Last year, Auburn’s offense struggled all season long to find an identity.
Already dealing with life after Cam Newton, the versatile Mario Fannin and a veteran offensive line, the problem was compounded by an inexperienced front wall and a lack of a proven playmaker — and leader — at quarterback due to the constant shuffling of signal callers Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier throughout the year. Throw in the off-field issues that surrounded star tailback Michael Dyer and it made for a lot of instability in the Tigers’ backfield in 2011.
After leading the SEC in rushing (284.8 ypg), scoring (41.7 ppg) and total offense (499.2 ypg) in 2010 thanks to the talents of Newton, Dyer, speedster Onterio McCalebb, an array of talented pass-catchers (receivers Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery, Emory Blake and Kodi Burns and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen) and the play-calling prowess of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, the Tigers’ offense took a nose dive a year ago. Despite posting a respectable rushing average (182.3 ypg), the Tigers could only muster 155.5 yards passing per game, which ranked ninth in the league and 105th nationally, and 337.9 yards of total offense, which ranked eighth in the conference behind Vanderbilt and 100th nationally.
For Auburn fans, it was quite a contrast from the first two seasons under Malzahn, who basically helped re-write all of the Auburn record books on offense with his downhill, misdirection, fast-paced scheme. It was also a tale, tale sign that Auburn was going through a rebuilding process on offense, which meant growing pains along the way.
Following a 42-14 loss to eventual national champion Alabama in the regular season finale, rapid change took hold of the retooling Auburn O. Dyer was suspended for the bowl game for violating team rules, and Malzahn surprisingly accepted the head coaching position at Arkansas State. Although Dyer’s suspension was a shocker to some, rumors were circulating that the talented tailback was having some off-field issues. Turns out those rumors were true, and Dyer was eventually dismissed from the team.
Although Dyer’s loss was a hit to Auburn’s personnel at the tailback spot, the loss of Malzahn wasn’t a shocker to most astute Tiger fans. They knew it was just a matter of time before the gum-smacking, trick-play artist, who was always yelling “run it, run it, run it” on the sideline, landed a head job elsewhere. In fact, some were surprised that Malzahn landed in Jonesboro rather than at a BCS conference school. But being a native of Arkansas, it was a good fit.
In the days after Auburn’s impressive 43-24 win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it was announced the former Temple offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler would be tapped as the team’s new OC. Loeffler brings an impressive list of credentials with him from his years of coaching experience at big-time schools such as Michigan and Florida and with the NFL’s Detroit Lions. After sitting down with him for a few minutes following spring practice, it’s easy to see why he’s so highly thought of in the coaching community. The guy is sharp as a tack and a stickler for the little things, which should only benefit an Auburn offense that will be shifting from a spread look to more of a multiple, pro-style look that will feature numerous formations and personnel packages.
“Scot Loeffler is unquestionably one of thn a number of different offensive styles, I think Scot will bring a diverse and effective approach to the Auburn football team.”
While Loeffler is expected to bring a new philosophical approach to Auburn’s offense, the Tigers personnel in the backfield returns both Frazier and Moseley (completed 66 of 108 passes for 800 yards and five interceptions in ’11) at the quarterback spot, along with McCalebb (641 yards rushing; seven total TDs in ’11) and the explosive Tre Mason (28 carries for 161 yards; one TD) at tailback. Former Alabama transfer Corey Grant (5-9, 205) and former Florida transfer Mike Blakely (5-9, 206), two highly-ranked prep runners, will also be apart of the tailback rotation after sitting out a year do to the NCAA transfer rule. Both are similar backs in that they offer great speed and quickness, and the two looked good in Auburn’s annual A-Day Game.
Highly-touted true freshman Javon Robinson, rated the nation’s No. 10 tailback according to Rivals.com, could also have a role in Auburn’s new-look backfield when he arrives in the fall. Robinson has a similar running style to that of South Carolina star Marcus Lattimore. That type of style should mesh well with the Tigers other tailbacks.
Frazier, after completing 7 of 9 passes for 92 yards in the spring game, appears to have a leg up on the quarterback race although a starter has yet to be named. By all accounts, the former USA Today Offensive Player of the Year made big strides during the spring under the tutelage of Loeffler. A year ago as a true freshman, Frazier was used primarily as a runner and performed admirably considering defenses keyed on him while he was in the game. He rushed 76 times for 327 yards and three scores, good for a 4.3-yard average. With his size (6-2, 220) and athletic ability, Frazier, who completed only 5 of 12 passes for 34 yards a year ago, could put a clamp down on the Tigers’ starting QB job for years to come with a good fall camp.
“I was very impressed (with Kiehl),” Emory Blake said about Frazier’s play this spring. “Last year I remember Kiehl coming into practice and really not being that confident; not making the right reads in practice. But he’s definitely grown and matured so much this spring and, to me, he looks like a different player out there. He’s come a long way.”
One more addition that could improve Auburn’s backfield production is Illinois transfer Jay Prosch. Prosch, nicknamed “Juggernaut” by the Auburn players this spring for his loud collisions with teammates, transferred from Illinois to be closer to his mother, Iris, who is battling brain cancer. He was cleared to play in June and the 6-0, 253-pound fullback should be a major force in Auburn’s run game.
So, despite the losses of Malzahn and Dyer, optimism abounds for the Auburn offense, especially at the quarterback and running back positions, in 2012. The tailbacks are fast, shifty and tough, and the quarterback position has a lot of promise. Combine that will Loeffler’s approach to a power running game and his ability to develop quarterbacks and call offense, and the Tigers could be in line for a major resurgence in two positions that need stability in order to compete in the rugged SEC West.
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