When Auburn's coaches and players stepped onto the practice field for their first spring practice, it was a legitimate step forward toward 2010 -- not the remedial, slow learning process that served as last year's theme under then-new head coach Gene Chizik.
"Obviously, it's easier your second time around," Chizik said. "The expectations and everybody knowing where they're supposed to be at practice and the tempo of practice and things of that nature, obviously, are easier."
That won't make the decisions Auburn hopes to reach by the end of spring any easier.
Chizik and his staff of assistants, the only group in the SEC that remained in its entirety from last season, certainly doesn't have as many tough decisions to make this spring, but will have their hands full settling on a new quarterback, running back and right tackle.
Junior college transfer Cameron Newton could make the quarterback decision an easy one for Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. So could Mario Fannin at tailback -- at least until highly touted freshman Michael Dyer arrives on campus in the fall.
The jobs, though, won't be just handed to anybody, Chizik said.
And even though it'd be nice to have a completely settled starting lineup by A-Day, Auburn's annual spring game, Chizik doesn't see the need to rush.
"I don't ever put a deadline on when," Chizik said. "The top priority at any position is to name your starters. Quarterback's no exception to that."NOTES, QUOTES
SPRING OBJECTIVES: Auburn has plenty of returning starters on both sides of the ball, but it does have three highly important positions on offense to figure out before fall camp.
The Tigers have big holes to fill at running back, right tackle and, oh yeah, quarterback.
The quarterback battle might be the least dramatic, as junior college transfer Cameron Newton appears to be head and shoulders above his three competitors. Senior Neil Caudle, redshirt sophomore Barrett Trotter and redshirt freshman Clint Moseley will also be vying for the job.
At running back, Mario Fannin will get a shot at replacing Ben Tate, while scat back Onterio McCalebb and Dontae Aycock will also get looks before highly touted freshman Michael Dyer arrives in the fall. Junior college transfers Roszell Gayden and Brandon Mosley likely will duke it out at right tackle.
On defense, the Tigers have a scrambled defensive backfield to sort through and an opening at defensive end, where Antonio Coleman used to play. The Tigers could be in the process of transitioning to a 3-4 defense, but that likely will depend on the health of their personnel.
BUILDING BLOCKS: Even at Running Back U, the rushing yards Auburn put up in 2009 were impressive. Yes, Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb had a lot to do with the Tigers' 2,756 yards on the ground, but the experienced offensive line they were running behind may have been the most underrated group on the team.
That front five shouldn't have any trouble finding the spotlight this season. The four strongest members of last year's group are back and two talented junior college transfers are vying for the final spot at right tackle, making it quite possibly the strongest offensive line in the SEC.
Left tackle Lee Ziemba passed up a chance at the NFL Draft this offseason. Center Ryan Pugh has played nearly every game of his Auburn career. Mike Berry and Byron Isom both have more than a year of experience under their belt.
That group, if it remains healthy, should make life easy for whoever wins the open spots at quarterback and running back.
On defense, the key, again, will be establishing depth. That should be just a bit easier than last season, considering that defensive coordinator Ted Roof will have plenty of bodies at his disposal, especially at linebacker. After playing 10 below the NCAA scholarship maximum 85 in 2009, the Tigers should fulfill their allotment in 2010.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're rotating four guys. You can't do that long. Hopefully in a short period of time we'll be able to narrow it down to possibly three and then two. If we have the guy to be able to have a starter at the end of spring, if that's possible, we're going to be 110 percent sure if we do that." -- Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, on Auburn's quarterback battle.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: It took Auburn five consecutive wins to start the 2009 season before it cracked the Associated Press Top 25. That shouldn't be a concern in 2010, as the same old expectations that typically follow the Tigers will certainly be back. Auburn returns far too many starters, has far too favorable of a schedule -- LSU, Georgia and Arkansas will all travel to Jordan-Hare Stadium -- and looked all too promising in its final two games of 2009 (a close loss to No. 1 Alabama and a chaotic overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl) to not at least garner some preseason love.
QB Cameron Newton -- The nation's top-rated junior college prospect, Newton came to Auburn to start, bottom line. The ex-Florida Gator, who left the team after allegedly stealing a laptop computer, has just two years with the Tigers, so it isn't likely the Auburn coaches will try to break him slowly. It'd be a shock if Newton isn't Auburn's starter for the season opener.
OT Roszell Gayden -- He's certainly big enough at 6-foot-6 and 321 pounds to make an immediate impact, and that's what Auburn is hoping the junior college transfer can do at right tackle, the lone open spot on the Tigers' offensive line. Gene Chizik said signing a game-ready, junior college tackle was a top priority in the offseason and the Tigers appeared to have received just that in Gayden.
LB Jessel Curry -- He's one of the lowest touted prospects in Auburn's banner recruiting class, but he is already on campus and has a legitimate shot of receiving real playing time this season. Auburn's linebacking corps is still razor thin on depth, and Curry, a Ted Roof favorite, will have the chance to make a strong first impression. Auburn hopes to play more than three linebackers this season, which should give an opportunity for Curry to thrive in a backup role.
OT Brandon Mosley -- Mosley, who played tight end in junior college, is the dark horse to take over at right tackle. He's bulked up significantly to 294 pounds, making him certainly big enough to give Roszell Gayden a run.
--The Tigers lost four scholarship players and two walk-ons after Signing Day: QB Tyrik Rollison, FB John Douglas, RB Jason King, OL Darrell Roseman, PK Morgan Hull and TE Bailey Woods. Aside from Rollison, none were projected to be anything more than backups.
--The Tigers have a number of players either out or in orange jerseys for the entirety of spring practice. WR Travante Stallworth (ACL) and LB Harris Gaston (broken arm) will wear orange jerseys, while S Zac Etheridge and LB Daren Bates will not face any contact.
Previous Report: 04/09/2010