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March 21, 2011

Defending champ Auburn has work to do

It's going to be difficult for Auburn to come close to matching last season's heroics. In fact, the Tigers may be only the third-best team in the SEC West in 2011.

There is lots of work to do for coach Gene Chizik and his staff. The biggest task, of course: finding a quarterback to replace Heisman winner Cam Newton, who turned pro early after turning in one of the most stunning seasons in college football history.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley also turned pro early after winning the Lombardi Award. No defensive lineman in the nation was more dominant in 2010.

But that's not all. The Tigers need four new starting offensive linemen and three new starting defensive linemen. Auburn also lost three of its top four receivers and its two best linebackers. And who will take over for K Wes Byrum, an all-time Auburn great who nailed the winning field goal in the BCS title game?

Then, the program was rocked in March, when four players -- including two-year starting S Mike McNeill -- were kicked off the team after being arrested and charged with robbery, burglary and theft. McNeill's dismissal means Auburn also has to replace three starters in the secondary.

In addition, the NCAA still is looking into recruiting allegations surrounding Newton.

Thus, while good feelings remain from last season's national title, there is a lot of work to do this spring.

Here is a look at the Tigers as they prepare to open spring practice.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik returns only five starters from the national title team.
Coach: Gene Chizik
Last season: 14-0 overall, 8-0 in the SEC West. Beat Oregon 22-19 in the BCS title game.
Spring dates: March 23-April 16.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (2): RB Michael Dyer, T Brandon Mosley.
Defense (3): LB Daren Bates, E Nosa Eguae, CB Neiko Thorpe.
Special teams: None.

Positions of strength

Mario Fannin is gone, but Auburn returns two talented running backs. Michael Dyer set a school-freshman record with 1,093 rushing yards last season, while Onterio McCalebb set a school single-season record by averaging 8.5 yards per carry. CB Neiko Thorpe has all-league potential. He ranked among the top six tacklers on the team last season.

Help is needed

There is absolutely no way to replace QB Cam Newton, who was the quintessential one-man gang and could make something out of nothing with his arm or feet. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn figures to tweak the attack to lessen the importance of the quarterback needing to make plays. Junior Barrett Trotter enters the spring as the heir to Newton. Sophomore Clint Moseley is No. 2 for now until touted freshman Kiehl Frazier arrives in the summer. Complicating matters for the new quarterback is a receiving corps that took some hits. Terrell Zachery and Kodi Burns graduated and Darvin Adams turned pro early. At least WR Emory Blake and TE Philip Lutzenkirchen are back. The Tigers will have numerous new faces in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The offensive line lost four seniors who had made a combined 165 career starts, with only RT Brandon Mosley returning. The Tigers need to replace three starters and some key reserves on the defensive line. In addition, defensive line coach Tracy Rocker left for the same job with the Tennessee Titans. E Nosa Eguae, the lone returning starter, must step up and show he can be a leader.

3 guys to watch

DE Corey Lemonier: He showed flashes as a true freshman last season that he can be a force. The staff expects Lemonier, a speedster off the edge, to step in for the departed Antoine Carter and bring the heat as a pass rusher.

WR Trovon Reed: He was expected to have a big impact as a true freshman last season but redshirted after battling nagging injuries. With the Tigers' top two wide receivers gone, Reed needs to emerge quickly as a playmaker.

DT Jeffrey Whitaker: He's another true freshman who gained valuable experience in a reserve role last season. Coaches hope Whitaker can help fill the void left by Fairley's departure.

The pressure is on

LB Eltoro Freeman: With Auburn losing two senior linebackers, it's time for Freeman -- a senior -- to step up and show that he can be a consistent impact player. He started in 2009 but came off the bench last season. He had at least eight tackles in three separate games last season, but just 11 total tackles in Auburn's other 11 games. He needs to show consistency this spring or risk falling down the depth chart.

The buzz

It's going to be almost impossible to duplicate the magic of the 2010 season on the Plains, when the Tigers rallied time and again to pull out victories. To have any chance to come close to repeating as SEC champs -- heck, repeating as even division champs -- the Tigers must develop in the trenches on both sides of the ball. In addition, keep an eye on the new quarterback and receivers. And can a rebuilt defense find that uncanny ability to make big plays late in games? It's all a lot to ask.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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