Auburn football: Tigers' offense tries to maintain potency during spring despite departure of three key starters

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 27, 2014 

In this file photo, Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne rushes for a touchdown against Missouri in the third quarter of last year's SEC Championship game in the Georgia Dome. Artis-Payne joins fellow senior Corey Grant as the Tigers try to make sure their offense doesn't miss a beat this spring.


AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s offense can be viewed in two ways.

On one hand, the Tigers enter the spring returning eight starters from last year’s team. On the flip side, the three starters that have moved on were three of the most important members of the unit: running back Tre Mason, a Heisman Trophy finalist; left tackle Greg Robinson, who will likely be one of the first five players taken in May’s NFL draft; and fullback Jay Prosch, one of the top players in the nation at his position.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t revealed who will open spring practice at the top of the depth chart at running back or fullback.

At running back, the Tigers bring back a pair of seniors in Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne along with Peyton Barber, who redshirted last season. Johnathan Ford may figure into things as well — that is, if the coaching staff elects to move him back to offense, as the sophomore moved to corner during fall camp last year and remained there the whole season. Prosch’s likely replacement is Gage Batten, who owns a similar build and skill set to the departed senior.

While those positions are left to guesswork to outsiders for the time being, Malzahn was a bit more revealing about the vacant left tackle spot.

“(Offensive line) Coach (J.B.) Grimes, is going to open it up to the two guys — Shon Coleman (and) Patrick Miller,” Malzahn said. “(Robert) Leff will get an opportunity. (It'll be) whoever wins the job.”

Avery Young, who started the final five games at right tackle — replacing Miller, who was removed from the lienup due to an undisclosed off-field issue — could get a look on the left side as well.

One offensive lineman who might have to avoid contact during the spring is Jordan Diamond. The third-year sophomore, who served as Chad Slade’s backup at right guard last season, had surgery on his knee earlier this month.

“That was a carryover from the year and we just felt like it was important to go ahead and do that now, so he could be healthy for summer and healthy for the season,” Malzahn said. “He battled through the season not at 100 percent.”

As for his status this spring?

“It looks that way,” Malzahn said when asked if Diamond would be limited to no-contact. “ We'll see how it goes once we get to spring but we just through it was more important to have him healthy for the fall.”

One position where the Tigers can breath easy is quarterback. After a spectacular debut season on the Plains, Nick Marshall is set to enter the fall as the top quarterback in the SEC. What’s more, he’s the first signal-caller Malzahn will be able to work with for more than one season at the college level. Not surprisingly, the coach has big plans for Marshall this spring.

“We'll really go back and build around his strengths even more,” he said just four days after the BCS championship game had concluded. “What he did in one year — not going through spring and not winning the job until two weeks before the season — was phenomenal.”

D’haquille Williams could have a similar influence on the Tigers’ offense in 2014. Considered the top junior college player in the country regardless of position, the receiver enrolled this spring, getting the chance to go through workouts and immediately begin learning the playbook. When they signed Williams in December, Malzahn said the wideout was a player capable of changing the entire face of the offense given his incredible athleticism and playmaking ability.

That praise wasn’t far away last week, with Malzahn noting that Williams has already “earned that title” as the best player from the junior college ranks.

In a good sign for both Williams and the future of the offense, it hasn’t taken long for him to make an impression on the coaching staff.

“He's off to a very good start,” Malzahn said. “(Wide receivers) Coach (Dameyune) Craig has high expectations for him, and we're looking forward to getting on the practice field with him and see what he can do.”

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