Auburn football: Five questions the Tigers need to answer before the end of the year

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 29, 2013 

This is the second of a two-part series analyzing the Auburn football program. Today, beat writer Ryan Black looks ahead to the rest of the season. Check out Part One here.

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s first open date of its 2013 campaign fell at an opportune time.

With one-third of the season done, the Tigers have already matched their win total from last year. It is also allowing a injury-plagued defense time to heal.

But Auburn also went into the bye week on their first loss, a 35-21 defeat to No. 6 LSU on the road. With eight games remaining in the regular season, what areas does Auburn need to correct? Here are five questions (and answers) that would be good places for the Tigers to start.

1. Will Nick Marshall fine tune his accuracy?

The junior’s completion percentage hasn’t been terrible — he’s connecting at a 58.3 percent clip, after all. Yet the aspect most want to focus are his misses.

More often than coaches and fans would like to recall, Marshall has struggled to hit open receivers. At a rate of two or three per game, Marshall has sailed passes well past the reach of a potential pass-catcher. Worse, many of the wayward attempts would have been sure-fire touchdowns if the Peach State product had put the necessary touch on his passes, with receivers running free and well ahead of the nearest defender. The good news for the Tigers is it is easily correctable.

It’s similar to finding the proper range with irons in golf; Marshall just needs to learn that sometimes putting all of your strength into a throw is overkill when 75 percent would do the trick.

2. Can Auburn’s defense cut out the trash plays?

After four games, the Tigers find themselves right where they left off last season: Near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in every major defensive category. Auburn is allowing 439.5 yards per game, which ranks ahead of only Texas A&M in the 14-team SEC. The Tigers also rank 13th in pass defense (267.5) and are just slightly better in the rushing department, giving up 172 yards per game, which is 12th-most in the league. Auburn’s biggest problem is what defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson calls “trash plays,” where his unit makes a mistake that allows an opponent to pick up big chunks of yardage.

LSU had seven plays of 20 yards or more, which accounted for a mind-boggling 255 yards, which comprised 55.8 percent of the hosts’ total (457) for the contest.

If Auburn can find a way to cut out those kinds of plays, its defense has shown it stiffens once a team gets inside the 20-yard line, ranking third in the SEC in red zone defense at 70.6 percent. Of course, that number will mean little if the Tigers keep allowing opponents to score on plays from 20 yards and out.

3. Is a lead receiver going to emerge this season?

Some might say this has already been answered. Yes, sophomore Sammie Coates leads the team in receiving yards (306) and is tied for the lead in receptions (11) and touchdowns. But when one takes a closer look at the numbers, there’s some legitimacy to questioning whether Coates can be considered the team’s “go-to” option. It begins and ends with his yards per catch: 27.8. The Leroy, Ala., native has shown he can beat coverage deep, but a true No.1 wideout needs to be able to catch passes in traffic as well as come up with the short-yardage receptions that simply move the chains. Coates may eventually add those to his repertoire.

If not, the Tigers have a plethora of options. One is true freshman Marcus Davis, who proved his worth on Auburn’s game-winning drive versus Mississippi State. He caught four of Marshall’s six passes on the drive, and showed an uncanny feel for where he was on the field, hauling the ball in and wasting no time getting out of bounds.

Other candidates in the mix include sophomore Ricardo Louis and junior Quan Bray.

Until one separates himself, however, they are just names. In the meantime, the Tigers will continue to use what the coaching staff has called a “by-committee” approach at receiver.

4. Who replaces Jaylon Denson?

As coaches would say, finding a replacement for the junior receiver’s production has less to do with pass-catching ability than it does hard-nosed blocking. Denson’s numbers at the time of his season-ending knee injury against LSU bear it out: He had only three receptions for 45 yards through three games.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said multiple players have been rotating at Denson’s former “5” spot, but he highlighted two names specifically: Brandon Fulse and Melvin Ray. Fulse, a junior, made his first start of the year against LSU, while Ray, a sophomore, made his first appearance of the season in the same game.

With Malzahn already outing them publicly — something the coach rarely does, as he prefers to talk more about position groups or the team as a whole than specific players — expect to see both figure more prominently in the Tigers’ plans for the remainder of the year.

5. Will the team finally fight off the injury bug?

Malzahn hinted on Wednesday that some defenders who have yet to take the field this season may be back by next Saturday. Whether that means defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker or cornerback Jonathan Jones is uncertain, but either’s return would be a boost to a unit that has been playing at less than full strength since the season began. They weren’t the only players Auburn’s defense was missing in its last outing, though. Seniors Chris Davis and Craig Sanders were also held out, as neither even made the trip to Baton Rouge, La.

The sooner they are cleared to play, the better, especially in Davis’ case. Aside from his duties at cornerback, he’s also the team’s most dynamic punt returner.

Outside of his natural talent, Davis’ leadership is every bit as important to the Tigers, as he was one of two players (along with center Reese Dismukes) to serve as team captains in each of the season’s first three games.

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