A Juggernaut in the Making!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Juggernaut in the Making!

A day offensive review

Two receivers, only one defender in the same zip code. Stidham found Hastings on that play, for 50+ yards!
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody! Today, we’ll take a look at what we might expect to see out of the Auburn offense in 2017. In the past decade, when Auburn could run the ball, offensive records tended to fall. When the running game sputtered, the passing game usually could not pull its weight, and the team would tail off into mediocrity, or worse.

     I would be shocked if Auburn isn’t once again very good at running the football. The Tigers should field a solid line, salty lead blockers and Auburn has a very good assortment of running backs, as well as several mobile quarterbacks. Frankly, Kerryon Johnson ran at will on A-day, before an ankle injury. Less-known backs like Malik Miller and C. J. Tolbert did well in the absence of Johnson and starter Kamryn Pettway. However, Auburn will eventually face strong front sevens, like LSU, Georgia and Alabama. When the running game gets slowed down, will Auburn be able to make teams pay through the air?

     We saw a number of positive signs, on A-Day. Route drills that didn’t give receivers or quarterbacks much of a chance in the past, were gone. So many times last year, it seemed like there was one primary read, and if the quarterback didn’t throw that one, receivers would basically stop running. This spring, guys finished their routes, and there seemed to be an actual progression in the quarterbacks’ heads. The second team line could not get to starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham, and if they threatened to, Stidham was able to dump the ball off safely and cleanly. Just as importantly, a lot of first down passes were called. Even on just a 5 yard hitch, it’s a lot easier to grind out a first down from 2nd and 4 or 5, than to make 10 yards on 3 runs.

     It all begins up front, on both sides of the ball. Auburn’s starting unit acquitted itself very well against a dangerous front seven, on A-Day. Center Austin Golson is in his 3rd year starting at that spot, and is a veteran presence. Darius James moved into the starting left tackle spot after several games last season, and just won’t give it up! Guard Braden Smith slides out to right tackle, this season, but it is not a new position for him. He’s played tackle in the past, and should be a dominant player.

     The question marks are at guard, and to a lesser extent, depth across the line. Sophomore Mike Horton is the likely starter at right guard. He was the first guy off the bench, last season, and did a good job. The left guard spot seems to still be wide open. I saw a lot of sophomore Kaleb Kim at that spot, but others played there, as well. Kim is penciled in as the backup center, it’s worth noting. There is some still raw talent in reserve, such as Prince Michael Sammons, Prince Tega Wanogho, and Bailey Sharp. However, unlike much of the past decade, Auburn really doen’t have a cupboard with 12-15 guys that are ready to go. The Tigers will try to shore up the depth with a couple of graduate transfers this fall. From Jacksonville State, center Casey Dunn arrives. From Florida State, the Tigers get guard Wilson Bell. As a part-time starter for FSU, Bell is expected to compete immediately for the starting role.

      I’m sure readers are used to my constant grousing about Auburn’s H-back and tight end depth, so I won’t belabor that, too much. This year actually has better prospects, with juniors Jalen Harris and Chandler Cox. Those two played big-boy ball, on A-Day. Transfer Sal Canella came in and played this spring, as well. He doesn’t seem big enough to play on the line, but as a lead blocker for wide receiver screens, he did a good job on A-Day. He’s also a threat in the passing game, with good hands and decent speed.

     Receiver play the past couple of seasons has frankly hamstrung the offense. Guys in the playing rotation have been selected for their blocking capabilities, and of course, I don’t feel like the route trees were helping them at all. We’ve also seen a number of dropped passes over the past two years. Finally, Auburn had 4 true freshmen in the playing rotation last season, which doesn’t help, either.

     This spring, there is a lot of new material on the receivers’ plates. There are more routes, and there is more complexity. Receivers have to learn option routes, as well. If a slant route is called, and the defender steps inside, into the way, both the receiver and quarterback have to check off to a fade or an out route, instead. Miscommunication could result in turnovers.

     The good news is that all of the quarterbacks that threw on A-Day were trying to hit their receivers in stride. There was an emphasis on ball placement, and I saw a lot fewer drops in warmups. I don’t think I saw ANY drops by the receivers, during the game. Drops were on the backs, this time. Both Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton thrived on catching deep balls, and were fearless. The defense just flat could not cover Will Hastings.

     Auburn has seen a lot of attrition in the running back corps over the past couple of seasons, but still has talent there. Starter Kamryn Pettway feels like he has a legit shot at winning the Heisman. When healthy, he is danged difficult to tackle, to be sure! Pettway was held out of A-Day, and we got to see a good bit of junior Kerryon Johnson, early. KJ is one of those “complete” backs, who is elusive, has speed, can catch, and can block. He’s had to play nicked up for most of his career, and I hated to see him suffer an ankle injury on A-Day.

     I was impressed with all of the backs down the depth chart on A-Day. The guy that impressed me most in this group was Malik Miller. This was another guy that just refused to go down, at times.

     I’ve often said, and I still believe, that a spread offense can’t work without a capable quarterback to distribute the ball. When Auburn has had that, records have fallen. When Auburn doesn’t, the offense really goes into the toilet. In a spread, there are often only 5 blockers in the box. If the outside receivers aren’t going to get the ball, then the defense can cheat, and bring 7, 8 or 9 guys into the box and strangle the whole business.

     I liked what I saw at quarterback, this year. The receivers have been given better plays to work with, and Jarrett Stidham found them running free repeatedly. He showed good accuracy, good recognition, and most importantly, he didn’t put the ball into bad spots. I think he’s really going to have a great fall, and this offense can go far and fast, with all of the talent in the starting spots.

     I remember the wishbone days, and the quarterback was key then, too. Defensive coordinators learned to pack the box, and hit the quarterback, no matter what. And during that era, quarterbacks got worn down. Likewise, in a passing era, frustrated defensive coordinators are going to do the same thing. Blocking with 5? We’ll send 6 or 7. Blocking with 6? We’ll send 7 or 8. Hit the quarterback.

     And so, in a 12 to 13 game season, it stands to reason that the quarterback is going to take some damage. Thus, a team with championship aspirations has to have more than one quarterback, ready to go. The past couple of seasons, Auburn became very dysfunctional on offense, when the starting quarterback was hurt or ineffective. This year, I feel like Auburn has 3 different guys that can move the offense effectively. Even if there is an injury back there this season, I’m confident that things can keep rolling. Jarrett Stidham, Sean White and Malik Willis all showed the arm and the accuracy to keep the passing game going, on A-Day. Let’s hope we don’t end up needing all three, this fall.

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