Auburn opens spring with new assistants, QB contenders
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is emphasizing that it's ''a new year'' for both his team and his quarterbacks.
The Tigers are banking on that translating into different results after a disappointing season that was followed by an offseason filled with heavy attrition on the coaching staff and a renewed search for answers at quarterback.
Auburn opened spring practice on Tuesday with a four-man quarterback competition that includes Jeremy Johnson and Sean White, who struggled in their respective starting turns last season. The team, meanwhile, went from hoping to contend for national and Southeastern Conference titles to finishing 7-6 and playing in the Birmingham Bowl.
Junior college transfer John Franklin III joins the quarterback mix, along with redshirt freshman Tyler Queen. Johnson was considered a rising star going into last season but struggled with decision-making and mistakes.
''I think Jeremy is just in a spot where he is ready to get back out there,'' Malzahn said Tuesday. ''It's a new year. He's done a good job of putting last year, and even when he was successful, he's put that behind him. He is laser focused moving forward. I think there's some freshness with that.
''He's got that look. Sean has that look too. It's a new year and that's what we've been preaching to our guys.''
Malzahn had to go on an offseason hiring spree after a number of assistants left for other jobs. The new hires include defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Wesley McGriff, offensive line coach Herb Hand and former Auburn players Kodi Burns (co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers) and Travis Williams (linebackers).
On the field, the Tigers have to replace offensive tackles Avery Young and Shon Coleman and tailback Peyton Barber - all of whom opted to skip their final seasons and enter the NFL draft.
But the No. 1 question going into spring remains the same as it has virtually every spring going back to Malzahn's days as the Tigers' offensive coordinator: Who's the quarterback?
The 6-foot-1, 174-pound Franklin, who enrolled in January, could challenge Johnson and White at quarterback. He only passed for 733 yards while rushing for 451 last season at East Mississippi Community College, but the Tigers' greatest success in recent years came with mobile junior college transfers at quarterback, with Cam Newton and Nick Marshall.
Malzahn hasn't even ruled out having live contact at some point in the spring. That's where Marshall separated himself as the No. 1 quarterback during the 2013 preseason.
Malzahn says the big question for Franklin and the other quarterbacks is ''just can they be successful running our offense?''
''That's really the bottom line,'' he said. ''Everything that goes with it, from on the field, off the field, leadership, making your teammates better. The unique thing about our offense is the quarterback's got a chance to really influence the rest of his teammates. That's what we'll be looking for.''
NOTES: Three players will miss the spring recovering from injuries, including safety Tray Matthews, running back Kerryon Johnson and cornerback Jeremiah Dinson. Matthews and Johnson had shoulder injuries and Dinson is recovering from a leg injury. ... Malzahn declined to step into the fray between the SEC and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh over Harbaugh taking his team to Florida for spring practice. ''Yeah, I mean, whatever,'' Malzahn said, shrugging. ''I don't really have an opinion one way or another. Don't really want to get into that deal.''