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Offensive line a strength for Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn made its run to the BCS championship game in 2013, the offensive line didn't get enough credit. Sure, Nick Marshall and his development were huge. Obviously, Tre Mason was a Heisman Trophy candidate. But the five guys up front made it all go. More importantly, they stayed healthy.

This past season, injuries took a toll on the offensive line. That continuity was missing. And it showed when the offense struggled.

Now the Tigers have to replace veterans Reese Dismukes and Chad Slade, but the coaches said this group can be as good as the one in 2013. The key will be staying healthy and playing together.

"The offensive line will be as good as they can come together," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "Continuity is a big deal and chemistry with the offensive line.

"Two years ago, we were fortunate enough to stay healthy all year. Those guys played together all year. By the end of the season, you were able to see how successful we were. Last year, we had some injuries, we had to mix and match guys more and I think at times that led to us being a little bit inconsistent."

Lashlee added: "Hopefully we can stay healthy and keep the same five or six guys rotating in there."

Left tackle: This is Shon Coleman's spot. There might have been question marks after his struggles last year, but that was the first time he's played a full season since high school. That's behind him now. He was a different player this spring. He was better in pass protection, more sound in the run game and just a better all-around player.

"I'm just seeing him adapt better fundamentally," Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes said. "He was a guy that didn't trust his technique early in the season last year, and it showed. He had some holding penalties. His feet just got his hands in trouble. I'm seeing him now trust his technique better, and as long as he'll continue to do that, the sky's the limit for him."

Left guard: If Alex Kozan is healthy, he's going to play. And though he didn't dress for the spring game, the coaches said he'll be ready to go by fall camp. Kozan, who missed all of last season with a back injury, was an All-SEC freshman in 2013. He's the equivalent of getting a five-star recruit that already has experience.

"[His return] is huge because he's such a smart guy, such a tough guy," Grimes said. "I place a great premium on character, toughness and smart football IQ, and he has all those in abundance. He works his tail end off. He's a leader. He wants to be good."

Devonte Danzey started at left guard in place of Kozan at the spring game, and he'll factor into the rotation either here or at right guard. But we'll get to that.

Center: It's going to look a bit strange to see someone other than Dismukes snap the ball. He started at center the past four seasons, missing only two games during that time.

The good news for Auburn is that it has two capable replacements in Austin Golson and Xavier Dampeer. Golson sat out last year after transferring from Ole Miss, and he didn't start playing the position until bowl practice. Dampeer, meanwhile, is one of only two seniors up front and served as the primary backup to Dismukes all of last year.

"That's good for us to know that we have two guys who can play center and who can run our offense after losing Reese," Lashlee said.

Right guard: This is another spot where Auburn has options. After starting seven games last year, Danzey is the favorite to start here once Kozan returns to left guard. He has the experience, and he too enjoyed a really good spring.

But the coaches are going to have a hard time keeping sophomore Braden Smith off the field. They moved him to guard this spring to help with depth, and while that adjustment will take time, there's still a good chance he will factor into the rotation at some point this season.

"Guard is a little bit more difficult position to play than tackle from a mental standpoint," Grimes said. "There are a few more moving parts. So it's going to take him a little to adjust to that interior stuff, but he's got the intelligence and he's got the ability."

Right tackle: It looks as if Avery Young has found a home. He took over at right tackle in 2013, starting the final nine games there, but the coaches moved him to guard prior to last season. He ended up starting games at both guard spots and at right tackle.

"He's done all three," Grimes said, noting that he's started at tackle and guard and has the ability to play center. "There's not too many of those guys around."

But this spring, Young worked exclusively at right tackle and proved to be the most consistent performer on the line. For now, that's where the coaches plan to keep him.