BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The following is a commentary blog from FOX6 Sports Director Rick Karle:
Here we go! SEC football practices are kicking off in earnest this week, and it's today that the Auburn Tigers begin the grind. With the season opener against Louisville now a month away, Auburn fans are jacked up about what could be a special season (be careful of that opener against Petrino, folks). Why the increased level of excitement about a team that faded down the stretch in 2014? Here are at ten reasons why the Auburn nation is pumped up!
10. Jeremy Johnson: This one's a no-brainer as the pride of Montgomery will officially take the reigns at quarterback from Nick Marshall. While the elusive Marshall often avoided defenders, Johnson's big body may enable him to carry defenders on his back. And the arm strength? Pretty strong, as Johnson has proven in his time already played that he loves to throw it downfield (with accuracy). Cam Newton he is not, but Jeremy Johnson, a young man who is already getting some Heisman buzz, could be close. Facing Arkansas last season, Johnson became the first Tiger since Cam to throw for 200 yards in one half (243 yards in the season opener). And when football season ends? Bruce Pearl may want to take a look at this kid (I'm serious). Jeremy Johnson has all the tools and all the support he needs come this fall. Will he deliver?
9. Will Muschamp: The Tiger's new defensive coordinator is a DC at heart, and he brings with him a motor that never stops. While Muschamp has his work cut out (The Tigers allowed 31 points or more in 2014 in their last seven games to Power 5 teams), the former Florida head coach is ready to turn it around as he tells AuburnTigers.com, "The talking season is over." Muschamp has surrounded himself with talented assistants in former Bama assistant Lance Thompson (touché) along with the likes of Travaris Robinson and Rodney Garner. And the players? He has 'em in DB's Blake Countess and Jonathan Jones, and DL's such as Carl Lawson and Byron Cowart. The defense of 2014 is now a memory, and it's time for Muschamp to create fond memories for the Auburn fan base.
8. The Schedule: If the Tigers get past Louisville in the season opener, this football team could be on its way to a special season. Yes, the Tigers will play at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M, but get a load of the home games the Tigers will enjoy in 2015: Ole Miss, Miss State, Georgia and yes, Alabama. If the SEC championship runs through the Iron Bowl has many expect, we could be in for a wild time at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Here's a question: How many times will the Auburn folks play that Kick Six return from Chris Davis before the 2015 Iron Bowl on that huge video screen? I'm sure Nick Saban will appreciate it.
7. The Running Backs: They say that just about any tailback can succeed in the Gus Malzahn system, and that is true to a point (witness Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne). But it also takes talent to run the football in that scheme, and Malzahn has three good ones ready to step up. Roc Thomas, a former "Sideline" All-Star winner, can run north-south as well as east-west as I have never seen him give anything but 100% on each carry. Peyton Barber could be a beast, and the nation's top JUCO tailback, Jovon Robinson could be the main man as long as he stays healthy. The Auburn Tigers have led the SEC in rushing the last two years under Gus Malzahn, and I see no reason why it can't happen again.
6. The Uniforms: While the football player inside the uniform is what really matters, let's face it: Young players today love to be on the cutting edge of uniform fashion, and often play better when they are (witness the Oregon Ducks). Now comes Auburn's new-look uniforms thanks to Under Armour. While many of the changes are subtle, the players have noticed. Stripes that now reach the bottom of the britches, a helmet stripe that is now orange metallic rather than orange chrome, and the option of wearing orange shoes has certainly lent hype to the team.
5. The Offensive Line: You know they say that football games are won in the trenches, and come this fall, Auburn's "Big Uglies" could be in store for great things. Yes, center Reese Dismukes has departed, but Austin Golson has made the shift to center and feels ready to go. Tackles? They don't get much stronger than Shon Coleman (what a story he has been) and Avery Young. Toss in Alex Kozan who is coming off injury, and this unit should be tough. If these young men stay healthy and give Johnson time to do his thing, Tiger fans could see the offense put up some big numbers.
4. The Video Screen: When Auburn AD Jay Jacobs learned he would soon be leading the charge for a new end zone video scoreboard, he figured he should go big, and man has he ever! The largest video screen in college football will make its debut at the home opener against Jacksonville State come September 12th. After surveying screens nationwide (the Carolina Panther's screen caught their eyes), the Auburn folks settled on a $13.9 million contract with Daktronics. The board measures 190 feet by 57 feet (ya can't fit that into your man cave) and sports nearly 9 million LED lights. Some 40 people will help make this baby hum each and every home game, and thousands will reap the benefits. This scoreboard is so impressive you have to wonder if Jerry Jones is jealous.
3. Freshman Kerryon Johnson: Bo Jackson he's not, but the former Madison Academy star could be on his way to providing Tiger fans with plenty of highlights in 2015. The Tigers have signed the Mr. Football winner from our state for three straight years, and Johnson is special. The nation's #2 athlete in 247Sports Composite, Johnson chalked up some 1700 yards and 25 TD's last season with the Mustangs, leading his team to the 3A state title by scoring all six of his team's TD"s in the championship game. Where does Gus Malzahn play Johnson? Anywhere- just get the kid the football. Tailback, slot receiver, Wildcat quarterback, it doesn't matter: Kerryon Johnson simply needs the touches.
2. The Team's Chip: Let's face it, the Tiger's 2014 fade was nothing for the players to write home about. An 8-5 record (including that bowl loss to Wisconsin) had many Tiger fans shaking their heads after such lofty expectations were placed upon the team prior to the season. Losses to Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama (a 55-44 loss despite gaining 623 offensive yards in Tuscaloosa) had some wondering if the team lacked leadership. The current Tigers (and their fans) will never forget the high of the 2013 season and the low of the 2014 season. All parties involved will not let 2014 happen again.
1. Gus Malzhan: While the Auburn head coach is a man of few words, I have seen a more driven Gus Malzahn over the last few months. Malzahn was outspoken at SEC Media Days in July, expressing himself more forcefully as the media peppered him with questions. But the enlightening moment for me came during my one-on-one interview with him a few weeks before Media Days. I sat in the Rane Room with the coach as no questions were off limits.
As Malzahn spoke of his goal of winning national championships, his love of Auburn and his menu choices at Waffle House, I noticed something about 18 minutes into the interview. Following one of his answers, the coach lifted his arm, glanced at his wrist watch, and gave me a quick stare that translated to "Let's wrap this thing up." Yes, while Malzahn was indeed courteous, he needed to get back to work, draw up more plays in that offensive brain of his.
Malzahn's life, like his offense, moves at warp speed, and a 20 minute interview was simply too long. From my seat, this football coach looks obsessed, ready to right the ship. And that spells bad news for Auburn's 2015 opponents.
Each and every year the month of August arrives, and like spring training in baseball, optimism reigns. A long, grinding season lies ahead for the Auburn Tigers, but barring injuries, Gus Malzahn may turn optimism into a championship. It's quite a distance between the first day of practice and the national championship game, but Auburn fans have as much a right as any to expect a championship run in 2015.