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2009 Auburn Preview - Offense
Auburn WR/RB Mario Fannin
Auburn WR/RB Mario Fannin
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 25, 2009


CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Auburn Tiger Offense

Auburn Tigers

Preview 2009 - Offense

- 2009 CFN Auburn Preview | 2009 Auburn Offense Preview
-
2009 Auburn Defense Preview | 2009 Auburn Depth Chart
- 2008 Auburn Preview | 2007 Auburn Preview | 2006 Auburn Preview 

What you need to know: After last year's disaster under Tony Franklin, Tiger fans have little interest in the spread offense. However, new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is an elite coach who'll make a world of difference for an attack that was 110th in the nation in scoring and 104th in yards. Tulsa had the nation's most productive offense over the last few years under his watch, and now the hope is that some of the magic will kick in right away. The potential at receiver is there with several big, talented prospects who have to come through after struggling to make things happen for the passing game. The running backs are the strength with three excellent runners in Ben Tate, freshman Ontario McCalebb, and Eric Smith, while Mario Fannin will be used in a variety of ways as both a runner and a receiver. The line needs work, but Lee Ziemba is a nice tackle to work around. And then there are the quarterbacks. Malzahn made statistical stars out of Paul Smith and David Johnson at Tulsa, and neither one was an elite talent. It'll be an issue to find the right triggerman with Neil Caudle the best passing option, and Kodi Burns the best running threat. However, Burns can't throw, and he could be pushed out of the race in a hurry if true freshman Tyrik Rollison is ready.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Kodi Burns
94-179, 1,050 yds, 2 TD, 7 INT
Rushing: Ben Tate
159 carries, 664 yds, 3 TD
Receiving: Montez Billings
24 catches, 277 yds, 0 TD

Star of the offense: Junior WR/RB Mario Fannin
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior QB Neil Caudle
Unsung star on the rise: Caudle
Best pro prospect: Junior OT Lee Ziemba
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Fannin, 2) Ziemba, 3) RB Ben Tate
Strength of the offense: Running backs, Gus Malzahn
Weakness of the offense:
Quarterbacks, Line consistency

Quarterbacks

Projected Starter: While he's not officially the starter coming out of spring ball, junior Neil Caudle will likely be the main man come fall after a great offseason. the 6-3, 199-pounder was a top recruit for the program a few years ago and is the type of pure passer who can get the ball down the field on a regular basis. While he has always had the arm and he has always had the skills, he never had the offense or the coaching staff to bring out his best. He only saw time in two games completing 4-of-5 passes for 32 yards, but he was a breakout player in spring ball highlighted by an 11-of-18 performance in the final scrimmage. While he's not much of a runner, he'll make up for it with his arm.

Projected Top Reserves: 6-1, 209-pound junior Kodi Burns has the athleticism and the rushing skills tailor made for running part of the spread offense, but he can't throw. While he completed over half of his passes last season for 1,050 yards, he only threw two touchdown passes with seven interceptions and struggled to keep the chains moving. While he was second on the team with 411 yards and five touchdowns, and while he threw for 319 yards against Ole Miss, he didn't have the type of breakout game the team needed. After a rocky offseason and tough spring, he'll have to fight to be the starter this fall.

Former Texas Tech transfer Chris Todd got the starting call in five games, completing 55% of his throws for 903 yards and five touchdowns with six interceptions, but he has had problems with a shoulder injury and doesn't have the pop in his passes to make him a candidate for the No. 1 spot. The 6-4, 214-pound senior didn't play over the final five games, getting the yank after completing 3-of-10 passes for 18 yards and a pick against Arkansas, and he appears to be the lost man in the shuffle going into the fall.

Ready to show what he can do is Tyrik Rollison, a 6-2, 185-pound freshman who threw for 4,728 yards and 51 touchdowns, and ran for 1,094 yards, for his high school in Texas last year. A top recruit, and considered to be one of the top dual-threat prospects in the country, he might take over the job sooner than later if no one else is getting the job done. He could use a little time to get bigger, but he already has a strong, accurate arm and the tremendous mobility to make him the rushing threat the offense needs.

Redshirt freshman Barrett Trotter was making a sleeper bid for the starting job, and at the very least was going to be an interesting prospect to keep an eye on going into the fall, but he tore his ACL this spring and is out for the year. The 6-2, 201-pounder is the combination player the offense needs with a solid, accurate arm and good running skills, but he'll have to wait until next year to get back in the hunt for playing time.

Watch Out For ... Caudle. While he might not be ideal for the Gus Malzahn offense, he moved the offense this spring and appeared to be the best candidate for the gig. A long as he's keeping the chains moving and is pushing the ball down the field on a consistent basis, he'll be the one to beat.
Strength
:
Gus Malzahn. He's a star-maker whose offenses produce big numbers from mediocre quarterbacks (at least that was the case at Tulsa). Auburn might not have the best passers to work with, but the system is in place for them to shine.
Weakness
:
The right fit. Trotter appeared to be the prospect to build the offense around, but his knee injury is a setback for the offense. While he'll get time to absorb the offense and make himself stronger going into next year, the coaching staff will have to hope that Caudle's spring will carry over to the fall or for Burns to get better in a big hurry.
Outlook: Forget about a rotation. The coaching staff will find one guy and stick with him. And that guy will be ... wait until the fall. Burns is listed at the top of the depth chart, and he'll be the guy if he shows even a little bit of passing efficiency, but Caudle could be too good to keep on the bench. The situation might not be settled until the last possible chance.
Rating: 6

Running Backs

Projected Starters: Senior Ben Tate was the team's leading rusher with 664 yards and three scores, but he only averaged 4.2 yards per carry and his production tailed off over the second half of the year. He ran for 108 yards and a score against Arkansas in early October, but he didn't run for more than 42 yards in any of the last six games. The 5-11, 217-pound speedster ran for 903 yards and eight scores in 2007 with a great finishing kick to make him the hot back going into the 2008 season, and now he'll be the No. 1 back early on.

Projected Top Reserves: If Ontario McCalebb doesn't win the starting job this fall, he'll be a key factor in the rotation early on. The 5-10, 165-pound true freshman was considered by some to be the nation's No. 1 running back recruit after rushing for 1,995 yards and 27 scores in his senior year of high school. While he's not all that big and he's not going to pound the ball, he's lightning quick and can be used as a receiver as well as a runner. When he gets into space, he's gone.

When the offense needs the hard yards it'll go to Eric Smith, a 5-10, 234-pound sophomore who ran for 83 yards, with 66 of them coming in the opening day win over UL Monroe. Quick and big, he can work inside and if given the chance, he can make things happen on the outside. He'd produce if given the chance, but he might not see too much work with Tate and McCalebb the far better talents.

Watch Out For ... McCalebb. His 70-yard touchdown run in the spring game showed a glimpse of what he can do. While he'll play second fiddle behind Tate, he could make the biggest impact on the running game. He's the home run hitter the offense missed last year. 
Strength
:
Talent. Tate is a fantastic back who'd run for 1,000 yards easily if the offense was committed to the run and made him the focus. McCalebb is a special talent who'll be a fan favorite, while Smith is a good back who might get lost in the shuffle. And then there's Mario Fannin, a do-it-all playmaker who'll be used as a running and a receiver, starting out in the H-Back role. He'll likely finish third on the team in yards.
Weakness: The line. While the backs are quick enough to make things happen on their own, it'll be tough to do against the speedy SEC defenses if there isn't much room to move. The line should be average and the passing game has to do something early on or defenses will load up against the run.
Outlook: The talent is better than the production will be. If Kodi Burns isn't under center, the backs will have more of the workload to deal with; that's a positive. Tate, Fannin and Smith form a terrific trio that'll be far more productive than last year, while McCalebb will be a difference-making weapon
.
Rating: 8


Receivers

Projected Starters: Is he a running back? Is he a receiver? Is he a tight end, an H-Back, or a kickoff returner? Junior Mario Fannin is all of the above. The 5-11, 226-pound playmaker was fourth on the team in rushing with 238 yards and a score, third in receiving with 20 catches for 223 yards and two scores, and a solid kickoff returner averaging 21.5 yards per try for his career. With a glut of good running backs already fighting for the ball, he'll start out as an H-Back, or this offense's version of a tight end, while being put in a variety of places to utilize his speed and quickness. The only question mark is his health, with various problems throughout his career including an ankle problem this spring.

Ready to become a breakout performer is Davin Adams, a 6-3, 194-pound sophomore who caught four passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Mostly a special teamer last year, he only caught three passes for 18 yards, with all of them coming against UT Martin, but he has the home run hitting capability to quickly grow into a much bigger role.


Junior Tim Hawthorne has a huge upside and the talent to become a special player, but he needs the ball. Never really in the mix after breaking his arm last spring, he only caught eight passes, but he made them count averaging 25.4 yards per play. At 6-3 and 214 pounds he has the size and he looks the part. Now he has to show he can be a consistent producer.

For the moment, junior Terrell Zachery is in the starting lineup. While that could change late this summer, the 6-1, 209-pounder, who missed all of 2007 with academic problems, has the hands and he has the raw ability to be a part of the offense after catching just two passes for 24 yards. He set the Alabama high school record with 4,672 career receiving yards and was a big recruit for the program a few years ago. 

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Montez Billings will be in the starting lineup if he gets to class. Academic issues are the concern going into the year, but the 6-2, 184-pound leading returning receiver has to be on the field with his experience and his speed. He caught 24 passes for 277 yards, but he didn't get into the end zone. One of the team's fastest players winning the Alabama state high school 200-meter dash in 2004 with a time of 21.74, he needs to do more to use his wheels as a deep threat averaging just 11.5 yards per grab over the last two years.

The team's best wide receiver could turn out to be DeAngelo Benton, the star recruit who led his team to a Louisiana state title with 40 catches for 947 yards and 15 scores. The Tigers plucked the 6-3, 205-pounder away from LSU, and he's expected to pay off immediately.

Arguably the team's top recruit this year, the expectations are sky high for tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. He got away from Georgia after catching 72 passes for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns last season. At 6-4 and 240 pounds, he's the prototype tight end with 4.7 speed, toughness, and NFL hands. He'll be a matchup nightmare once he figures out what he's doing.

Mario Fannin isn't going to be a tight end, so when the offense needs one, Tommy Trott will be the key target early on. The 6-5, 237-pound senior is trying to come back from a knee injury, but when he's right he's a good all-around player with nice blocking skills and good hands. However, he'll have to fight for playing time with the new configuration and the options at tight end. 

Used in two tight end sets and as a blocker, 6-4, 252-pound senior Gabe McKenzie is a decent-sized blocker and a good enough athlete to stretch the field from time to time. He only caught three passes for 33 yards, but he made 26 grabs over his first two seasons and will be thrown to a bit more this year.

Watch Out For ... the freshmen. The quarterback play was poor and the offense was lousy, but the receivers didn't exactly help out the cause. The coaching staff will have to do everything possible to temper the enthusiasm over Benton and Lutzenkirchen. They're expected to come in right away and do what Julio Jones did for Alabama and A.J. Green did for Georgia. They're not as good as those two, but they're strong enough to be big parts of the passing game.
Strength
: The look. While this group might turn out to be the working definition of the looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane cliché, they at least look the part. Everyone is big, everyone can move, and everyone has the athleticism to be the guy on a given day.
Weakness
:
A No. 1. The passing game couldn't come up with a go-to guy last year, and that includes the mediocre leading target, Rodgeriqus Smith, who has moved on. Billings could become a top target, but he needs to work his way back into the starting lineup. The opportunities will be there for someone to become the main option.
Outlook: The receiving corps didn't help the cause last year, but it'll be the biggest beneficiary of the change of styles. Fannin will blow up with his role to change on a play-by-play basis, while there are several good young targets just waiting to shine. Don't get used to the depth chart since it'll change throughout the year, but compared to last season, that might not be a bad thing. The parts are there, and now the coaching staff is in place to use them.
Rating: 6.5

Offensive Linemen

Projected Starters: The line will work around junior Lee Ziemba at left tackle, a stalwart of the front five for the last two seasons with 24 straight starts. At 6-8 and 304 pounds, he's a big presence with long arms and excellent feet, and while he didn't progress into superstar status last year, he was solid and has lived up to his tremendous hype. A big-time recruit for the program two years ago, he's the anchor of the line and the leader. No, he's not going to maul anyone, but he'll only get better and better as his technique, which wasn't bad to start, keeps getting tighter. A knee injury that limited him this offseason isn't expected to be a problem.

The other key starter up front will be junior Ryan Pugh, even though he's at a different position. He got six starts at center over the first half of last year before finishing up at right tackle. Now he'll move back to the middle where he'll use his athleticism and his experience to make the key calls for a line that will be more about finesse than power. He's a good run blocker who plays through everything, and at 6-4, 287 pounds, he's the perfect size for the middle. 

With Pugh moving to the middle, 6-6, 295-pound senior Andrew McCain has to shine at right tackle. He saw time in every game but wasn't always a major part of the rotation. He's an excellent athlete for his size and he should be a far better fit for the new offense. He'll need a while as a pass blocker, but he should be fine on the move.

Taking over for Tyronne Green at left guard will be Byron Isom, a starter for the first seven games at right guard last year with good toughness and decent athleticism. However, he was a bit raw and will improve as the season goes on. At 6-3 and 293 pounds, the junior is big, but he carries it well.

Working at one of the guard spots will be Mike Berry, a 6-3, 313-pound junior who'll be one of the team's biggest linemen and one of the most versatile. Able to play either guard or center, he could move to the middle if Pugh moves back outside for a stretch. More of a power run blocker than a spread guard, he'll have to prove he can be consistent on the move. He struggled early on in his career, but he made a big jump in his consistency and could eventually grow into a special all-around blocker with more time to work.


Projected Top Reserves: 6-4, 290-pound junior Bart Eddins is a good-looking inside presence able to play either guard or center. He'll start out working behind Isom at guard, but he'll also be a key backup in the middle. A defensive tackle out of high school, he knows what he's doing now.

Expected to be a top backup at tackle is A.J. Greene, a 6-5, 279-pound sophomore who didn't see any time last year, but is a great prospect. A star defensive end coming out of high school, he's ready to be a part of the rotation behind Lee Ziemba at left tackle.

Sophomore Jared Cooper was originally considered a prospect at tackle, but he'll spend this year playing behind Mike Berry at guard. At 6-4 and 300 pounds, he's a good-sized blocker who saw a little bit of time in six games. Very smart, along with being very versatile, he should do more in the new offense now that he'll get to make blocks on the move.

Watch Out For ... the line to not be the big problem many will think it is. The coaching staff is concerned about the consistency up front with so many new starters and a new offense, this is a relatively athletic group that should quickly take to the blocking scheme.
Strength
:
Versatility. There might not be a lot in the way of overall experience, but there are several versatile players who can move around where needed. It would be nice if there could be a set lineup on the opening day, but the line might change up early on.  
Weakness
:
Consistency. This will be a big issue throughout the first half of the year, at least. Ziemba is a sure thing at one tackle spot, and Pugh will play somewhere on the inside, but that's it as far as sure things up front. It might take a little while to come up with the right combination.
Outlook: The line was supposed to be among the best in the SEC last season, and while it was fine, it wasn't the difference it should've been. This year's line has a ton of turnover, but that's not necessarily a bad thing since the blocking scheme is changing, too. There might not be sure-thing starters to go along with Ziemba, Pugh, and Isom, but the backups are promising and the overall athleticism is there for the line to be just good enough to not be a liability.
Rating: 7