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Wednesday, Apr. 21, 2010

Auburn football: Spring offers some answers

But QB race still remains open

- abitter@ledger-enquirer.com
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AUBURN, Ala. — Asked if his staff was satisfied with the way spring drills went, Auburn’s Gene Chizik answered like any head football coach would.

“In areas we were,” he said Monday, shortly before rattling off a list of things that needed improvement. “I think we made a lot of strides, but we’ve definitely got a long, long way to go.”

By no means did the spring answer all of Auburn’s questions, but 15 practices did provide some clarity to certain situations.

The Ledger-Enquirer asked five key questions about the Tigers heading into the spring. Here they are revisited:

1. Who, if anyone, will seize the starting quarterback job?

The spring ended the same way it began: with four quarterbacks rotating reps. A decision, like last year, won’t come until the summer at the earliest, two-a-days at the latest.

Chizik reiterated recently that any of the Tigers’ quarterbacks — Neil Caudle, Cam Newton, Barrett Trotter or Clint Moseley — could still win the starting job, although Newton remains the best bet.

The Blinn (Texas) Community College transfer made progress this spring, both with teammates and getting on-field experience with Gus Malzahn’s playbook.

The rationale still stands that the top-rated junior college prospect in the country didn’t come to Auburn to sit on the bench, and the 6-foot-6, 247-pound specimen certainly passes the eye test.

But Auburn’s coaches have still been hesitant to set a quarterback pecking order. And while Moseley said he thinks he is behind in the race, Caudle and Trotter had solid spring games and have more experience in the system, so neither can be summarily dismissed.

2. Is Mario Fannin the leading candidate to replace Ben Tate at running back?

Running backs coach Curtis Luper seems to think so, predicting that Fannin will eclipse the 1,000-yard mark as Auburn’s feature back, a similar promise he made last year about Tate.

Fannin has made a smooth transition from H-back. He has worked on his fumbling problems (Luper said he didn’t put the ball on the ground once this spring) and in getting his pad level lower to better run between the tackles. The only question remaining is whether he’ll be durable enough.

Auburn won’t be a one-running back team, however. Onterio McCalebb will always have a role because of his speed, and Luper said he plans to throw top recruit Michael Dyer into the mix immediately once he arrives on campus. Nevertheless, look for Fannin to be the primary ballcarrier.

3. Who will replace Andrew McCain at right tackle?

Two junior college transfers — Brandon Mosley and Roszell Gayden — battled it out this spring, although neither can definitely stake claim to the spot.

Mosley, a converted tight end, has the upper hand in the short term, having spent most of the spring working with the first team while Gayden struggled with a hand injury.

But the 6-foot-7, 310-pound Gayden could still get the nod. His biggest adjustment this spring was moving to the right side from the left, where he had spent his entire career. Another four months could help his cause.

4. With Zac Etheridge, Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil all back, what does that mean for Auburn’s secondary?

It’s hard to tell. Etheridge (neck) didn’t dress for spring drills and Savage (knee, Achilles’) didn’t participate in contact. McNeil, meanwhile, is still showing a slight limp nearly a year after breaking his leg during a scrimmage.

The coaches expect all of them to be ready for the start of the season, but questions will persist. In the meantime, walk-on Ikeem Means caught the coaching staff’s eye with a solid spring, putting him in the mix for playing time on the regular defense.

If the three veterans return to their old form and Means’ spring performance wasn’t a mirage — two big “ifs” — Auburn’s safeties could be one of the defense’s strong points.

5. How will Auburn cope with losing defensive end Antonio Coleman, the SEC sacks leader?

If A-Day was any indication, Antoine Carter is ready to step in. The senior had 2 1/2 sacks and 3 1/2 tackles for a loss in the scrimmage.

While Michael Goggans, Nosa Eguae and Dee Ford had decent springs, Auburn might look to the interior line for another disruptive player — Nick Fairley.

The junior college transfer had plenty ups and downs in his first year, with his production grade often coming in higher than his assignment grade. The tackle’s focus this spring was to refine his technique. If he succeeds, he could be a boost to a defensive line looking for play-makers.

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