Keeping Up with the Joneses

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Like many schools across the nation, Auburn experienced the flight of many early departures to the NFL draft as well as seniors looking to make their mark on the next level. Unlike its rivals Georgia and Alabama, Auburn had no first round draft picks, despite being the only team in college football to beat both of those teams that would later play for a national championship.

The marquee player for Auburn was Kerryon Johnson, who decided to leave school a year early to pursue an NFL career. While he was typically rated as the fifth best back in a pretty deep class, it didn’t stop Johnson or slow him from making that decision. One can hardly blame the running back. The position is one that has a short lifespan and isn’t really as valued as it used to be.

Johnson fought injuries throughout his career at Auburn and faced another 12 or more games as a senior where one play could be the difference between making millions or joining the work force with a degree. For a successful running back, the faster one can get to the second contract, the better. So, for Johnson, it was worth going in the draft’s 2nd round and having that extra year to potentially make more money. That is, of course, if he can stay healthy and prove to be a special back. He will certainly be expected to prove his worth for Detroit, the team that finally drafted him with the 43rd pick of the second  round.

Although Kerryon  Johnson is a household name, he wasn’t expected to be the first player off the board. That looked to be either offensive lineman Braden Smith or cornerback Carlton Davis. Davis was a lockdown playmaker on the outside for Auburn and was viewed by multiple pundits as the fourth or fifth best cornerback in the class and a first-round pick. When Denzel Ward was selected by the Browns with the fourth overall pick, things looked up for Davis. It seemed with that kind of early demand, someone would snap up Davis. 

Braden Smith was a huge grab for Auburn and started as a freshman way back in 2014. He has been called by many superlatives due to his work ethic and mean streak. Even as a young freshman, the big man pushed people around. 

Yet, day one ended without an Auburn player selected in the first round. Truly, this wasn’t a great surprise. What may have been a surprise was the SEC, once again, set records with first round picks. Even more surprising would be Alabama and Georgia having over a quarter of those picks. It is truly astounding how much NFL talent resides on the rosters of Auburn’s two most hated rivals. There are several ways to view that, of course, and depending on one’s disposition regarding the current affairs of Auburn football, the opinion would vary widely.

One could say that, despite the lackluster years following the 2013 season, that Auburn’s coaching staff is still one of the best. After all, how would a team with such a disparity in NFL talent be able to beat Alabama and Georgia in the same year in, essentially, back-to-back weeks? Only a good coaching staff can coach up players to that level and put together a game plan to win. This past season wasn’t about miracle plays to beat the two rivals as was the case in 2013.

Gus Malzahn’s offense clicked just right and Kevin Steele’s defense was nothing short of amazing. The score wasn’t close in either game. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that only half of Auburn’s staff was up to the challenge in the rematch of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry the following week, and neither side was prepared for UCF for whatever reason.

One could also say that Auburn is recruiting at the same level of the two rivals, so why the disparity?

This isn’t a new topic. Truly, before Steele showed up on the Plains, Auburn was not performing at a top recruiting level, specifically on offense. The offensive wizard had quarterbacks that couldn’t throw and receivers that couldn’t catch. The only coach that seemed to be able to take recruiting to on field production to NFL player was running backs coach Tim Horton.

Despite continuing to recruit the tight end and receiver positions as well or better than anyone in college football, receivers continue to be a mystery for Gus Malzahn. Meanwhile, schools like LSU and Alabama that don’t throw the ball near the level Gus does are putting wideouts in the NFL. 

Many readers will nitpick this article. To some extent, they are right in that what happens in the NFL has nothing to do with what Auburn accomplishes on the field on Saturdays. However, potential players, who will be on the field for the fans on those Saturdays, don’t share that view.

Nick Saban sells Alabama and the legacy he has built in Tuscaloosa. While he has an embarrassment of riches and should never lose a game with the talent he brings in and develops, players still show up in droves. Playing college football in the SEC for a scholarship isn’t what brings in four- and five-star players. Dollar signs get those guys on campus. The near assurance that his recruits will get a chance to play in the NFL is what Saban calls “The Process.”

What started in 2007 as almost a joke has become the benchmark of college football and is something that Auburn is missing. Meanwhile, The Process has spread to Georgia and many other SEC schools due to former Bama assistant coaches getting marquee jobs. 

On the other hand, it could be said that Gus Malzahn has his own process, which largely involves hiring assistants from within his own “family tree,” instead of branching out as Saban has begun to do with coaches like Lane Kiffin and Butch Jones, both of whom will eventually be mentioned right beside Kirby Smart.

As mentioned earlier, getting talent on campus hasn’t been an issue for Aubur. Coaching those players beyond their abilities is something that Malzahn has been unable to do, which is precisely why Auburn can’t maintain the winning level it should. It’s a savage cycle, to be sure, and Malzahn’s gameday coaching ability is the only reason he has two ten-win seasons in his first five years, something that hasn’t been done before at Auburn. But to keep up with the Joneses, he is going to have to develop his players and get them in the NFL, preferably in the first round. After all, five-star guys don’t come just for the free education just as they don’t go to Alabama to be a third-day draft pick. 

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