Scouting the Auburn Tigers

Auburn, Ala., is a long way from Manhattan, Kan.  We don't get a lot of information about the SEC team from the Alabama Plains up here on the Great Plains.  So for purposes of informing the faithful before Saturday evening's opening game, Jay from Track 'Em Tigers has provided this excellent Auburn scouting report.  Also, check out my report on our Cats over at Track 'Em Tigers.  I will be posting a comment on his site shortly to make a couple updates because when I wrote it earlier this week I was using a depth chart that was changed a little by the release of the official depth chart Tuesday.

Jay Coulter, Track 'Em Tigers
We are looking forward to welcoming Kansas State to Auburn on Saturday. There’s nothing better than opening the season with a big name opponent from a big name conference. Auburn fans have a lot of respect for the KSU program and what they’ve accomplished over the years.

Saturday’s contest should be a good one. This year’s Auburn team is hard to get a read on. There’s no question the defense should be the strength of the team. Offensively, Auburn returns most of the backfield with the exception of All-SEC selection Kenny Irons; but its weakness may lie in the offensive line where the Tigers start two freshmen.

Let’s break it down for you.

Quarterback

Auburn is led by senior quarterback Brandon Cox. As a starter, Cox is 19-5 overall and 13-3 in the SEC. He was hobbled most of last season by a leg injury suffered in the LSU game. For the remaining nine games, he was never really himself. Because of his lack of mobility, Auburn gave up 35 sacks in 2006.

Despite being hurt, Cox still managed to throw for more than 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns in leading Auburn to 11 wins. Even when healthy, Cox is not a very mobile quarterback. He’s a text book pocket passer. Don’t expect your linebackers to get winded chasing him. He counters his slowness with a cannon for an arm.

Running Backs

Even though Irons has moved on to the NFL, the Tigers are loaded with talent in the backfield. Brad Lester should line up at tailback Saturday night. However, there’s rumors floating around this week that he may be a no go because of academic problems. Lester got a lot carries last season backing up Irons. He rushed for more than 500 yards and nine touchdowns in 2006.

Should Lester be scratched, look for sophomore Ben Tate to take the reins at tailback. Tate also saw a lot of playing time last year. He was named an honorable mention Freshman All-American by Sporting News Magazine.

He’s the all-time leading high school rusher in the state of Maryland. Tate finished his freshman year with 54 carries for 392 yards. He rushed for 144 yards in the second half alone against Tulane.

Senior Carl Stewart will start at fullback. He’s an excellent blocker who also has pretty good speed and will get his share of carries. Look for Stewart to also line up at tailback should Lester be scratched.

Offensive Line

This looks to be Auburn’s biggest weakness. The Tigers will be replacing NFL first round draft choice Ben Grubbs who started at left guard. They also will be replacing the other starting guard, along with the right tackle and center position.

Auburn will be anchored by left tackle King Dunlap. The 6-8, 312 senior is looking for a big year to increase his NFL draft stock. It’s vital that he be a leader for the others on the O-line. Fortunately, Auburn had a solid rotation last year and a lot of the guys starting have seen significant playing time.

This is not the case at right guard and right tackle. It’s a safe bet the KSU coaching staff will run to that side of the ball. Red-shirt freshman Mike Berry will start at the guard position and true freshman Lee Ziemba will start at right tackle. Junior Jason Bosley will start at center.

Wide Receivers

The receivers are another perceived weakness of this year’s Tigers. They have been roundly criticized by the coaching staff during fall practice for their inconsistency. It’s a very talented group, but one that has little game experience.

The best of the bunch is walk-on junior Rod Smith. He was second on the team in receptions last year with 26 catches for 452 yards. He’s somebody who came out of nowhere and improved every week last season. It has continued in fall practice. There’s no question that he’s the go-to guy.

Also lining up at the receiver slots are senior Prechae Rodriguez and junior Robert Dunn. Rodriguez is someone that has shown flashes of brilliance at times, but never seems to put together a complete game. He came on strong at the end of last season, catching a touchdown in the win over Alabama.

Dunn is also expected to contribute and will also return punts.

Tight-end

Auburn is perhaps deeper at the tight-end position than anybody in the country. They’ll be lead by 6th year senior Cole Bennett. His season was cut short by a leg injury during the LSU game. Heading into 2006 he was a consensus All-SEC selection.

Look for sophomores Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie to also see a lot of playing time. They picked up the slack in Bennett’s absence last year and performed great. Don’t be surprised to see instances where all three are in the game at the same time. They’ve been working on that during fall camp.

Defensive Ends

Weakside-end Quentin Groves is the straw that stirs the drink on the defensive side of the ball. He’s pretty much a consensus All-American preseason pick. He has a lighting fast pass rush and can change the game in a hurry. Much of Auburn’s defense will rest on how well Groves performs.  The coaches like to move him around a lot, so he’s never in the same place twice. Sen’Derrick Marks will start at the other end position.

Linebackers

When watching the game, focus on middle linebacker Tray Blackmon. He’s a man-child. Despite playing only six games last year due to suspension, Blackmon made a huge impact. He and Groves were the primary reasons that Auburn upset Florida. He was named freshman second team All-American by The Sporting News.

Also keep an eye on weakside linebacker Merrill Johnson. He’s another one that can compete. If there is a rub on the linebackers, it’s the depth. Should Blackmon or Johnson go down, things become real interesting.

Defensive Tackles/Nose Guard

Senior Josh Thompson will anchor this position, lining up at noseguard most times. He started all 13 games last year. He had 44 tackles, including five for losses. He’s a hard nosed gritty performer. Junior Pat Sims will be at the other tackle position. He to brings a lot of experience, playing in every game last year.

Defensive Secondary

Auburn has a pair of experienced cornerbacks in seniors Patrick Lee and Jonathan Wilhite. The unit is expected to be somewhat weaker than a year ago, when All-SEC cornerback David Irons roamed the field. Wilhite had an injury plagued junior campaign, but proved solid when on the field. Lee played in every game last year, collecting 25 tackles.

Safeties

Sophomore Aairon Savage and Senior Eric Brock will likely get the start at the safety positions.  Both improved drastically throughout the season last year and should be a strength for the defense. Red-shirt freshman Zac Etheridge is pushing Brock at strong safety. It wouldn’t be a major shock to see Etheridge actually get the start. The one knock on this unit is depth. There’s not a lot of it.

Kicker/Punter

Auburn had arguably the best special teams in America last year. But with both the kicker and punter moving on, this year is a huge question mark. Both positions will be starting unproven talent. Freshman Wes Byrum will be handling kicking duties and red-shirt freshman Ryan Shumaker will be the punter. This is without question, the scariest part of the Auburn team. Should the game come down to a kick, there will be a lot of praying going on in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

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