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Auburn opens spring with backfield battles

Auburn coach Gene Chizik instructs running back Onterio McCalebb, who is one of four rushers trying to replace Mike Dyer.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik instructs running back Onterio McCalebb, who is one of four rushers trying to replace Mike Dyer.

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s spring practices began with coach Gene Chizik patrolling the field in a sling, new offensive and defensive coordinators getting their on-field introductions and some injured veterans watching from the sidelines.

The Tigers also opened Friday with crowded competitions at both quarterback and tailback, making for a potentially eventful 15 practices.

“I think every spring is (important) for everybody, but it’s very important for us,” said Chizik, who like a couple of his players is recovering from shoulder surgery. “Every position has a chance to compete for a job.”

The offensive backfield’s starting spots certainly appear to be up for grabs.

New offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has his choice of quarterbacks from Kiehl Frazier, Clint Moseley and freshman Zeke Pike, who enrolled in January.

The field of contenders is even larger at tailback, with returnees Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason joined by Mike Blakely and Corey Grant, both transfers from Southeastern Conference schools who sat out last season. They’ll try to replace All-Southeastern Conference rusher Mike Dyer, who bolted for Arkansas State.

Even bigger, the group that isn’t expected to practice this spring because of injuries.

Defensive end Nosa Eguae and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen are both recuperating from shoulder surgery. Chizik said he also expects linebacker Jonathan Evans, defensive tackle Kenneth Carter and defensive back Ikeem Means to miss the spring with unspecified injuries.

Cornerback T’Sharvan Bell is limited after knee surgery in November.

The most important new faces are Loeffler and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

The Tigers are coming off an 8-5 season and 14 months removed from a national title season, with most of their starters returning this time.

Some young players looking for more playing time have bulked up. Defensive lineman Devaunte Sigler has gone from 263 pounds as a freshman to 295 and receiver Sammie Coates now is listed at 200 pounds, up from 178.

End LaDarius Owens weighs in at 255, from 237. Guard Christian Westerman, a likely starting candidate, beefed up 18 pounds to 298. Even quarterbacks Frazier (18 pounds) and Moseley (10) added some weight.

“I think our football team with what they did when we got back in January to where they are now, as a whole team, I think we’ve made a lot of strides in changing the way our football team looks physically,” Chizik said. “When you have that many young guys that you play with, going from 18 to 19 or 19 to 20 years old, that’s a period of time where you really can see some great gains. There’s no question in my mind that we’ve seen that.”

They’re certainly hoping for some big strides among the quarterbacks. Barrett Trotter, who started much of last season, has left the team. Frazier was mostly used in the Wildcat role last season, while Moseley was up and down before getting injured early in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Virginia.

Chizik will open the fourth consecutive season with a new starter at quarterback. Whoever wins the job will have a change from Gus Malzahn’s spread offense. Some things stay the same, though.

“Like any year, you’re asking the quarterback to manage the team. You’re asking him to be productive,” Chizik said. “You’re asking him to be a leader of men. It’s 200 years old in terms of what we’re asking them to do. What makes it a little different is they’re all on a level playing field because everything’s new for all three of them.

“It’s going to be a challenging spring for all three guys. But I’m looking forward to the battle. It’s going to be good.”

Frazier had to adjust to taking snaps from under center extensively for the first time in his career after playing in spread offenses.

“This will probably go into August, so we’re more worried about getting better right now than who’s going to start and all that,” he said.