This time last year, Auburn’s offense was a model of stability, returning starters at quarterback, wide receiver and all but one spot on the offensive line.
Newcomers such as D’haquille Williams and Roc Thomas, combined with the promise of an improved passing game, overshadowed the losses of stars Tre Mason and Greg Robinson.
That’s not the case heading into A-Day 2015.
Quarterback Nick Marshall, leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne and leading receiver Sammie Coates, arguably the Tigers’ biggest playmakers of 2014, have all graduated or entered the NFL Draft.
Reliable veterans such as center Reese Dismukes, tight end C.J. Uzomah, wide receiver Quan Bray and change-of-pace back Corey Grant are also gone.
There’s little doubt the 2015 Auburn offense will be a different beast than what we’ve seen in coach Gus Malzahn’s first two seasons.
The quarterback position is still technically up for competition, but all signs point toward junior Jeremy Johnson taking the helm.
The imposing junior has made just three starts while waiting behind Marshall, but has been impressive in those starts against Arkansas, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic.
Johnson will bring a different dynamic to the Auburn offense.
Even if he is able to run a 4.4, 40-yard dash and mimic Cam Newton like he’s said he can this spring, he’ll likely never have the elusivity that made Marshall so explosive.
That could be ok assuming his arm can compensate the difference. Most see Johnson as a more traditional-style quarterback than Marshall, and his performance in the first half against Arkansas in 2014 (12-for-16, 243 yards, two touchdowns and zero rushing yards) shows that.
Chris Todd proved a quarterback can break records in a pass-first Malzahn offense in 2009, but he benefited from the consistency of veteran back Ben Tate.
Johnson won’t have the benefit of a proven back to start 2015.
The winner of a three-horse race between Roc Thomas, Jovon Robinson and Peyton Barber to replace Artis-Payne is still undecided. This might be the position of least worry, however. Malzahn’s running backs led the SEC in yards for the last two seasons and get all the carries they can handle.
The return of a healthy and eligible Williams will be a boost at wide receiver, but the Tigers will still need to find secondary receivers to complement him.
There is talent between Melvin Ray, Ricardo Louis and Tony Stevens, but none has been a consistent week-to-week option to this point in their career.
Along the line, Chad Slade and Patrick Miller joined Dismukes as departures, but strong recruiting and the mentorship of offensive line coach J.B. Grimes means the turnover shouldn’t be too drastic.
Auburn is loaded with offensive talent in 2015.
What it’s not loaded with is experience, and that will leave plenty of unknowns for the offense come August.
Eric Wallace is the sports editor for The Plainsman. He can be contacted at sports@ThePlainsman.com.