No Duke Williams Could Test Gus Malzahn and Auburn

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Auburn is still practicing without Duke Williams, arguably the best wide receiver in the SEC heading into 2015, and the unquestioned cornerstone of a restructuring Tiger offense.

Should Auburn go into Week 1 without Duke Williams, currently resolving an unspecified disciplinary issue, it does so without: its three top receivers from a year ago (Williams, Sammie Coates and Quan Bray); four of five Tigers to catch multiple touchdowns in 2014 (tight end C.J. Uzomah is gone); the leading ball-carrier (Cameron Artis-Payne) and two-year starting quarterback (Nick Marshall).

Basically, without the explosive and rangy Duke Williams, the Auburn offense will look completely different against Louisville, sans three returning starters on the line.

And how does that translate in practice? AL.com’s Brandon Marcello reports from Monday’s fall camp session:

Auburn went 90 plays today in scrimmage. No touchdowns from offense, two field goals. Defense forced three turnovers.

Eek. Either new defensive coordinator is doing a truly exemplary job turning around a defense that was Auburn’s weakness a season ago, or head coach Gus Malzahn has his hands full getting the new-look offense

In hindsight, Malzahn’s third-year offensive rebuild really isn’t as drastic as in 2013. Though he was just one year removed from the end of his tenure there as offensive coordinator, Auburn was coming off a dismal 2012 in which it averaged just 18.7 points per game.

Scot Loeffler’s attempts to reshape the offense were disastrous, most notably in the Tigers’ quarterback play.

No Duke Williams in the lineup hardly suggests a return to those days on The Plains, especially with strong-armed Jeremy Johnson taking over for Nick Marshall. But should the Tigers have to take the field Week 1 (and possibly beyond) without Duke Williams, there’s an even greater onus on the run game.

Artis-Payne buoyed Auburn in January’s Outback Bowl, played without Duke Williams in the lineup. Auburn finished with just 216 yards passing that afternoon, as Wisconsin forced Nick Marshall to dink-and-dunk without his primary big-play weapon available.

Meanwhile, Johnson is a much different style quarterback than those with whom Malzahn’s offenses have flourished previously.

Ryan Aplin and Nick Marshall, Malzahn’s two quarterbacks in his previous three seasons as a head coach, were both mobile. Aplin was a better passer and Marshall a better runner, but Malzahn relied on both as primary ball-carriers for Arkansas State and Auburn, respectively.

Johnson’s the size and has the NFL potential of Cam Newton, but is a more prototypical pocket passer. Having an NFL prototype as the No. 1 target, which an available Duke Williams provides, makes structuring the offense around such a quarterback easier.

Ricardo Louis is now the sole impact returner should Williams remained sidelined. Louis accounted for nearly one-third of Auburn’s receiving yards in the Outback Bowl on a single play, going 66 yards for a touchdown.

To get him loose for explosive plays, Malzahn needs

One difference between Auburn’s offensive restructuring now and two years ago is that Tre Mason was already a budding star when Malzahn arrived. Mason rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2012, with no help from the passing game whatsoever.

Making him the focal point of the offense was an easy call, and it paid immediate dividends.

Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber — especially Peyton Barber — are largely unproven commodities. Thomas scored two touchdowns and averaged around five yards per carry, albeit a good chunk of his production came in garbage time.

Louisville’s rush defense was No. 10 in the nation last season, and that was before adding defensive end Devonte Fields from TCU. The Auburn run game’s attempts to establish itself in Week 1 without Duke Williams there to pull away attention could prove challenging.