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March 28, 2012

Pick Crain's Brain: Football Q&A

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Jake Crain is the son of former Auburn All-American linebacker Kurt Crain and was an undergraduate assistant at South Alabama from 2008-10. He answers football-specific question each Wednesday on AuburnSports.com.

"AUbruce" asked: "Jake, reading your take on Carl Lawson, do you see Auburn and Brian VanGorder moving to bigger linebackers, defensive ends and safeties?

Do you see Gene Chizik moving away from the smaller defense? Thanks and WDE."

Crain: I believe Auburn is transitioning more to the bigger type linebackers, and one reason is VanGorder's system asks the linebackers to do so much close to the line of scrimmage. Linebackers in this league are doing so much in today's defenses, and have to be able to handle the physicality of these pro-attack SEC offenses.

I think the days of Auburn signing very undersized linebackers are gone, and the Tigers have started trying to beef up the roster at the linebacker position recently. The key to having successful big linebackers is their ability to cover the pass as well as be run stoppers. All of Auburn's linebackers that have a chance of playing this year can all cover the pass, which is rare for most big linebackers.

"AUbutcher57" asked: "I have a few offensive questions:

1. Is it more zone or gap scheme this season?

2. How will play action, quick game and drop back game be dispersed within the passing game?

3. Will quarterback runs be utilized within the new offense?

4. Huddle vs. no huddle? How will the plays be communicated and will pace play a role? "

Crain: New offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler's system will be very diverse in that his offensive scheme can utilize both zone and gap concepts. Auburn has actually run some read-option early in practice, which surprised me with Loeffler. Loeffler's gap scheme runs are the same basic runs everyone knows, but the difference is in the framework of the blocking. Loeffler does a great job of running unbalanced sets to create blocking match ups favoring the offense.

I believe the play-action, quick game, and drop back game will be distributed fairly evenly in the total package come game day. Loeffler really loves the play-action game, and Temple had so much success with it, so I would look for heavy play-action early from this offense. The quick game will feature very simple routes, but the Tigers will run them out of a bevy of formations, which keeps the defense guessing.

The quarterbacks will not do near as much running as they did in Gus Malzahn's offense, but I think their will be some sprinkled in there. If Kiehl Frazier wins the quarterback race, the Tigers may resort to more runs with the quarterback.

Loeffler's offense can communicate plays during the game a multitude of ways. As seen with almost every offense today, the situations of the game will dictate the pace the offense wants to go. Loeffler's offenses are built to be able to go fast or slow, and I think we will see Auburn catch a few defenses off guard when they change the pace at different times throughout the game.

"GrowlinTiger" asked: "What's your projection for Jeffrey Whitaker this season?

He has played as much or more than any other defensive lineman. Do you see him making that leap forward this season?"

Crain: Whitaker has been a solid player ever since he signed three years ago. The thing about Whitaker is he doesn't make incredible plays, or get the sack numbers like some defensive linemen that garner more recognition do. What makes Whitaker effective is his ability to control two inside gaps at one time.

Very rarely does Whitaker get pushed totally off the line when offenses are trying to pound the football. Once Whitaker has established himself inside the A to B gaps, the linebackers can flow off either side of him to slip in and make the play at the line of scrimmage. Whitaker gives the linebackers a bunch of opportunities to make tackles for short gains.

Whitaker needs to improve his ability to shed the blocks and go make some plays in the backfield. If Whitaker can add some versatility to his game, and develop more as a pass rusher, he can play at the next level.

"Aubursports24" asked: "Do you think we will have two 1,000 yard rushers like Temple did last year under Loeffler? If so who? Or do we have too many good backs that are going to split all the carries? Thanks!"

Crain: I wouldn't be surprised to see Auburn have two running backs go over the 1,000 yard mark because they have so many talented young backs in an offense that emphasizes running the ball first. Auburn has so many versatile players at the running back position that should provide quite the change of pace for opposing defenses.

The addition of Mike Blakely, Corey Grant, and Jay Prosch gives Loeffler even more weapons in the backfield. I look for Onterio Mccalebb to have another solid season, and I think Tre Mason could be the wildcard in this offense due to his incredible athleticism.

"AUMonkeyBoy" asked: "I think Prosch will be one of the most important players on the field in 2012 because he will free up Philip Lutzenkirchen, open monster holes, and protect the quarterback.

Talk about what else we will see with Prosch on the field. Did he run the ball last year? Can he catch? Thanks."

Crain: Prosch is going to provide Auburn with a dynamic fullback who can hurt defenses in so many ways. Prosch will be the lead blocker on most of the inside runs, and some perimeter runs due to his incredible flexibility.

The transfer from Illinois can run and catch if need be, and I think once he establishes himself as a blocker first, his role will expand as the season progresses.

"Auburn73" asked: "Estimate the number of passes per game we will throw to our tight ends and if we'll have some two tight end sets where BOTH might actually be in the pass patterns together"

Crain: With the athletes Auburn has at the tight end position, look for their to be at least 5-10 passes thrown their way per game. Loeffler's offense utilizes the tight end in the passing game very well, whether it is in the play-action, vertical, or intermediate passing game.

Auburn will be in many two tight end sets, sometimes to try and create space for the pass to the tight end, or in unbalanced sets where the tight ends and tackles trade positions. The reason for the switching of positions is to put bigger and more physical blockers on the side the offense is running the ball to most of the time.

"Bottom Hall Knight" asked: "Is there anyone with bigger upside on the defense than Angelo Blackson?

What do you think are his chances to start alongside Whitaker? Also, who do you think is the hardest hitting defender on Auburn's roster?"

Crain: Auburn has so many young players with huge upsides, but Blackson may be the one with the most upside. Blackson has such a big frame, but is so athletic and cuts effortlessly with ease. Another great thing about Blackson's frame is his length. The rising sophomore has an incredible wingspan, and uses his long arms as weapons.

What kept Blackson from really exploding on the scene as a true freshman, was his leverage. Blackson would play a little to high, which would allow blockers to get their hands inside of him and maneuver him wherever. The biggest jump for linemen on either side of the ball is their freshman to sophomore year, and I expect Blackson to be much improved.

The hardest hitter I have seen on Auburn's roster is Daren Bates. Bates packs a huge punch when he squares the ball carrier up, and he doesn't hold back from throwing his whole body into the tackle. The only problem with Bates is he sometimes relies on the big hit too much, which makes him vulnerable to miss a fair share of tackles.



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