Q&A with Auburn writer Erickson

Each week at TideNation we will speak with a writer who covers one of Alabama's 2012 opponents. Today we spoke with Joel Erickson, who covers Auburn for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer.

Scarborough: A new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator, new starting running back and a quarterback competition. The offseason at Auburn has been more tumultuous than usual this year. How has all the turnover affected the program and what kind of changes can we expect under both coordinators?

Erickson: Auburn has had a quarterback battle every year that Gene Chizik has been the head coach, and the return of Onterio McCalebb means that the Tigers have some continuity at the running back position, if not a clear No. 1 option in the absence of Mike Dyer. What really could affect the program is the change in coordinators. Expect Brian VanGorder’s defense to attack more, especially on the defensive line. VanGorder asks his defensive linemen to focus on penetration, rather than reading and reacting like they did under Ted Roof. On the offensive side, the days of Auburn running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense are over. New coordinator Scot Loeffler has kept his cards close to the vest, but Loeffler will likely run some pro-style, some shotgun and some pistol, with an offense tailored to his playmaker’s strengths.

Scarborough: Is there a leader emerging at either the running back or quarterback positions? Assuming it's Kiehl Frazier's spot to lose, what are they saying about his development from a rookie campaign that saw him attempt just 12 passes?

Erickson: Frazier appears to be the frontrunner to take over at quarterback after a strong spring and a summer that has earned rave reviews from his teammates. Unlike his freshman season, when Frazier struggled to learn the offense under Gus Malzahn, Frazier has been confident, poised and taken a vocal leadership role in Loeffler’s scheme, according to summer interviews with his teammates. At running back, it’s anybody’s guess. Corey Grant and Mike Blakely got the bulk of the work during A-Day, but Auburn has a history of limiting the top back’s load in the spring, so Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb, both good pass-catchers, may have a leg up on the rest of the competition.

Scarborough: The Tigers finished 79th in the country in scoring defense, surrendering a little less than 30 points per game. What kind of impact do you expect VanGorder to have on the defense and who are a few players who need to step up in order for that number to improve?

Erickson: Chizik keeps saying that Auburn’s one year older, which will help, but the Tigers are still a young team overall on that side of the ball. VanGorder’s attacking scheme may produce more big plays for the Tigers to get off the field, but the key will come with some of those young players developing. At defensive end, Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae have to provide consistent pass rush opposite Corey Lemonier. Middle linebacker Jake Holland also has to be a more physical presence in the run game, and in the secondary, keep an eye on nickel back/safety/cornerback Jermaine Whitehead. The coaches are high on Whitehead’s football intelligence.

Scarborough: Auburn has an absolutely brutal start to the season with Clemson, Mississippi State, LSU and Arkansas all before the middle of October. What kind of expectations do you have for the season? Are the Tigers in for a long year?

Erickson: A young, unproven roster makes any expectations for Auburn extremely hard to forecast this season. For example, nobody knows whether or not Frazier can live up to the billing he had coming out of high school if given a chance to start. By the same token, the offensive line has lots of highly-touted, unproven talent, and the same goes for a defensive line ravaged by injuries. Given their youth, the Tigers will show a lot during those first five games.

Scarborough: Give me your argument for Auburn coming to Tuscaloosa and beating the Crimson Tide. And what are some obstacles that might keep that from happening?

Erickson: A huge gap existed between Auburn’s offense and Alabama’s defense last year. Auburn only gained 140 yards in the Iron Bowl. For Auburn to have a chance in Tuscaloosa, Loeffler’s offense has to be much-improved from last season, and the Tide’s young, retooling defense has to perform below expectations this season. In addition, Auburn’s secondary has to get a lot better in coverage. Alabama beat the Tigers last year by softening the run defense with an array of play-action passes, then beating up Auburn on the ground with Trent Richardson. If Auburn can’t make Alabama one-dimensional this season, it will be hard for the Tigers to pull off the upset.