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March 22, 2010
The last time we saw Auburn, the Tigers were gasping for air and fighting for their lives in a wild 38-35 overtime victory over Northwestern in an Outback Bowl that saw 18 records broken, 10 tied, numerous trick plays and a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown.
It wasn't an ideal way to punctuate Gene Chizik's debut season, but it nonetheless was a victory - and a building block. If anything, it showed that Auburn remains a work in progress, especially a defense that yielded 625 yards to Northwestern. But that's what spring football is for.
Auburn will try to shore up its defense while beginning a quarterback search that will be among the most scrutinized in the nation this spring.
Here's a look at the Tigers entering spring drills.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
The offensive line will be among the best in the SEC, with four of five starters returning. All four returning starters will be seniors who have combined for 108 career starts. Ziemba is the standout. Adams is back after leading the team with 48 catches for 855 yards and 10 touchdown grabs. Byrum hit 15 of 16 field-goal attempts last fall.
HELP IS NEEDED
With Chris Todd gone and Kodi Burns now a receiver, there is no proven quarterback. Junior-college transfer Cameron Newton, a former five-star recruit, looks like the favorite. But he'll compete with senior Neil Caudle, sophomore Barrett Trotter and redshirt freshman Clint Moseley. Redshirt freshman Tyrik Rollison looked like the future at quarterback, but he transferred to FCS member Sam Houston State in February. The defense needs some big-play guys. E Antonio Coleman paced the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss in 2009. Who will fill his void? The linebacking corps is desperate for depth. The staff needs to relieve the burden on Bynes and Stevens. Defensive back Aairon Savage was granted a sixth year of eligibility, which should bolster a maligned defense.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
RB Dontae Aycock: With Ben Tate and his 1,254 yards rushing gone, the running back job is open. Aycock, a redshirt freshman, is expected to contend for the starting job along with sophomore Onterio McCalebb.
OT Roszell Gayden: He'll enter spring drills as the favorite to win the right tackle spot, the only open spot on the line. Gayden (6 feet 7/310 pounds) is a junior college transfer who enrolled in January.
QB Cameron Newton: Many expect Newton, who began his career at Florida before going to a junior college, to win the starting job. Newton (6-6/247) enrolled in January and will take part in spring drills. Newton is an excellent runner who must refine his passing skills.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
DE Michael Goggans. Goggans, a senior, has started 18 games in his career, but he lost his starting job to Antoine Carter midway through last season. Carter, also a senior, is expected to start on one side. Goggans could be the other end, but he will have to hold off a challenge from redshirt freshman Nosa Eguae. Eguae was primed for a big freshman season before a foot injury caused him to redshirt.
Auburn showed progress on offense during Chizik's debut season last fall. Now, it's time for the defense to take the next step after ranking 11th in the SEC (374.1 ypg). The Tigers must focus on tightening a soft run defense that finished 10th in the league (156.1 ypg) and yielded an SEC-high 25 rushing touchdowns. As a point of contrast, Alabama allowed only 78.1 rushing yards per game and five rushing touchdowns. Still, there is much excitement on the Plains as Chizik continues to put his stamp on the program.
Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.