Picking up where we left off earlier today …
Losses: DT Jake Ricks, DE Antonio Coleman, DE Gabe McKenzie
Returnees of note: DE Antoine Carter, DE Michael Goggans, DT Nick Fairley, DT Mike Blanc, DT/DE Zach Clayton, DT Derrick Lykes, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford
Possible impact newcomers: DE Joel Bonomolo, DE Craig Sanders
Outlook: There’s good news and bad news here. The bad news first: from here, replacing Antonio Coleman looks just about impossible. Antoine Carter had a terrific second half of the year and if he’s healthy, he’ll definitely give defenses a lot to think about in his senior season. The problem is that Carter’s health has always seemed to be something of an iffy proposition, and even if he’s in good shape it’s hard to see him matching Coleman’s SEC-leading output. At the other end, Michael Goggans probably is what he is by now: a steady, solid performer who’s just not going to do a whole lot in terms of big plays. But he’ll be a senior and he’s seen a ton of time: Auburn could do worse.
Which they still will if they have to dig too deep in the second unit. For a team that returns six members of the two-deep they used for most of the year, Auburn still seems thinner than they should be up front. That happens when the projected second-stringers lost the entire previous season to injury (Eguae), lost a good chunk of their snaps to a converted tight end at midseason (Ford), or missed half the year to injury and looked lost when they did manage to see the field (Clayton).
But there’s some good news here all the same. One is that the starting tackle pairing should be more productive: with a year under his belt Nick Fairley should be ready to become a full-time difference-maker next season, and with his first full season of starting behind him Mike Blanc should be poised for a solid senior year. Another is that there’s plenty of room for surprises: Lykes will still be just a sophomore, Bonomolo looks on film to have an awesome motor, Clayton’s a senior whose size and versatility should make him plenty productive if he can stay healthy, Eguae is presumably still the same driven hard worker he was before the injury, etc. There seems to be enough parts here for Tracy Rocker to come up with a workable rotation, and through sheer experience Auburn shouldn’t lose nearly as much next year when they turn to the 2’s as they did in ’09.
But unless he works some serious miracles, or Fairley or Carter totally blow up, the loss of Coleman means this unit’s top-end potential is down just a tick.
Production Level: Down, but like I said, just a tick. Six of eight members of the two-deep back, after all.
Returnees: Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, Eltoro Freeman, Jonathan Evans, Adam Herring, Spencer Pybus (?), Harris Gaston
Possible impact newcomers: LaDarius Owens, Jake Holland, Jawara White
Outlook: Rosy as hell.
Start with the starters, where Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens showed early in the year and against the Tide exactly how solid they could be when they weren’t gutted by playing every possible snap for 11 straight weeks. Bynes in particular appeared to have taken a huge step forward from his 2008 debut by the time the season was finished, and if he takes another one next year, he should be one of the better middle ‘backers in the league. Stevens likewise drmatically improved over his ’08 showing and in his third year of starting should be rock solid.
On the weakside, there’s the Toro, who showed against LSU and Ole Miss exactly how good he can be when he’s on his game. If he’s healthy and locked in, the linebackers won’t just be the strength of the defense, they’ll rank alongside the offensive line and the running backs as the strongest unit on the team.
Even if he’s not, unlike this year, next year Roof will have options. Evans positively shone in the Iron Bowl. Herring should be capable enough if he can spend the spring and fall preparing instead of recovering from heel surgery. If he can recover from his concussion (a big if there, unfortunately), Pybus showed enough as a freshmen to think he could still be ready for spot duty. Gaston has tons of raw potential. And then there’s the freshmen: Owens is the physical freak, Holland the polished tackle-machine, White the deep sleeper. (Hell, even if he doesn’t seem as likely to make an immediate impact as those guys, I’m pretty stoked about Jessel Curry, too.) If those guys all sign in February, they’ll give Auburn a better second unit than Roof had this year all by themselves.
And that’s the biggest reason to be excited here: not only will the trio of Bynes/Stevens/Freeman have another year of development behind them, not only will they be receiving another year of the tutelage of a confirmed LB guru in Roof, they’ll actually be able to take a blow from time to time without putting a walk-on on the field in their place. Which should mean a fresher–and better–unit even in weeks 7, 8, 9, etc.
Production Level: Way up
Losses: CB Walt McFadden
Returnees of note: CB Neiko Thorpe, S Daren Bates, CB(/S?) Demond Washington, S Mike McNeil, CB D’Antoine Hood, S/CB T’Sharvan Bell, S Mike Slade
Possible impact newcomers: CB Jonathan Mincy
Question marks: S Zac Etheridge, S/CB Aairon Savage
Outlook: Man oh man, does Etheridge’s injury hurt here*. If Auburn can count on him for 2010, the Tigers are returning seven of their eight members of the two-deep plus McNeil. The options are an all-senior set of safeties, or moving Etheridge to corner to let Bates start and keep Washington as the nickel. Either way, that’s a stout, stout secondary even with the loss of McFadden.
If Etheridge doesn’t return, though–and as optimistic we all would like to be, that’s not something Auburn can count on–things are a bit different. McNeil and Bates should make for a solid pairing at safety regardless (especially if Bates makes the expected progress between his freshman and sophomore years), but there won’t be much depth behind them; just Bell, pretty much. Though that might not be so bad–by the end of the season had usurped Slade as the first safety off the bench, and he’ll still be just a redshirt sophomore, so there’s room for improvement.
At corner, Thorpe and Washington should be a decent enough pair of starters, though if Thorpe doesn’t rebound from what I think a lot of us saw as a disappointing season, it’s hard to see either one as a lockdown kind of guy. And who’s the nickel? Hood served capably in that role as a true freshman and could again if he’s healthy, but he never got his footing this year. And though things could change dramatically on this front down the recruiting stretch, right now there doesn’t look like there’s a lot of immediate help in the class of ’10, either. (Of course, who foresaw Bates coming in to save Auburn’s secondary bacon this year? Maybe I should just not worry about that.)
All told, thanks to McNeil’s return and better depth Auburn won’t miss much of a beat regardless, but it’s also hard for me to see Auburn taking a step forward here if Etheridge is gone for good.
(Oh, and as for Savage, if he’s back all the better. But after two full years away from competition, I’m not expecting huge things even if he can work himself back into playing health. Sorry.)
Production Level: Even
Seven starters returning sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Too bad the four that were lost included Auburn’s best lineman, best corner, and what would have been a senior safety. (Assuming here that Etheridge does not, in fact, return.)
But even that won’t be enough to keep Auburn’s defense from improving next year, and potentially taking some huge strides. A full year from a competent third linebacker will be a massive upgrade over what Auburn got this year. I like Fairley to actually improve on Ricks’s production. I think Bynes is ready for full-on stardom. Bates and Washington and Thorpe will all improve, and the drop-off from Etheridge to McNeil shouldn’t be too harsh. Depth across the board will be dramatically better than it was this season–hell, it’ll be almost the same group of players, plus a bunch of well-regarded freshmen.
And on top of all of that
1. Roof and the position coaches will all be in their second year, with the transition behind them
2. The offense should be more consistent and less prone to the sustained three-and-outs that so aggaravated the defense’s depth issues this year.
Are things as on the up-and-up here as they are on the offensive side of the ball? No. But there should still be susbstantial improvement, and paired with that offense, Auburn should be a much, much better team overall.
I’ll make it quick, but there should be nothing but forward steps here as well:
— Byrum is back to win the Groza. Did you realize the man finished the year 14-of-15 on field goals and hit all 49 extra point attempts? Unbelievable. Even if he takes a slight step back, he’ll still be one of the best kickers in the country.
— Washington stamped himself as a legitimate threat as kickoff returner, and a whole season of his returns should pay some big dividends.
— The avalanche of walk-ons on the coverage units will get phased out in favor of more scholarship players with the arrival of a second full recruiting class. This should help immensely.
— There is no possible way punt returns will be as bad as they were this year. None.
— It wasn’t all Clinton Durst’s fault that Auburn finished a mediocre 65th in net punting (see those coverage issues I mentioned, not to mention the punt block vs. Miss. St.), but Saturn V also never really regained the form we saw in ’08, either. Whether the ’10 punter winds up being Ryan Shoemaker or newcomer Steven Clark, Auburn’s punting unit should be very capable of bettering their numbers from this year.
So there you go: better offense, better defense, better special teams. 2010 is going to be better. It bears repeating: I cannot wait.
Photo via. And hey, sorry this is getting posted so late in the day, but it’s been one of those days. And I’m an hour behind most of you. That too.