Auburn's offseason changes only heighten expectations
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) The Auburn Tigers' offseason changes have not diminished the enthusiasm on the Plains in the least. The new twists have actually heighten expectations.
The Tigers are looking for big things from new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson. Ditto for new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, charged with upgrading a defense that faded badly last season.
D'haquille Williams isn't new but is drawing as much buzz as any Auburn receiver in decades, and the backfield seems in solid shape even minus Cameron Artis-Payne.
League media picked the Tigers to win the Southeastern Conference at media days.
''I'm more confident now than I feel like I've ever been,'' linebacker Kris Frost said. ''We have a whole lot of upside to our team.''
Johnson is a big reason for that optimism. So are Muschamp and the return of defensive end Carl Lawson from a knee injury that sidelined him last season.
Johnson's ascension after two years as Nick Marshall's backup could mean less of the zone read Marshall executed so deftly and more pocket passing. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Johnson has completed 73 percent of his passes in two seasons while logging a start in each. Coach Gus Malzahn says he's a strong running threat to boot.
Some things to watch for in Auburn's 2015 season:
MUSCHAMP'S DEFENSE: The Tigers defense ranked near the bottom of the league in a number of statistical categories last season and struggled late. They need to show quick improvement under Muschamp to contend in the SEC and beyond. Auburn gets back its top three tacklers. Linebackers Frost and Cassanova McKinzy opted to return for their senior seasons after exploring entering the NFL draft and Jonathan Jones is back after recording six interceptions. The strength of the defense, though, could be on a front line featuring Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and DaVonte Lambert, along with highly touted freshman Byron Cowart.
RUNNING BACKS: Auburn might divvy up carries more between Jovon Robinson, Roc Thomas and others after having the SEC's leading rusher two years in a row. Thomas had some bright spots in limited action as a freshman and is a big-play threat but probably won't match Cameron Artis-Payne's 303 carries. Robinson is a 6-foot, 230-pounder who was the nation's top-rated junior college runner. The Tigers have averaged 256 and 328 rushing yards the past two seasons with Artis-Payne and Tre Mason both running for 1,600-plus yards.
DUKE WILLIAMS: Williams could be the team's best player and has the potential to be the first Auburn receiver drafted in the opening round since Terry Beasley in 1972. But coaches made it clear they still hold him to a high standard with a six-day suspension early in preseason camp for an unspecified disciplinary issue. Receivers coach Dameyune Craig said the suspension didn't stem from any physical or verbal altercation with a coach, and there was no indication that the punishment would extend into the season. Williams had a team-high 45 catches last season and could play a more prominent role with Johnson taking over and Sammie Coates in the NFL.
PASS RUSH: Auburn's defense should have a much better pass rush after struggling to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The biggest reason for that is the return of Lawson. No Auburn player made it to four sacks in Lawson's absence. Tackle Montravius Adams is capable of getting pressure up the middle. Also freshman end Cowart is a 280-pound force who was rated the nation's top recruit by ESPN and Rivals.
HOME TURF: Auburn, which bills its new video board as the biggest in college football, will play four of its key games at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mississippi State, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama all visit. The Tigers open Sept. 5 at the Georgia Dome against Louisville, coached by former Auburn offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino.