Depth will be Auburn's biggest hurdle

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

AUBURN, Ala. -- Having spent a little time around the Auburn football complex this morning and talking to a few of the coaches, it's obvious there's a lot of excitement about where this program is headed.

But as first-year Auburn coach Gene Chizik has said himself, this program is a ways off from where it was when it went 13-0 and won the Sugar Bowl in 2004.

Of particular note, the Tigers are concerned about their depth. Before putting a couple of walk-ons on scholarship over the weekend, they were 10 players under the 85-scholarship limit and are scary thin on the offensive line, at receiver, at linebacker and at safety.

In short, there just aren't a lot of guys from Tommy Tuberville's last two recruiting classes left.

With a little more than two weeks to go until the Sept. 5 opener against Louisiana Tech, the coaches feel good about their first 11 on offense. Staying healthy will be crucial.

Look for junior Mario Fannin to play a much bigger role in this offense than he has in the past. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is committed to getting him the ball and would like to use him similar to the way he did Felix Jones at Arkansas in 2006.

The 225-pound Fannin is bigger than Jones, but will get some chances at quarterback in the Wildcat formation and will move around from the slot to running back. He's looked good this preseason.

The speed guy in the backfield is freshman Onterio McCalebb, who's really been impressive this preseason with his big-play ability. He and Ben Tate should complement each other nicely.

Newly named starting quarterback Chris Todd continues to look good throwing the football, and the shoulder problems that had plagued him appear to be in his rear-view mirror. He threw a ball on a comeback route earlier this week in practice that got everybody's attention.

Receivers coach Trooper Taylor likes what he's seen from freshman receivers DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake, although Benton's a little rusty from having not played football last season.

The Tigers don't expect to have Tim Hawthorne (broken foot) for the first four games, meaning the guys who will start the season atop the receiver rotation are Montez Billings, Terrell Zachery and Darvin Adams.

One advantage Auburn is going to have this season in the passing game is the versatility of tight end Tommy Trott. He can play on the line or split out wide, meaning he'll be able to stay on the field regardless of the formation.

Defensively, the front seven really needs to come through for the Tigers, who are working some guys at both end and tackle, including Michael Goggans, to help with depth.

Injuries to Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil have put the Tigers in a tough spot at safety. Savage tore his Achilles and is out for the season, while McNeil is still rehabilitating from a broken leg and probably won't be available until midseason at the earliest.

Sophomore Neiko Thorpe has been the Tigers' best cornerback during camp, and true freshman defensive back Daren Bates is also going to be difficult to keep off the field.