|Defensive end Nosa Eguae :: Getty Images|
Seated behind his expansive office desk, Gene Chizik has a wide view of Auburn's practice field, which last year was torn up as part of a $16.5 million renovation project. In 2012, the biggest construction effort on the Plains will be of Chizik's team: Eighteen months removed from winning the national title, the Tigers will have a revamped look, with new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler scrapping the spread for a traditional two-back offense and first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder implementing a pro-style, attacking defense. "The changes are going to make us stronger -- we're going to go back and play more physical football on both sides of the ball," said Chizik.
After an offseason darkened by the tragic June 9 shooting deaths of two players who Chizik recruited, Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips, Auburn will try to refocus come fall. Perhaps the key to the season will be how quickly sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier can develop into a top-tier SEC starter. Playing primarily out of the Wildcat last season, Frazier carried the ball 76 times for 327 yards while completing five of 12 passes for 34 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Chizik hasn't officially named Frazier the starter -- junior Clint Moseley will also vie for snaps with the first unit -- but all signs point to Frazier commandeering the job. He possesses elite physical skills: He can throw the ball 75 yards and run the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds. This spring Frazier showed improved accuracy, and several of his veteran teammates will look you in the eye and say he has a little Cam Newton in him.
"Last year I just wasn't comfortable in the offense, but now there's a night-and-day difference," Frazier said. "We're going to try to throw the ball vertically as much as possible."
The defense, which allowed more than 400 yards per game last season, brings back nine starters. The unit should be improved under VanGorder, who spent the last four seasons running the Atlanta Falcons' defense. "We feel like we have something to prove as a defense and as a team this year," said defensive end Nosa Eguae. "We're going to be more aggressive on defense, getting more push up the field. And our offense looked real good this spring. Nobody seems to think too much of us right now. But that's just the way we like it."
Can Nosa Eguae and the rest of the Tigers' defensive line unit put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks?
12 -- Of the 14 players who scored for the Tigers last year are back in 2012. The dozen accounted for 82 percent of Auburn's 2011 points.
Daren Bates, LB, Sr. -- Bates, who led the team in tackles last season with 104, has started more games (35) than any Auburn defender. He had perhaps the most impressive spring of any defensive player, said the coaching staff.
Nosa Eguae, DE, Jr. -- Eguae, who has started 24 of the last 27 games, can be dominant -- but he also disappears. Against Mississippi State last Sept. 10, he had nine tackles; two weeks later against Florida Atlantic, he had zero.
Onterio McCalebb, RB, Sr. -- McCalebb is Auburn's most lethal home run threat: He has five career touchdown runs of 48 yards or longer. As long as his 5-foot-11, 174-pound frame can take the beating, he'll be the Tigers' primary tailback and continue to carry kickoff return duties (career kick-return average: 27.9 yards).
Philip Lutzenkirchen, TE, Sr. -- Lutzenkirchen holds the Auburn record for most career (14) and single-season (seven) touchdown receptions by a tight end and will serve as quarterback Kiehl Frazier's security blanket this fall.
Robenson Therezie, CB, So. -- Playing primarily on special teams in 2011, the 5-foot-9, 203-pound Therezie delivered some of the most thundering hits of Auburn's season, totaling 17 tackles in 13 games. Now he'll see substantial playing time because new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder likes physical corners who excel in run support -- Therezie's specialty.
Avery Young, OT, Fr. -- Nixing scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Miami, Young surprised recruiting analysts by signing with Auburn. The 6-foot-5, 292-pound tackle from Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High was a five-star recruit, according to Scout.com.
When Emory Blake played wide receiver at Stephen F. Austin High in Austin, his most important coaching sessions took place in front of his living room television. With his father, Jeff, seated nearby, Emory would watch NFL games every Sunday. Jeff, who played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years, would constantly point out the different defensive alignments while also noting the coverage schemes and how they could be beat.
"I was able to watch the game through the eyes of an NFL quarterback," Emory said. "It made me a better receiver and gave me an upper hand. Because of all the time we spent together watching film and games, I feel like I have a good idea of what defenses are trying to do and how to react to that."
Thanks to his homeschooling, Blake, a 6-foot-2, 197-pound senior, may be the most football-smart receiver in the SEC, if not the nation. Though he won't run past many defensive backs -- he runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-second range -- Blake already ranks 17th in Tigers history with 1,233 receiving yards and has four 100-yard receiving games, tied for fifth-best all-time at Auburn. Hampered by a high right-ankle sprain for nearly half of the 2011 season, Blake nonetheless paced the Tigers in receptions (36) and receiving yards (613), and was second with five touchdown catches. He closed out the season by snagging six passes for 108 yards in Auburn's 43-24 win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
"Emory is very crafty at getting open," said Gene Chizik. "He's not the biggest or fastest guy on the field, but he's incredibly savvy. When you grow up around the game like he did, when you're always hanging around the sideline and tossing the ball around, the game becomes a part of you and you develop a high football IQ. Last year he only played at about 65 percent for a lot of the season because of the ankle injury, but now we have high expectations for Emory. He's the type of player that every coach wants."
Blake's goal for the season is to catch 80 passes -- or, "80 for number 80," as wide receiver coach Trooper Taylor puts it. The last two seasons Blake primarily has been the Tigers' boundary receiver (meaning he lined up on the short side of the field), but in the spring, new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler moved Blake all over the field, knowing he is a key to the Tigers' overall offensive success. Blake already has become the favorite target of sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier.
"If you give him a chance and throw the ball in his direction, Emory will come down with it nine times out of 10," said Frazier. "He's definitely one of the best in the SEC."
Chizik will always have a special relationship with Blake partially because the receiver was part of the first recruiting class to sign with Auburn after Chizik was named head coach on Dec. 13, 2008. Blake had nearly committed to Texas Tech, which had an offense under coach Mike Leach that was as pass-happy as any school's in the nation, but was persuaded by Chizik to visit the Plains at the last minute. (Emory's father, Jeff, incidentally, played at East Carolina -- and was elected into the school's Hall of Fame.)
"I fell in love with the SEC atmosphere and the coaches here," said Blake of that first trip to Auburn. And that feeling, from the coaches' standpoint, is mutual.
SI: What are your goals for 2012?
GC: Four of the last five national title winners have come from the SEC West. This side of the league is a jungle. We're not here to win eight or nine games; we're here to continue to chase national championships.
SI: Characterize the current roster.
GC: We're young. Seventy percent of our roster will be freshmen and sophomores. But when this team grows up -- and it could be in a month, could be in a year -- we'll be good. Our future is bright.
SI: You're pretty optimistic.
GC: I feel great about the program. We're one recruiting class away from building the foundation up. Our next recruiting class will be very, very big.
SI: What do you worry about most when thinking about the program?
GC: I don't worry about anything. What's important to me is one word: develop. Not just as a player but as a young man -- socially, spiritually and athletically. We want to develop the whole young man.
SI: What's an ideal off day for you?
GC: Spending time with my family. My wife and I love to travel, and as a family [the Chiziks have three children] we spend our free time at the beach. That clears our heads.
SI: What do you think when you look at the picture of Toomer's Corner in your office?
GC: I think about the joy that so many people have experienced there. It's bothersome that the trees are dying. I love what the trees stand for, the tradition and passion of many people. It's bothersome to see.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.