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Auburn football: Five questions for Tigers heading into spring practice

AUBURN, Ala. — It's been more than two months since Auburn last stepped foot on a field. That day, the Tigers ended up on the wrong side of a 34-31 overtime decision to the Wisconsin Badgers in the Outback Bowl.

A lot has happened since then.

Last year's seniors have graduated. Auburn inked another top-10 recruiting class on national signing day. And two new coaches (Travaris Robinson and Lance Thompson) have been added to the staff.

So as the Tigers begin spring practice Tuesday, we look at five questions (of the many one could ask) they'll try to answer before their final session April 20.

Is there really an "open competition" at quarterback?

Every time coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have been asked who will replace Nick Marshall, they are quick to respond three candidates have a shot: rising junior Jeremy Johnson, redshirt freshman Sean White and junior college transfer Jason Smith.

In reality, though, Johnson begins with an edge that ranges somewhere from "slight" to "enormous."

Let's tick off his major advantages: He's been in the offense for two full seasons. And he's the only one of the three who's actually seen playing time in the SEC.

Though Johnson has a limited sample size, he has excelled when given the opportunity. In his two seasons to this point, Johnson has connected on 73.1 percent (57-for-78) of his attempts for 858 yards and nine touchdowns. Those who watched last season's opener won't forget how he sliced Arkansas' offense apart in the first half, completing his first eight passes and finishing with 243 yards and two touchdowns before sitting out the rest of the contest.

So who knows? Maybe Johnson isn't starting out as an overwhelming favorite this spring, if you believe the coaches.

What's easier to buy into is that it will take a herculean effort from White or Smith this spring to wrest the job away from Johnson.

Will any receiver fill the void left by Sammie Coates?

One of the best pass-catchers in school history departed when Coates declared for the NFL draft in December. Now, the Tigers will see if any player on the roster can pick up the baton.

On the one hand, this might not be a major worry; in D'haquille Williams, Auburn already has an unquestioned No. 1 option at receiver next season. If no one else emerges, it could end up like the 2013 season: with Williams, mirroring Coates, leading the team in every receiving category by substantial margins.

But if one player steps up, it could make Williams' life much easier. Based on past numbers, no other returning receiver inspires confidence that 2015 will be a breakout season.

It says here that the player to keep an eye on won't join the team until the fall: four-star prospect Darius Slayton, a speedster from Norcross, Ga. whose size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) and ability appear to be a carbon copy of Coates.

Who will become the new "center of attention?"

Austin Golson, who sat out last season after transferring from Ole Miss, is expected to open the spring as the starting center. In his time with the Rebels, he never played center. In 2013, he saw time in 12 games as a backup right guard. And had he stayed at Ole Miss, he likely would have started at right tackle last season, as he was at the top of the depth chart at the end of spring practice.

He'll be pushed by Xavier Dampeer, who served as Reese Dismukes' backup in 2014. Dampeer took part in five games last year in mop-up duty.

Whoever wins the job has an unenviable task: replacing Dismukes, who was a consensus All-American and won the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's top center.

Just how much will Carl Lawson participate this spring?

We know one thing for certain: after sitting out last season to recover from a torn ACL, the gifted defensive end is back. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said as much during his appearance at the Minority Coaches Association of Georgia clinic last month. While he has been cleared, Muschamp noted they're going to make sure to play it safe.

"Our doctors will make those decisions," Muschamp said. "He's moving around extremely well. We expect him to partake in a good bit of spring. How much will be determined by our doctors."

While bringing Lawson along slowly is the right move, this spring means it will be more about quality than quantity. The coaches don't care if he has to sit out a few drills or maybe even a few practices. They just want to see that the explosiveness he showed in his sterling freshman season in 2013 has returned.

That would come as a relief to the staff heading into next season, especially compared to last year. With Lawson out, the pass-rush from the defensive line was nearly non-existent aside from DaVonte Lambert. In sum, the Tigers' defensive linemen accounted for just 12.5 sacks. (By comparison, Dee Ford had 10.5 by himself in 2013 ... despite missing two games.)

How many spots are up for grabs defensively?

With coaching turnover, change comes. And with Auburn's defense, things should be shuffled more than most since Muschamp is bringing in a new system. Out is former coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme. In its place is Muschamp's hybrid base looks, which alternate between a 4-3 and a 3-4 depending upon the situation. Even so, looking at the roster, it's hard not to start plugging players in at certain spots.

The rising senior linebacker duo of Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy will be in the lineup. Lawson should be in it at one end spot, while fellow Class of 2013 signee Montravius Adams should be as well. In the secondary, Johnathan "Rudy" Ford and Josh Holsey will likely have starting jobs — somewhere — come the opener Sept. 5.

So that leaves five spots split among each level of the defense that should be hotly contested this spring.

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