1. Who will start at quarterback?
Ah, yes, the topic du jour surrounding the Tigers heading into the season. There are four candidates vying for the position, with two having an opportunity to stake their claim to the job in the spring (junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace) and two arriving this fall (junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson). Frazier and Wallace were unable to create any separation in the spring and exited drills as co-No. 1s on the depth chart. They both hold an advantage over the newcomers in that they at least know some of the playbook, but will that be enough to stave off either Marshall or Johnson?
Largely because Marshall is the best runner of the quarterback quartet, many believe Marshall is the front-runner. That, of course, is nothing more than pure speculation at this point. Besides, the quarterback battle will be settled where it should be — on the field — and only when the coaches believe they know which one gives them the best chance to win in 2013.
2. What’s the status of the backfield?
When it comes to the running back position, the Tigers should be able to rest easy, with Tre Mason coming off a 1,000-yard season and both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant having great springs. Still, it was a huge surprise when head coach Gus Malzahn revealed his two-deep post-spring depth chart and Mason was not listed as the unquestioned starter. Instead, Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant all had “OR” separating their names, being listed that way on both the first-team and second-team offense.
3. Who will assume the role of lead receiver?
It’s possible the Tigers may be one of those teams without a go-to option at wide receiver. That’s not to say one won’t develop eventually. Among Jaylon Denson, Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis, Auburn has a nice pool of hopefuls to choose from. One thing is certain: The receiving corps isn’t lacking for heirs to the throne Emory Blake vacated. (And to show just how reliant the Tigers were on Blake last season, his 789 receiving yards accounted for 42 percent of Auburn’s 1,879 receiving yards.)
4. Who replaces Philip Lutzenkirchen at tight end?
No single player will be asked to replace the production of Lutzenkirchen. Instead, it will be a shared assignment between C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse. The two complement each other well, as Uzomah is more noted for his pass-catching ability, while Fulse is known as a hard-nosed blocker
5. Can the secondary make some much-needed strides?
It’s still a shocking number any time you see it: one. That’s the number of interceptions Auburn’s secondary came away with in 2012. But there is reason to believe the secondary will be vastly improved when it steps back on the field this season. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are entrenched firmly at the two corner positions, and there are a handful of players — notably Joshua Holsey,Jonathan Jones, Robenson Therezie and Ryan White — behind them to lend depth to the unit.
Questions still remain at safety, though, as Holsey was moved from cornerback to boundary safety (also known as strong safety) in the last week of the spring after Demetruce McNeal missed the final five practices because of an undisclosed off-the-field matter. Free safety, or “field safety,” as it is referred to in coach-speak, should be capably manned by junior Jermaine Whitehead.
6. What player is primed for a breakout season on offense or defense?
If you haven’t prepared yourself for it, here’s an advance warning: Justin Garrett, who shined in the hybrid safety/linebacker position created by defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson for his 4-2-5 scheme, will have plenty of terrible headlines centered around his spot’s name — “Star.” As corny as it sounds, the junior is truly a “star” in the making. He drew rave reviews for his progress during the spring, and Johnson has put him in a position where his hard-hitting talents can be put to best use. Expect a few highlight-worthy hits from Garrett to make the rounds this fall.
7. Which true freshmen — if any — will push for major playing time?
It’s a toss-up between two stud defensive line prospects, with Montravius Adams at tackle and Carl Lawson at end. The two were among the top players in the country at their respective positions, and their talent may be too great to keep them from playing significant roles from Day 1.
Ryan Black covers Auburn athletics for The Anniston Star and The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.