AUBURN, Ala. — In the hierarchy of the college football world, spring games rank fairly low.
Every now and then, an important position battle can figure prominently. (Think about pretty much any major program that has a quarterback competition on its hands.) But it’s not as if the player who looks the best in a spring game has much bearing on the fall. More often than not, it means nothing.
Just look at Auburn’s running back position last year.
At the end of the spring, Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant were all listed at the top of the depth chart.
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If one had gone off the results from the A-Day affair, though, Artis-Payne would have been the unquestioned starter. He was the one who led the Tigers in carries (18) and yards (137), including a 27-yard touchdown. The junior college transfer even added 47 receiving yards for good measure, one being a 42-yard reception down the right sideline where he broke multiple tackles. That made him an easy choice as the game’s offensive most valuable player.
Then there was Mason, who ran 11 times for 60 yards and a touchdown. That was more than could be said for Grant, relegated to the sideline with a case of the flu.
Once the fall arrived, Mason’s play rendered the spring game’s results meaningless.
It’ll be the same way Saturday — albeit for different reasons.
Yes, there is once again a three-way running back battle, with Artis-Payne and Grant reprising their roles and Peyton Barber standing in where Mason departed. But unlike last season, there’s no quarterback controversy. Kiehl Frazier is gone. Jonathan Wallace is third on the depth chart. Nick Marshall’s job is safe, provided he stays healthy.
The problem is, making any kind of judgments on the play of the offense will be next-to-impossible — especially when it comes to the starting unit.
That’s because injuries to the first-team defense has left it a shell of what it should be this fall.
LaDarius Owens, expected to be the starter at right defensive end, hasn’t practiced at all after having surgery on his foot. Cassanova McKinzy, last year’s top tackler, was slowed by a hip injury. Then he bruised his tailbone.
One could continue running down the list of starters, from Star Robenson Therezie (hand) to defensive end Carl Lawson (bruised knee). One could forge on and start ticking off the backups at every level of the defense that are banged up.
It almost seems the list of injured defenders outnumbers their healthy colleagues.
While the offense has remained injury-free this spring, having eight returning starters makes for little drama. It was clear from the start the coaching staff wouldn’t settle on the new left tackle, H-back and running back until the fall. That hasn’t changed since spring practice began exactly one month ago.
Hard as it may be for (many) fans to stomach, the most fascinating unit to watch Saturday will be the special teams, where kicker Daniel Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson attempt to replace a solid — and sometimes spectacular — senior pair in Cody Parkey and Steven Clark.
Despite the normal trivialness that surrounds a spring game, Gus Malzahn can’t wait for Saturday.
“I think as a coach you always look to see how guys react in front of a crowd, because (in) my experience, a lot of them react differently in front of a crowd,” Auburn’s coach said. “It will give us a good chance to evaluate that. Even the older guys, it’s always fun to see those guys flying around anytime you hit the game field out there, with a crowd out there in the stands.”
It will be a joyous occasion for players, coaches and fans, sure.
The Tigers’ 2013 SEC champion squad will be honored at halftime. Other outstanding performers from last season will also be recognized prior to kickoff. Further, Saturday will be a chance for less-experienced players to take the field in front of friends and family — an opportunity much tougher to come by when fall rolls around and winning engulfs everything.
The good news for Auburn is that A-Day is a no-lose situation. As such, Saturday should be enjoyed for what it’s worth.
Just don’t lose sight of how little it will mean in the grand scheme of things.