Behind two stars, Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, and a very deep roster of experienced players the Auburn Tigers won the National Championship in 2010. Auburn entered 2011 as the least experienced team in the FBS. After taking the crystal trophy, Auburn would have to re-build in 2011 as they just simply didn't have the talent to re-load.
After going undefeated in 2010 and starting off 2-0 in 2011, the Tigers finally fell to an up-start Clemson team on the road by the score of 38-24. Auburn bounced back by winning a key game at South Carolina (before Marcus Lattimore got hurt) and entered the dangerous part of their SEC schedule at 4-1 and 2-0 in the conference. As Auburn played the tougher teams in the SEC, they simply weren't able to compete. They got rocked by Arkansas (by 24), Georgia (by 38), LSU (by 35) and Alabama (by 28). It was definitely a year of learning for Auburn but they did finish on a positive note by beating Virginia in the Chick-fil-A bowl 42-34 and ending the season 8-5 and 4-4 in the SEC.
Now Auburn enters year four under Gene Chizik with a lot of question marks. Star RB Michael Dyer has transferred, Auburn has replaced both coordinators (hiring Brian Van Gorder and Scott Loeffler), they are still in search of a starting QB to replace Cam Newton and they have a defense that is still learning. We caught up with Tom Blaz of the Recruiting Eagle to get his take on the 2011 Auburn Tigers and to take a brief glimpse into 2012.
CFBZ: Coming off of a National Championship season, the Auburn Tigers returned the least experienced team in the FBS. Which of the youngsters impressed you the most this season?
Recruiting Eagle: First of all, I was impressed by the group as a whole. Auburn had a target on its back in 2011 as the defending champions and played arguably the nation’s toughest schedule. As you mentioned, Auburn had the youngest team in the FBS and had to play on road at Clemson, at South Carolina, at Arkansas, at LSU and at Georgia. Couple that “road warrior” schedule and add Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State at home and any team would struggle.
Offensively, I was impressed mostly by true freshman center Reese Dismukes. Dismukes had to fill the shoes of four-year starter Ryan Pugh, now with the Carolina Panthers and got better each week. Defensively, Georgia native Gabe Wright was most impressive, he too a true freshman. Wright began the season as the top reserve at defensive tackle and was a key starter late in the season. Wearing number 90, made famous by Nick Fairrley, he quickly became a favorite of Auburn faithful. Overall, special teams deserved MVP honors. A pair of sophomores, kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark kept Auburn close in a number of games where they could have been blown out early. Parkey was nearly automatic on kicks and led the nation in touchbacks, while Clark was a finalist for the Ray Guy award.
CFBZ: What was the one defining moment for Auburn's 2011 season?
Recruiting Eagle: I am going to have to go with two, both on the road, both in the state of South Carolina. First, was the loss at Clemson in September. Auburn was the defending national champion and had won 19 straight games dating back to the 2009 Iron Bowl (Auburn lost the ‘09 Iron Bowl late, after leading the unbeaten eventual champion Crimson Tide nearly the enitre contest). The loss was bitter for Auburn fans, not only following 19 straight wins, but to an Alabama alum, Dabo Sweeney, who made mention of it in post game interview. The other defining moment came about a month later when Auburn defeated then unbeaten South Carolina in Columbia. The Gamecocks were out for blood after losing to Auburn twice during the 2010 championship season. The Tigers beat USC in OT in September at Jordan Hare Stadium and in an SEC championship game blowout in Atlanta. Of note, South Carolina still had a healthy Marcus Lattimore, a productive Alshon Jeffrey and Stephen Garcia was still under control... until that game. Auburn ended up winning a close one
CFBZ: The QB play at Auburn this past season was a weakness. Who do you see as the most likely starter in 2012?
Recruiting Eagle: Quarterback was the main problem in 2011 and is the biggest question mark entering 2012 spring practice. Rising junior Clint Moseley was the starter the second half of 2011 until getting injured in the Chick-fil-A win over Virginia. New Offensive Coordinator Scot Loeffler is known as a quarterback guru and will be tasked with “coaching up” Auburn’s quarterbacks in 2012. Moseley probably has a slight lead entering Spring practice as he is the most experienced. The most talented, and big fan favorite Kiehl Frazier will ultimately win the job, hopefully by the Spring game. Frazier was the Gatorade Player of the Year his senior season in high school. Was also state MVP and champion his last three seasons of high school. Former Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn first started recruiting Frazier in middle school. Auburn also has Elite-11 quarterback Zeke Pike. Pike was an early enrollee so he will be competing for the job in Spring and beyond. Pike is a pro style passer with great size 6’5” 240 and athletic enough to be an effective runner. In the end, Frazier wins the job and Pike redshirts.
CFBZ: Which players from Auburn's 2012 recruiting class do you think have the best chance to see the field in their Freshman season?
Recruiting Eagle: Auburn has three transfer running backs that will each play a key role in 2012. Fullback Jay Prosch is a transfer from Illinois, where he was a first team All-American at Illinois last season. Fullback at Auburn you may ask? Well, Malzahn and his offense are gone and Auburn will feature a more balanced attack (and look ) this season. Prosch has applied for hardship eligibility with the NCAA. He is from Mobile , AL and transferred to be near his mother who has cancer.
Tailback Mike Blakely took a redshirt in 2011 while he sat out due to transfer rules. Blakely transferred from Florida where he initially committed after a brutal battle between the Tigers and Gators. An early enrollee a year ago, Blakely had second thoughts and transferred to Auburn. Tailback Corey Grant, from neighboring Opelika, AL is a similar situation to Blakely. Originally selecting Alabama, Grant opted to transfer to Auburn and sat out last season for the same reason as Blakely. Both Blakely and Grant were four star recruits in high school.
Perhaps the most important freshmen are a pair of early enrollees, one from Florida and the other from Colorado. Both are four star offensive tackles and both will be participating in Spring practice. Auburn eventually signed six offensive lineman in the class, including five star’s Avery Young and Jordan Diamond, but only Shane Callahan and Patrick Miller are in school now and will be taking part in Spring practice. Offensive tackle was one of the only positions lacking depth and both figure to be part of the two deep in the Fall.
CFBZ: Auburn will have a re-vamped coaching staff this year. What are your thoughts on the new coaches that Gene Chizik has brought on board?
Recruiting Eagle: The Holidays were a stressful time for hardcore Auburn fans. First Ted Roof was “allowed” to pursue another opportunity and he eventually landed at Penn State in the same role. Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn returned home to take over as Head coach at Arkansas State University. Auburn spent much of the last few months recruiting without a coordinator on either side of the ball. How much it hurt not having coordinators in the recruiting process is unknown, but Auburn did finish as runner-up on a handful of five star players that opted to play elsewhere, some of the biggest names in all of recruiting in this most recent class.
Defensive Coordinator Brian Van Gorder seems like an ideal fit for Auburn. Roof had employed more of a reacting, cover two scheme and Auburn fans have been yearning for the style that Van Gorder employs. Another former Georgia defensive coordinator will be serving as secondary coach. Willie Martinez was just hired last week and the hire allows Tommy Thigpen to move to his more natural spot of coaching linebackers. The only change on offense is Loeffler at offensive coordinator. Just as Auburn fans are excited about the change towards Van Gorder’s more aggressive style, they are also pleased to get away from the full on spread of Malzahn, into a more balanced “power” attack that Loeffler promises.
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