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March 23, 2011Just like last spring, there is no starting quarterback leading the offense on the first day of practice.
However, the number of players competing for the job has been cut in half.
This season, the true battle is between junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley. Redshirt freshman walk-on Paul Logan was also taking reps today.
Regardless of who wins the job, the new quarterback will be the sixth quarterback for offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn in as many years.
Both Trotter and Moseley have spent the last two years learning Malzahn's elaborate offense, so they are already a step ahead of Cameron Newton (2010) and Chris Todd (2009) who ran the offense in their first seasons under Malzahn's direction.
Malzahn is undoubtedly relieved to have two quarterbacks who are already familiar with his plan of attack.
"Somewhere down the line it would be nice to have that second year with the guy who knows how to think in the system, and really that I'll know how they're going to react on the field," Malzahn said. "Last few years, it takes game three or four before we really have a good understanding of the quarterback and how he's going to react in different situations. The good think with Clint and Barrett, they've been in the system for two years, both of them, they have a good understanding of the offense even though they have not been on the field in game type situations much."
To select a starter, which is something Malzahn would like to do by the end of spring, the key is to work Trotter and Moseley with the older skill position players.
"They're going to get equal reps with our ones group," Malzahn said. "At the same time we have so many questions about a number of positions, but we're trying to give them as many reps with the older, skilled guys as possible to try and evaluate them and give them a chance to be successful with guys who know how to run the offense."
However, there aren't many "older, skilled guys" to choose from.
The Tigers dismissed would-be senior fullback Eric Smith recently for an off-the-field incident and graduated starters at all but two positions from last year's National Championship team.
The most glaring losses occurred on the offensive line. With exception to tackle Brandon Mosley, the entire line and most of the backups have graduated.
Without a strong offensive line, Auburn's offense will be ineffective.
"All that fancy motion and all that stuff we do doesn't mean anything unless we've got five guys up front," Malzahn said. "We're a run, play-action team. We've got to be able to run the football. That's the most important thing.
"We've got one starter back and we've got A.J. Greene who started before he got hurt. The rest of it is wide open as far as the young guys. That's going to be a big key. So hopefully but the end of the spring we'll have those five guys and have a little depth too."
Patience, according to Malzahn, is critical when it comes to rebuilding the offense.
"You know, the first spring our coaches were still learning the system, we were trying to learn our guys," Malzahn said. "We have a better grasp of what we have and what we don't have and a better grasp of what we need.
"There's going to be a lot of inexperience. As a coaching staff, we're going to have to be somewhat patient. This team will grow obviously as the season gets closer and as the games go on, but we're going to be playing a whole bunch of young guys and a whole bunch of inexperienced guys. But that's a good thing, and it's just a matter of being a little more patient."
The running back job will be manned by two returning starters in Onterio McCalebb and Michael Dyer.
To provide depth this spring, Anthony Morgan has made the move from cornerback to running back.
The Brantley, Ala., native played both sides of the ball in high school.
"Anthony's going to play some tailback," Malzahn said. "That's our plan for the spring. At the same time, he gives us a lot of flexibility. We can move him around. He has played a couple different positions his freshman year on offense and had some success.
"But we're really going to try this spring to give us some more depth at the tailback position because he's a really good runner, especially in open space and he catches the ball very well out of the backfield."
As for replacing Smith, the team's fullback, Malzahn has some options.
"(Philip) Lutzenkirchen, we know what he can do at that position," Malzahn said. "We've like to move him around a little more. Ladarious Phillips is a guy, Davis Hooper is a guy we have there. We're trying a lot of different things right now, but those are the two guys who got most of the reps at that position today."
Phillips was anticipated to earn playing time last year as a fullback, but he broke his ankle in fall camp and was sidelined for the season. Although he is listed at 6-foot, 291 pounds on the current roster, Malzahn said Phillips is surprisingly agile.
"It's just a matter of him learning the offense and being comfortable enough where he can react," Malzahn said. "He's got some football smarts to him. We've just got to keep him healthy and he's got to learn the position."
Aubrey Phillips was part of the 2009 signing class, but left Auburn shortly after fall camp began because of an undisclosed illness. He has since returned and was being rotated in at right guard today.
"He's a big athletic guy," Malzahn said. "It's just a matter of he's inexperienced. We'll give him a chance. There are a lot of young guys on the offensive line that we're giving a chance to evaluate. Obviously with the offensive line when you get pads on you learn a lot more."
Greene, who is returning from a severe injury in the Sept. 18 Clemson game that left him with a broken tibia and dislocated ankle, said Phillips' return is inspiring.
"For him to come back, I thought it was a really good thing," Greene said. "The situation he went through was really, really serious. It was life-threatening. To see him come back and have the opportunity and have the passion for the game to want to continue to play -- it makes me look up at him.
"When he left, he was really, really down. I could understand why he did what he did, but I knew he still loved the game. I always knew it was a possibility that he could come back. Sure enough, he's back here with us."
*** Greene, one of the few veterans on the team, said the expectations this year are still high despite losing so many starters.
"We want to win it all," Greene said. "Our goal is to go to Atlanta and do this all over again. It's as realistic as it can be. We're not going to accept anything but that."
*** Greene's description of his injury last season...
"I was setting on my (right side) and somebody came from the other side and hit me at an angle," Greene said. "It didn't look that bad. I haven't gone back and watched the play. I refuse to watch it. From what I remember, it didn't look that bad. It just caught me at the perfect spot.
"It didn't hurt at all. When I did it, it felt like an ankle sprain. I was moving my left ankle and it felt fine. I knew something wasn't right. I lifted it up and said: Yeah, it's over."
*** Lutzenkirchen on Ladarious Phillips...
"He moves great for a big guy," Lutzenkirchen said. "He's still a little bit stiff, but I think in time, once coach (Jay) Boulware keeps working with him, he's going to get more comfortable in that role and will succeed at it."
*** Trovon Reed, a receiver who took a medical redshirt in 2010 because of a knee injury, was practicing today. Malzahn said Reed is "close to full speed."
"He's battling out there," Malzahn said. "He looked pretty fast to me, looked like he was back. He has a smile on his face and he was competing. He's one of those guys who we need to be on the field. He's one of those guys we need to be on the field. Before he got hurt in the fall, he made some "wow" plays. He's got the ability to make big plays so we need him on the field."
*** According to Malzahn, there will be more wildcat plays in 2011.
"I foresee that we'll have a true wildcat guy and not use our quarterback like we did last year," Malzahn said.
*** On incoming quarterback Kiehl Frazier's role this fall...
"We'll see," Malzahn said. "Every position in fall camp will be open. We're going to play the best people. The challenge for young guys, specifically a quarterback, you've got about two weeks to win the position.
"We're going to have a starting quarterback about two weeks prior to the beginning of the season just for the fact to get timing, get with the group and all that. But all the young guys will have a chance to come in here and win a position.
"The quarterback position is a little bit different because of the time table, but we're going to have three quarterbacks. And so he'll definitely need to learn the offense and be ready to play regardless."