Another Offensive Juggernaut?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Another Offensive Juggernaut?

Devan Barrett follows some good blocking.
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody! Spring football practice is over, and it’s time to start looking ahead. I think coming out of A-Day, offense is where most of the real questions lie about this year’s Auburn football team. We will start this long haul till September, with some speculation about the offense.

     Most of the worries I had about the offensive line were eased after watching A-Day. We know Auburn has recruited good prospects in this area for years, but the real question has been development and chemistry. The last couple of seasons, there has been lots of shuffling players around, and sometimes confusion on the field.

     Auburn has been forced to shuffle players again this spring, mostly at the center position, due to injuries. On A-Day, Auburn was down to using H-Back Tucker Brown as the starting center. Brown did a pretty good job against a talented and deep Auburn front. It is expected that injured centers Kaleb Kim and Nick Brahms will return in the fall to compete for the starting job.

     There is a battle ongoing at right tackle, between Calvin Ashley and Austin Troxell, both freshmen. Both are quite talented and have huge upsides. It’s mostly a case of fine-tuning here, along with who wants it most.

     Auburn is set elsewhere on the line. Prince Tega Wanagho is locked in at left tackle, and had a good spring game. Wanagho was one of those “projects” that came in as a crazy-athletic big man, but with limited football experience. It’s been a journey to playing time and a few starts last season. This year, working with line coach J. B. Grimes, Wanagho now has the tools and techniques to have an all-star season.

     At the two guard spots, Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton both have SEC starts and experience in the offense. Again, being taught by coach Grimes can only help these guys. The experience these two have can really help the younger guys on the line. I really think Auburn has a chance to have a good, if not great offensive line next season.

     I worry about H-back and tight end depth every year, and some years I even worry about who on earth the coaches will even decide to start. Some years, it’s been so lean that the team more or less tries to replace these guys with wide receivers. When the coaches do that, and try to still be run-heavy, it doesn’t take defenses long to figure that out, and shut the offense down.

     Last season, I really liked how offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey rotated more guys in there, moved them around and used their abilities. For the first time in years, Auburn was able to line up on 3rd and 1, bring in tight ends and h-backs, operate from under center, and bash out first downs consistently. I think that will be the case again this year.

     The starters this season will be Jalen Harris and Chandler Cox, at tight end and h-back respectively. Those guys have been through the wars, and have multiple years of SEC starts. The second team right now is probably Sal Cannella and Spencer Nigh. That is a very solid lineup, and should provide Auburn with good play.

     An area of riches has become an area of concern, this spring. Auburn appeared to be loaded at wide receiver this year. Knee injuries to Eli Stove and Will Hastings have been big blows to the unit, and others, including leading returning receiver Ryan Davis have been banged up and limited. We barely saw last year’s deep threat, Darius Slayton on A-Day.

     Auburn more or less subtracted Noah Igbinoghene from the lineup at receiver, as well. Igbinoghene has moved to cornerback, and has done well, and will possibly start.

     I would guess that this fall, Auburn will start Darius Slayton to one side, and Nate Craig-Myers to the other, with Ryan Davis again in the slot. That’s still a pretty deadly lineup, and a real problem for SEC secondaries. Marquis McClain gives some quality depth, as will some of the incoming freshman receivers.

     On A-Day, Auburn used Sal Cannella as a hybrid tight end/slot receiver. At linebacker or nickel, Auburn has options with Cannella, depending upon what sort of player is lined up opposite him. With a lighter nickelback kind of player Cannella wins the blocking matchup. Put a big linebacker out there, and Cannella gets open easily.

     Devan Barrett moved mostly to receiver this spring, from running back. From what I saw on A-Day, he’s a good option moving back inside and taking a sweep handoff. I was less impressed with Barrett as a receiver. Admittedly, Auburn did not get the ball down the field, and allow screens to set up.

     Auburn’s running back situation remains murky after spring practice. Kam Martin far and away has the most experience returning, but he mostly missed the A-Day game, with a “tweaked hamstring.” He’ll still probably start next fall, if he can stay healthy.

     On A-Day, the featured backs were freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin. Both proved to be shifty, dangerous runners. There were some jitters and dropped passes, though. Working mostly on the 2nd and 3rd units, C. J. Tolbert led all rushers, and had the longest play of the day on a 79 yard run. Tolbert had a good A-Day last year, and was said to be competing for a starting job. He did not get a carry in 2017.

     In short, Auburn has dangerous ball carriers deep into the depth chart. My guess is the guys we will see in there the most, are the ones that can neutralize a blitzing linebacker or defensive back.

     A-Day clearly showed that there is not likely a quarterback controversy at Auburn, this year. Jarrett Stidham will be the man when he returns to full action this fall, and honestly I feel like he will be in a better position than last year. For the first few games, Stidham was still adapting, his line had problems, and his running backs were limping. We’re told now that it was in game 4 at Missouri last season, when his shoulder was injured, and he played through the whole season anyway.

     This season, Stidham will go in with some chemistry with his receiving corps, as evidenced during the 7-on-7 portion of A-Day warmups. I suspect that the offensive line will have more cohesion than last year, and Stidham himself is more experienced and less likely to take a pummeling.

     All is not lost if Stidham goes down, though. Both Malik Willis and Joey Gatewood showed good presence on A-Day, if not accuracy on a day with bad weather conditions. They are both talented, and we know both are quite mobile as well, also.

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