On offense, Auburn returns 9 of 11 starters. Quarterback Brandon Cox and fullback Carl Stewart graduated. Cox finished out his career in the bowl game with a career-high in completions and his game management and poise will be missed.
But the future was on display with Kodi Burns taking advantage of his playing time by accounting for two touchdowns that night. Kodi will be in line to take over as Auburn’s starting quarterback in the spring.
Kodi’s running ability is well known, but his passing has to make great strides for him to take this team to the next level. If Burns hasn’t improved enough as a passer, look for junior college transfer Chris Todd to make a push and a two quarterback system may emerge again next year.
At running back, Auburn is loaded. It returns every player except fullback Carl Stewart from a crowded backfield that is loaded with talent. Senior Brad Lester returns as the starter and is a perfect back for the spread system.
Backing Lester up will be junior bruiser Ben Tate, sophomore beast Mario Fannin and senior speedster Tristan Davis. Look for Fannin to also line up as a slot receiver in the new offense with the coaches looking for ways to get him the ball.
At receiver, Auburn brings back all personnel from 2007. Senior Rod Smith leads the way, followed by senior slot receiver Robert Dunn, junior Montez Billings and sophomores Tim Hawthorne, Chris Slaughter and Terrell Zachary. Look for Auburn’s receivers to make huge strides in this new offense. Slaughter might be the breakout receiver for 2008 for the Auburn Tigers.
As for the offensive line, once again Auburn brings back everyone from a line that started three true freshmen in 2007. Returning are sophomores Lee Ziemba, Chaz Ramsey and Ryan Pugh, along with seniors Jason Bosley and Tyronne Green. Auburn’s offensive line in 2008 should be very good and will be opening up big holes for the running backs.
Defensively, Auburn takes more of a hit as they return just six of 11 starters. They are losing preseason All-American defensive end Quentin Groves, starting nose tackle Josh Thompson, starting safety Eric Brock and corner backs Patrick Lee and Jonathan Wilhite to graduation.
They also lose junior Pat Sims to the NFL draft. On the defensive line, defensive end Antonio Coleman stepped in when Groves went down and played at an All-SEC level; he is a solid starter coming back. Backing Coleman up will be sophomore Antoine Carter. Auburn will have to replace both tackles, but look for junior defensive end Sen’Derrick Marks to possibly move back inside if they don’t find two adequate replacements at tackle. Look for junior Jemarcus Ricks and sophomore Mike Blanc to be the likely starters at defensive tackle, with Marks and Coleman in the equation as ends.
At linebacker, Auburn returns an athletic group. Junior Tray Blackmon leads the way at middle linebacker with sophomore Josh Bynes backing him up. Sophomore strongside linebacker Craig Stevens returns as the starter with sophomore Bo Harris as his backup. Senior weakside linebacker Chris Evans (Auburn’s leading tackler in 2007) returns as the starter with fellow senior Merrill Johnson rounding out the two-deep.
In the secondary Auburn loses senior Eric Brock at strong safety, along with both starting corners in Patrick Lee and Jonathan Wilhite. Returning leaders will be sophomore safety Zac Etheridge, who started last year as a freshman, and junior corner Jerraud Powers who was a co-starter with Wilhite. Look for sophomore Michael McNeil to take over at strong safety and junior Walter McFadden to take over as starting corner opposite Powers. Corner will be the position to watch in the spring as I would expect to see a lot of competition there for the two starting spots.
On the coaching front, Auburn not only is replacing offensive coordinator Al Borges with Franklin, and has also replaced defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (who left for Texas), with former University of Pittsburgh defensive coordinator from Paul Rhoads.
However, with Tommy Tuberville running things, don’t expect a tough transition.
Auburn is in great position to make a run at the SEC title next year. The big key will be quarterback play. How much does Kodi Burns progress as a passer and how well do the quarterbacks pick up the offense?
Skill positions are set. Auburn has to find some corners, but they have the players in place to do it. With a favorable schedule including LSU, Tennessee and Georgia at home, the Tigers are one of the favorites to make it to Atlanta next year.
Look for my recruiting breakdown of Auburn’s 2008 class after letters of intent are sent out on signing day.