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Position battle breakdown

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It is the duty of anyone who covers a particular college football team to preview camp (either spring or fall) in some fashion, usually in the “five questions to answer” format. But since I already aired out that cliche in the spring, I figured I’d take a different tack this go-round, not least because there’s only so many times you can ask “Is Cam Newton capable of completing passes?” or “The defense: is it better?”

So rather than going large-scale, how-does-the-team-look with the preview, today we’re going small-scale, who’s-going-to-be-making-up-the-team-in-the-first-place with it. In other words, a brief-but-comprehensive look at the position battles being waged across the Auburn depth chart. Enjoy:

STARTING FREE SAFETY/STRONG SAFETY

Participants: Aairon Savage vs. Zac Etheridge vs. Mike McNeil

Where we left off in the spring: After 1. proving he’d more-or-less recovered from his knee and Achilles injuries 2. watching the coaches move Daren Bates to linebacker and T’Sharvan Bell to corner 3. seeing the reports on McNeil mostly focus on what seemed to be a continuing issue with his broken leg, Savage became the Auburn player most likely to start at one safety position or the other. McNeil still seemed to have some recovering to do, though obviously being able to take part in spring drills was a far cry from the struggles of last fall. Etheridge, of course, was still waiting on medical clearance.

What’s changed since then: Etheridge got his clearance and is squarely in the mix. Savage represented Auburn at SEC Media Days and has declared himself completely, totally, 100 percent over his injuries.The coaches have made no indication they’re considering moving any other players back to safety, indicating in turn they plan to at least begin the season relying on the players already slotted into the position.

What we’re looking for out of camp: With Chizik already saying they’ll be “judicious” in re-introducing Etheridge to contact, it could be a race between McNeil and Etheridge to prove who’s healthier by the start of the season. Savage seems to have the inside track on one starting slot or the other, but must prove his instincts are still just as intact as those of the two players who have each played much more recently than him. Ted Roof’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for McNeil–a theme that continued throughout spring practice and then again after the first day of camp yesterday–might mean McNeil will have to win over his coordinator with a strong camp.

Projection: The quotes from both players and coaches alike–spring, summer, fall–would seem to show that they feel Etheridge’s leadership and experience have earned him the job if he’s healthy enough to claim it. He and Savage begin the season as the two starting safeties. McNeil is first off the bench, and could see time in the nickel if the coaches decide they’d rather shift Savage or Etheridge to corner (as they did at times last season) over putting Bell or Jonathan Mincy on the field.

STARTING OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Participants: Jonathan Evans vs. Eltoro Freeman vs. Daren Bates

Where we left off in the spring: Though Roof claimed there was no pecking order, Evans seemed to have built on his strong performance against Alabama by nudging ahead of Freeman, who seemed to have lost some of the momentum from his strong midseason performances by missing the Iron Bowl with injury and being nickeled off the field by Northwestern in the bowl. Bates missed the spring through shoulder injury.

What we’re looking for out of camp: First and foremost, whether or not Bates is healthy–the early reports are that he is–and how quickly he can grasp what Roof wants him to do. It seems unlikely the coaches would have moved him, particularly in the face of all the uncertainty at safety, if they didn’t expect him to win the job. Freeman must continue to learn the playbook (allegedly a problem throughout last season) and stay positive in the event of setbacks (definitely a problem early last season). Evans just has to keep doing the things he’s already done to potentially bump Freeman and earn the start against Alabama; he seems like he might be the safest option of the three.

Projection: Frankly, after hearing Craig Stevens reaffirm yesterday that Freeman was practicing as Stevens’s backup while Bates and Evans were battling on the other side, I think that even though he has the most potential of the three, Freeman has a long way to go to claim a starting role. (Hopefully he’ll hang in there; even if he wasn’t expected to be a second-stringer his sophomore year, much less his junior, he’d be a near-lock to start as a senior and Auburn will desperately need his experience after losing Bynes and Stevens.) As quickly as Bates learned his responsibilities at safety last year and as well-suited as he seems to be to the position, I’m expecting him to earn the starting role. But I also think Evans has shown enough that he’ll see meaningful snaps, too, and could retake the position later in the season if Bates doesn’t adapt quickly enough. In any case: this position is going to be a lot more productive than it was last year.

STARTING RIGHT TACKLE

Participants: Roszell Gayden* vs. Brandon Mosley vs. John Sullen vs. Bart Eddins

Where we left off in the spring: Thanks in part to some minor injuries that seemed to get Gayden off to a slow start, Mosley started with the first team at A-Day and enters fall in the pole position. Eddins missed spring with an injury.

What we’re looking for out of camp: Sullen hadn’t yet been a consideration here, but after impressing the coaches as a true freshman, slimming down into reasonable “right tackle” size, and apparently getting some run with the first team on Day 1, it makes sense he could work himself into the mix. Still, the reason the coaches signed Mosley and Gayden in the first place was to find someone to start at right tackle. Eddins has beefed up to 304 pounds, and though he’s more likely to find time at guard, could get a shot at the vacant RT slot if Sullen isn’t ready and the JUCOs can’t grasp Grimes’ and Malzahn’s instructions quickly enough.

Projection: Gayden appears to have the most potential of the bunch and Mosley wasn’t so overwhelming during the spring game to have the job locked up. The guess here is that Gayden stays healthy, earns the starting position, and doesn’t give it up.

STARTING WEAKSIDE DEFENSIVE END

Participants: Michael Goggans vs. Nosa Egaue vs. Joel Bonomolo vs. who knows, maybe Dee Ford or Corey Lemonier or Craig Sanders.

Where we left off in the spring: Though reports occasionally claimed other players were competing with Goggans for the job, the senior got the start at A-Day, collected 1.5 sacks, and remains the favorite headed into fall.

What we’re looking for out of camp: Then again, Tracy Rocker seemed to be more bullish on Goggans in the spring of ’09 than ’10, and last season ended with Goggans first getting bypassed by a healthy Antoine Carter for the starter’s role, then losing snaps down the stretch to Gabe McKenzie, who’d only been recovered off the tight end scrapheap at midseason. Although it’ll be a surprise if anyone else gets the call, especially at the start of the season, it’s too early to say for certain that Goggans will be the starter, especially given that Eguae should be fully healthy and has always drawn raves for his practice ethic. Goggans’ role on passing downs is particularly precarious, where he could by replaced by any of the speedy Bonomolo/Lemonier/Ford trio; the latter two are probably still too light to start, though.

Projection: Goggans starts against Arkansas St. and remains the first-string choice throughout the season, but loses more and more snaps to Eguae and the pass-rush contingent as the season progresses.

FIRST-CHOICE SLOT RECEIVER**

Participants: Emory Blake vs. Kodi Burns vs. Travante Stallworth vs. Trovon Reed

Where we left off in the spring: Burns and Blake seemed to be all but neck-and-neck on the evidence of A-Day. Stallworth missed the spring with his knee injury and will open up the fall a few steps behind in the pecking order.

What we’re looking for in camp: Burns has to continue to improve his hands and route-running while maintain his useful versatility; Blake has to build on his late-season charge by developing his acceleration and elusiveness with the ball in his hands. If Burns can prove he’s just as much of a receiver as Blake is, he wins; if Blake can prove he’s as much of an all-around athlete as Burns is, he wins. Meanwhile, we’ve found out the last couple of days that Reed will start the year as Zachery’s back up at the “Z” position, but if the coaches decide he’s too good to leave on the bench, he has plenty enough speed and agility to work out of the slot. Stallworth took a major step backwards after the injury, unfortunately, but showed enough potential last year that it’s not impossible he could draw even with Burns and Blake by the end of the season.

Projection: Burns maybe gets the “start” based on his experience and trick-play potential, but I’m not expecting any major separation as both have different skill-sets. Reed sees more and more of the field as the season goes on, with Stallworth getting the occasional snap but struggling to get major time.

NICKELBACK

Participants: T’Sharvan Bell vs. Jonathan Mincy vs. Anthony Morgan having one of the safeties slide over

Where we left off in the spring: Bell ended the 2009 season strong, with plenty of playing time and even an interception against Northwestern, and drew praise even after his move to corner in the spring. With D’Antoine Hood gone and no other contenders outside of recent position-switchee Morgan and the true freshmen–most of which will be converted quarterbacks–the job would seem to be Bell’s to lose.

What we’re looking for in camp: If anyone’s ready to challenge Bell. Morgan has consistently earned raves from the coaches for his work rate and coachability, but he’s two years behind Bell, even newer to the position, and may not have Bell’s physical upside. Mincy is by nearly all accounts the most polished and game-ready of Auburn’s incoming defensive backs, but he’s still a true freshman … and the official roster lists him as a safety anyway. Bell’s biggest competition may in fact be Zac Etheridge or Aairon Savage–last year the coaches decided to slide Etheridge over at times rather than putting another corner on the field, and could conceivably do so again if Bell doesn’t impress.

Projection: Bell holds down the job throughout the season, with Mincy filling in as the dimeback.

PUNT RETURNER

Participants: The better question might be who isn’t participating. Quindarius Carr emerged at the end of ’09 and handled the single return in the spring game, but Anthony Morgan, Mario Fannin, and Demond Washington all returned punts last year, freshmen Trovon Reed, Chris Davis, Antonio Goodwin, and Ryan Smith all have return experience from high school, and Ralph Spry Jr. could be an option as well.

Where we left off in the spring: Carr as the primary returner by default, but only because he didn’t blow his chance last season putting the ball on the ground. The job still has to be viewed as anyone’s to win, doesn’t it?

What we’re looking for in camp: Whether it’s Carr or one of the challengers, just someone who’s willing to grab the position by the cojones and refuse to give it up. Much the same attitude we want towards the football itself, really.

Projection: Washington maybe has the most potential here, but that critical fumble against Northwestern on the final kick return of regulation (along with his other failures to hold onto the ball on punt returns, and his importance at corner) may stick in the coaches’ minds. So I’ll go out on a bit of a limb and say Reed winds up winning the job as the coaches look for a way to get him a handful of extra touches; if he has butterfingers, too, they’ll go safe and stick with Carr.

BACKUP QUARTERBACK

Participants: Barrett Trotter vs. Neil Caudle (No, I don’t think Clint Moseley is a serious contender for this spot this year.)

Where we left off in the spring: Caudle with a slight edge based on having owned (and not fared badly in) the position the previous year, but too close to definitively call, even after A-Day.

What we’re looking for in camp: Any kind of separation between the two. Trotter had the reputation as more of an athlete when he enrolled, but we haven’t seen much of that yet–and after his touchdown jaunt against Ball State last year, that area might actually be an advantage for Caudle.

Projection: Demoting Caudle to third-string as a five-year senior seems hopelessly cruel, and he showed last year he’s got the chops to keep the offense moving if it comes to it; if Trotter’s only tied with him, the experience factor means he’s behind him. I’ll be stunned if Caudle doesn’t get the call in the event of a Newton injury.

THOUGHTS ON SOME OTHER BACKUP SITUATIONS

Outside wide receiver: This is going to be one of the fiercest battles on the team as Reed, Goodwin, Carr, Deangelo Benton, and possibly even guys like Shaun Kitchens and Jay Wisner scrap it out over the right to back up Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery. I like Reed and Benton to get the majority of the snaps out there that don’t go to the starters, but they’ll have to be good to hold off the rest of the pack.

Defensive tackle: Mike Blanc and Nick Fairley seem like obvious starters and Zach Clayton an almost-as-obvious third choice if he can stay healthy for his senior season, but who’s the next guy in what could easily be a four-man rotation? Derrick Lykes has the experience, Jeffrey Whitaker the run-stuffing bulk, Kenneth Carter the upside, and Jamar Travis a good spring. The bet here is that Whitaker emerges as Rocker’s No. 4, especially on third-and-short.

Safety: Whichever of the top three loses out on the starting role will seem like a clear No. 3, but it’ll be a dogfight for the last spot on the two-deep. Drew Cole seemd to stake a claim at the tail end of last year after getting healthy, but Ikeem Means was the talk of spring, Demetruce McNeal is a bona fide sleeper out of the freshman class, and Mike Slade might not be done yet. Here’s a buck that says it’s Means.

Offensive line: Major intrigue here as today’s second-string spots could be 2011’s starting jobs, and much of it seems like combat between veterans getting their last chance and freshmen and sophomores looking to pass them by. One one side, you’ve got guys like Jared Cooper, A.J. Greene, Andre Harris, Jorrell Bostrom, and of course Eddins; on the other, Eric Mack, Ed Christian, maybe Dakota Mosley, and of course Sullen. Get after it, fellas.

*I’ve been told that despite what Auburn’s official roster might tell you, Roszell prefers it spelled “Gayden,” and besides, “Gaydon” sounds a little like a robot you’d find working at SuperCuts, not that there’s anything wrong with that. So for now, “Gayden” it is at WBE.

**As we know, it’s a bit of a misnomer to say Auburn has a starting slot receiver, just as it would be to say Auburn has a starting tight end or even a starting H-back. We know Malzahn’s base set will include two outside receivers, five linemen, and the quarterback and tailback. Past that, there’s still two slots to be filled by two of the three positions above. Which two get the call probably depends on which players seem to have the most to offer; last year it was Tommy Trott and Eric Smith, and Smith will almost certainly start again. But to a certain extent, the slot receivers aren’t just competing against each other; they’re competing against Smith and Lutzenkirchen as well.

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