most importantly, the default right tackle was a fifth-year senior and converted tight end-slash-defensive tackle who had never started a game at Auburn.

Andrew McCain would end up becoming Grimes’s most notable accomplishment this season, though (at least if you ask me). If he was never quite as solid in pass-protection or as powerful in run-blocking as the other four, he also never became an Achilles heel, chink-in-the-armor, or whatever metaphor you’d like to choose for a sore point. He capped his career with his finest performance, stoning star Northwestern DE Corey Wootton in the Outback Bowl. If Grimes can pull off similar wonders with whoever emerges as McCain’s replacement, next year’s line should be something truly special.

The Bad: After an incredible start, pass protection seriously slipped over the second half of the season; after allowing two sacks total through the first five games, the Tigers gave up three or more in every non-Furman game the remainder of the season save Kentucky. It was enough to land Auburn in the bottom half of the SEC in sacks allowed despite leading the league in that department at the midway point of the season.

The other major problem: penalties. Even if Lee “False Start” Ziemba’s problems were overblown, the offensive line did its part in “helping” make Auburn the 15th-most penalized team in the country (and second-most in the SEC, behind only Georgia). It would be one thing if these were holding or some other effort-type calls (which the line actually did an excellent job of avoiding), but the line was mostly afflicted with run-of-the-mill mental errors and discipline issues, often at the worst possible times: think Mike Berry’s critical false start on the make-or-break 3rd-down vs. Kentucky, or Bart Eddins’ inexplicable tripping penalty as Auburn drove for a momentum-swinging score against Northwestern. Auburn will have to get better in this department next year.

Final Grade: B+. Grimes never really had his depth tested, and the penalties and sacks–especially the combination of the two–were a major pain. Still, though, putting together one of the best run-blocking lines in the country–with a previous non-entity like McCain at RT–counts for a heck of a lot.

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