Upon Further Review: Did Early Signing Day Fill Needs?

Monday, December 24, 2018

Upon Further Review: Did Early Signing Day Fill Needs?

For such an important day as Signing Day, there isn’t a lot being written on the Auburn Tigers’ new class of incoming freshmen. That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a lot said about certain specific players.

The signing of Bo Nix has been covered in depth. The conversations about the legacy player aren’t new, and they started months ago.

No one truly believed that Jarrett Stidham was coming back for another year at Auburn. Near the end of the 2016 regular season, it was about whether he would head to the NFL or come back. After the season, the conversation broadened to include the possibility of a transfer.

That talk soon shifted to Stidham’s replacement at the helm of Auburn’s offense when Gus Malzahn would, once again, be calling plays. Malik Willis has all but been forgotten. Cord Sandberg, despite actually looking good in limited duty, is now an afterthought. Joey Gatewood was last year’s “quarterback of the future.” Twelve months later, Bo Nix is the new “quarterback of the future.”

Auburn has four quarterbacks vying for the job, and for a while it looked like the quarterback club might be five when former Clemson QB Bryant Kelly considered the Tigers. Who is to say that an unknown transfer wouldn’t make his way to campus? In a month, Jalen Hurts will be looking for a new home, and there is no way Malzahn would say no if he became available.

Obviously, quarterback is the most visible player on the field and in today’s game, it takes an NFL draft pick to win championships. Auburn had what many believed was a first-round talent in Jarrett Stidham but still couldn’t win ballgames in the SEC West this season. Why? There’s an easy answer, and it seems silly to even have a discussion: offensive-line recruiting, development, and play execution.

Great quarterback play doesn’t happen without that. Oklahoma now has consecutive Heisman winners. The Sooners also have what many think is the best offensive line in the country. Alabama’s own quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, finished second in the voting, and while he is a spectacular player, Tua picked defenses apart all year thanks to a superior offensive line.

Saying that Auburn reloaded along the offensive line this season is an understatement. Granted the Tigers lost legit NFL players like Braden Smith, and there was an understanding that there would be some drop off in production while breaking in a new offensive line. But the unit simply crumbled as the team moved into the depths of its SEC schedule. As it crumbled, so did Jarrett Stidham.

Fans blamed Stidham’s recognition. They blamed the offensive system for not having a mobile quarterback. They blamed the offensive line. However, the blame goes back further.

The premier programs in America reload each year, and they develop their players. Auburn, on the other hand, has success only when it is led by a senior-laden line or one led by three-year starters and transfers. Unfortunately, there are only a few data points to look at in terms of good Auburn lines under Malzahn.

More to the point …

when Auburn has recruited legitimate NFL prospects like Greg Robinson, Braden Smith, and Austin Golson, it has succeeded. While not all prospects turn out as these did, but occasionally Auburn had two or more of them on the same line.

After last year’s signing class, there was a little chatter about the lack of offensive line recruits. In the 2018 class, Auburn signed just two high school linemen, three-star Kameron Stutts and four-star Jalil Irvin. Neither played this season. The 2017 season was highlighted by a trio of high-ranking players in Nick Brahms, Calvin Ashley and Austin Troxell,all four-stars. However, injuries slowed all of them, and they really struggled on the field in 2018. Ashley played in five games, Brahms in seven, and Troxell in all 12.

Auburn was razor-thin along the line in 2018  and desperately needed quality depth on the line. Of the 17 signees in this class, only two were offensive linemen: three star Justin Osborne and four star Keiondre Jones. Osborne is the 47th-ranked player at his position while Jones checks in as the 199th overall player in the country and number 11 at his position.

Could Malzhan and Co. go out and find more depth along the line? Maybe. A quick look through shows that there simply are no more top prospects in the Top 250 interested in Auburn, and truthfully, there aren’t many that haven’t signed their letter of intent.

Auburn has dipped heavily into transfers the last few seasons with Jack Driscoll this season and Casey Dunn in 2017. Both of these young men came into the program and won starting jobs. Dunn became the key 2016 addition that sparked Auburn’s magical run after the offensive line allowed the most sacks in the nation through the first half of the season.

There are a lot of players on Auburn’s roster that have “offensive line” as their position. Truthfully, Auburn should have everyone that started in 2018 back in 2019, but will they improve? Most followers of these things say that players experience the most growth from year one to year two. If offensive line coach JB Grimes can develop these players, the line should improve greatly. However, what about 2020?

That’s really the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Malzahn doubled down on himself for 2019. While I believe Malzhan certainly believes in himself, I believe that he also sees that he will have a senior-laden line. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen next season with the 2020 season an afterthought, a “burn that bridge when we get there” scenario. The problem is, Auburn may very well get there with this line in 2019, but there may not be any more players for the future.

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