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Mailbag: Position changes, Kevin Greene, Kerryon Johnson and more

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (21) catches a pass on a fake punt before he carried it for the first down during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game against Memphis, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala.
Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (21) catches a pass on a fake punt before he carried it for the first down during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game against Memphis, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala. AP Photo

It’s quiet on the plains, but it won’t be that way for long.

National signing day has come and gone, but spring practice is scheduled to start earlier than ever.

With Auburn returning to the practice field on March 1, the 2016 season is about to get underway. Before it does, lets open the mailbag and answer some reader questions...

Q: How many freshmen play versus Clemson? (@jpa4AU88)

Answer —  It could be a pretty big number if you are including redshirt freshman. It’s probably a lock that guys like Jamel Dean (DB), Javaris Davis (DB), Richard McBryde (LB), Darius Slayton (WR) and Prince Tega Wanogho (DE) see the field in some capacity.

I think you can safely add around six first-year players from Auburn’s incoming freshman class to that list. Landon Rice and John Franklin III have a good chance of playing — even if Franklin doesn’t win the starting job, he still could see the field with his own package of plays — joined by a pair of defensive lineman and wide receivers.

Eleven freshmen playing versus Clemson seems like a fair guess.

Q: Any position changes for 2016? (@jondavisau)

Answer — The only position change Auburn has publicly discussed going into the spring is making incoming freshman Prince Micheal Sammons an offensive lineman. Auburn was one of the few teams that recruited him on the offensive side of the ball and he’s going to be one of new offensive line coach Herb Hand’s pet projects.

“I know other teams were recruiting him to play defensive end, and he’s a very good defensive end, too, but he has that physical mentality,” coach Gus Malzahn said on signing day. “He’s very athletic, and he’s going to be bigger, so we’re very excited about playing him at tackle. We think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Spring practice might highlight some depth issues for Auburn and force them to move guys around, but right now there’s no obvious player that could benefit from a switch.

Malzahn shot down the idea of moving Roc Thomas to wide receiver during the season and that was when Peyton Barber looked like he was coming back.

There could be some smaller changes on the back end of the defense, turning an outside linebacker into a hybrid safety type, depending on what Kevin Steele wants to do with his scheme.

Q: Would you rather fight 100 Will Muschamp sized Cam Newtons or one Cam Newton sized Will Muschamp? (@jckjes7)

Answer — One Cam Newton sized Will Muschamp. Fighting 100 people at once seems like impossible odds regardless of the size of the opponent.

Q: If Sean White feels like he's not in the mix for the starting job after spring, does he leave? Also, when do you think Malzahn SHOULD name a starter. As in, what timetable is best for the team? (@jonwaldeshow)

Answer — If the coaching staff were to tell White he was out of the running after spring it might make sense for him to pursue other options, but I think that’s a long shot.

I don’t think Malzahn is going to make any rash decisions at quarterback considering what happen last year.

The offense would benefit from naming a starter earlier, but the best thing for the team is getting the right person under center. The competition will go into fall camp where the staff will get a chance to evaluate Woody Barrett as well.

Q: Any news on Kevin Greene joining the staff? (@NRHoffman)

Answer — Probably not going to happen.

Greene resigned from the Green Bay Packers outside linebackers following the 2013-14 season to spend more time with his family.

The Auburn alum would have made sense as a candidate to replace Lance Thompson if he was interested, but the Tigers went with a different former family member in Travis Williams.

With Greene expressing an interest in returning to the NFL coaching ranks during Super Bowl weekend, it looks like he won’t be part of the program in an official capacity anytime soon.

Q: Will Gus get back to passing to the tight end this season? How much should be expected from Landon Rice? Lutz and CJ were huge in this offense. (@Sheffield1022)

Answer — Coach Malzahn made the comparison between Rice and Philip Lutzenkirchen on the recruiting trail.

One of the reasons Rice wanted to enroll early was because Malzahn told the tight end and his family that he could fill that role in Auburn’s offense right away.

As a junior, Lutzenkirchen had 24 catches for 238 yards with seven touchdowns. Rice might not have that kind of production right off the bat, but he won’t just be brought in as an extra blocker. Auburn won’t be afraid to throw the ball his way in the passing game.

Q: Who is the biggest sleeper on this Auburn team? (@trevors361)

Answer — Kerryon Johnson.

With Peyton Barber declaring early for the NFL, I think Johnson has the chance for a breakout sophomore season.

Injuries slowed him down late in the year, but he showed off his versatility and athleticism throughout the season gaining close to 400 yards of total offense with four touchdowns.

Jovon Robinson is Auburn’s likely starter next year, but Johnson could get a nice bump in carries as the Tigers’ primary backup. If he averages 10 carries, returns kicks and catches a pass or two a game, he could be one of the team's most important offensive weapons.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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