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Spring questions, No. 1: Can Cameron Newton, you know, complete passes?

Fifth and final of WBE’s five questions for spring camp, cliched as the concept is. Previously: Is Nick Fairley ready? What can Mike McNeil and Aairon Savage offer? How will Auburn replace Antonio Coleman? Is Mario Fannin The Man?

It's not the size of the arm, it's how he uses it.

So when I first jotted down the five questions I was going to devote posts to for this series, No. 1 on the countdown wasn’t Cameron-specific; it was just “Who’s going to be the quarterback?”, the same question we were asking at this time last year.

But whereas in the spring of ’09 there was good reason to think multiple candidates all had an equal shot and all had various strengths and weaknesses, this year I really think it comes down to one either/or proposition:

1. CAN CAMERON NEWTON, YOU KNOW, COMPLETE PASSES?

I really think it’s that simple. If he can, he’ll leave spring as Auburn’s starting quarterback. If he can’t, Neil Caudle will.

Because everything else this offense might want Cam Newton to do, he can do. He can run the option, both zone read and traditional. He can get the ball downfield on a rope. He can make wonderful things happen when a play breaks down. He can–most importantly–force defensive coordinators to account for him as something other than a hand-off-delivery vehicle.

But if those aforementioned downfield ropes–and the swings, and zips over the middle on crossing routes, and dump-offs under pressure, and six-yard-outs on 3rd-and-5–aren’t accurate enough for Auburn’s receivers to bring them in, none of that will matter. If athleticism was the No. 1 attribute Gus Malzahn was looking for in a quarterback, Kodi Burns would be your incumbent right this minute.

He’s not, because he just wasn’t accurate enough. The job instead went to Chris Todd, who Malzahn had watched for only nine practices when he decided he’d seen enough to give him the starter’s reins. That’s how important precise, on-time delivery of the ball is to Auburn’s offensive braintrust; not only did it make Chris Todd the starter, it made him the starter as soon as he could take the field.

That Caudle was one of the quarterbacks Todd beat out–and that Chizik and Co. signed off on Newton in the first place–indicates to me that Caudle may not be as accurate as Malzahn would like. But with Todd gone, does it matter? If he’s more accurate than Newton (or more accurate by a significant margin, I should say) he’ll be the starter.

But if he’s not, forget it. Newton has too many tools, makes too many things possible. (And you know Malzahn is already salivating at the idea of expanding his proverbial bag of tricks.) It’s all riding on Newton’s arm; if it’s accurate, we’ll see it throw the first passes of Auburn’s 2010 season. If it’s not, we’ll see if Caudle has finally shaken that interception bug we’ve heard about (but never seen) for so long.

When will we know if it’s accurate or not? Maybe not until fall camp, maybe not until Malzahn names his starter, maybe not even until Arkansas St. come to town. But maybe we’ll find out at A-Day. That’s the biggest question I have for that game, this spring, and the biggest one I think Auburn faces between now and the 2010 opener.

Before we wrap up this series, five questions I considered but that didn’t make the list, in no particular order:

1. Is Eltoro Freeman’s head on straight? The biggest needs for Auburn’s defense are more strength in the middle of the line and for the secondary to have a string other than “first,” but it would also be a major, major help if Chizik and Roof could field three functional linebackers rather than two. That was a major issue early last season and in chunks over the final several weeks, but fortunately the solution is a simple one: get Freeman to play all the time the way we saw him play against LSU, the second half against Ole Miss, etc. If Freeman’s on his game, Auburn will boast one of the better linebacking corps in the league.

2. Is anyone ready to return punts? Anyone? Bueller? After last season’s disasters, the sooner Auburn can settle on one guy and give him a) the bulk of practice reps b) the confidence that the job is his, the better off we’ll be. (I vote for Frenchy, incidentally, just because.)

3. So, who’s the new right tackle? There’s not any reason at this point to buck the consensus opinion that it’ll be either Mosley or Gayden; outside of quarterback, this is probably the most interesting mano-a-mano position battle on the team.

4. Who’s going to be the No. 3 receiver? We’re going to have at least one of them this year, right? Benton and Blake seem to be well on their way towards making a much bigger impact than they did last year, which is nice, but Auburn also needs to make sure Eric Smith and Phil Lutzenkirchen are ready to take over the 40-plus receptions Fannin’s probably giving up by moving out of the H-back spot.

5. Is there going to be actual depth on the defense this season? The starters are still more important than the second-string, but there’s a lot of guys Auburn’s going to have to count on this fall–Jon Evans, D’Antoine Hood, Nosa Eguae, Harris Gaston, T’Sharvan Bell, even walk-ons like Wade Christopher and Ikeem Means–that need to show this spring that an injury won’t be a cause for panic.

Photo by Van Emst.

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