An Eventful Spring

Saturday, April 6, 2019

An Eventful Spring

We are about a week from A-Day!
(Photo by Acid Reign)

     War Eagle, everybody! It is hard to believe that we are just 8 days from A-Day. Spring practice has proceeded under the radar this year with everyone focused on a historic run by the Auburn men’s basketball team. I’d love to be able to spout pages of football news, but practice security has been tight as a tick  and little in the way of inside reports has come out. I do have a few news items, though.

     In basketball, Auburn will play in the Final Four tomorrow evening. Tipoff against Virginia is scheduled to be at 5:09 PM, televised nationally on CBS. Virginia, a 1-seed, is a scary matchup for the Tigers, but that is to be expected at this level. Every team left has won 4 NCAA tournament games, dispatching mostly worthy opponents. Virginia likes to run the clock way down, then shoot the lights out, and get back on defense. This smothering approach limits opponent’s opportunities and is quite frustrating for teams like Auburn that like to push it up the floor. The best SEC comparison I can think of is Ole Miss, who won both games against Auburn this season. Oh, and as an added issue, I’m told that both Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are really having the sinus issues this week.

     By all accounts, Auburn football should once again have a very potent defense. A number of future NFL defensive linemen decided to return to school for one more year, and younger guys are being coached up this spring. Auburn’s starting offensive line is holding its own against all comers, but it gets scary for the reserves on the O-line.

     Linebacker was a greatbig question going into spring drills, but this unit should be OK by kickoff time. Kenny Britt played a good number of minutes last season and should be ready to lead the group. In terms of talent, he’s the best Auburn has had in quite some time. True freshman and early enrollee Owen Pappoe is said to be another great one in the making, but he’s spent part of spring dinged up. Others in the wings have stepped up, and I have to hand it to linebacker coach Travis Williams. Linebacker was a sore subject for almost a decade at Auburn before Williams took over 3 years ago.

     Auburn returns most of the secondary from last season, and that group, although solid most of the time, went through some woes. It’s a fairly deep group by Auburn standards, and lots of guys have playing experience. From what I’ve been told, there have been some technique changes made this spring. Auburn lost at least two games last season because opponents could just chunk the ball up the sideline and draw a flag on a flailing Auburn corner. There has been a serious effort this spring to teach better leverage and technique. I think we will see Auburn defenders looking for the ball more, and we’ll see less yanking down of receivers with the ball in the air.

     Auburn does need to find a reliable punt returner to replace departed Ryan Davis, but I think there are options. Auburn gave Christian Tutt a few opportunities last season, and he was explosive. Better yet, Tutt seemed sure-handed and didn’t field questionable bouncing balls. The main issue in spring and fall camps is to keep coverage on both units from slipping. Auburn was good at covering both kicks and punts last season and returns a very strong kicker and punter.

     The best news of spring drills, to me, is the play of the offensive line. Yes, Auburn is still trying to play 3 and 4 wide receivers and trying to block defenders in the box that way outnumber linemen. I suppose we are stuck with that till head coach Guz Malzahn retires. Yes, the Auburn defense has shut down the Auburn running game thus far. It can’t do it without blitzing, though, which is an encouraging sign.

     Speaking of receivers, this spring has been a bit disappointing. Sure, the Tigers lost all-time receptions leader Ryan Davis and big-play threat Darius Slayton to graduation. However, there is a ton of talent left on the roster, but guys aren’t getting open often. When they do, they drop the ball. Blocking has been inconsistent, too. This offense will fail without good receiver and quarterback play.

     Another big worry is tight end/H-back play. After losing Chandler Cox to graduation, I’m wondering about Auburn’s plans at this spot. Thus far, the team is doing mostly without. This will be a key point to watch on A-Day.

     Auburn actually has a wealth of riches, so to speak, in the offensive backfield. Auburn gave JaTarvious Whitlow time to recuperate from a brutal freshman season, and he’s taken full advantage. Kam Martin has bulked up, is healthy, and is still blazingly fast. We are getting lots of good news about Harold Joiner and the progress he has made, playing both at H-back and running back. Auburn has also built up some depth here in case the main players can’t go.

     Of course, no position draws more scrutiny than the quarterback spot. I remember last year’s spring game when I left Jordan Hare Stadium very worried about what would happen if Jarrett Stidham got injured. And, it seemed likely that would happen. Auburn’s line had big problems protecting the quarterback, and the likelihood of Stidham finishing the season unmarred seemed dim. Luckily for Auburn, Stidham was a tough customer. He took a lot of blows at Auburn. Never complained, never missed time, and finished a winner.

     Auburn hasn’t been kind to the quarterback replacement candidates this spring. The last scrimmage was live, and a couple of players have separated themselves. Since the receivers are either not getting open or dropping balls, Joey Gatewood would be the starter if Auburn opened tomorrow with Oregon. Gatewood has really bought into the system and is a physical specimen. Our backup would be Bo Nix, who also seems to have caught on quickly to the system. Nix is actually a better passer, but with the issues at receiver, Auburn would have to go with the better runner.

     It will be interesting to see what is allowed at A-Day. The past couple of games, officials have been blowing the ball dead if the quarterback even THINKS about running the ball. I figure that will be the case, again. I’ll be mostly watching coverages and if the quarterback recognizes openings. We are not going to get anything more than a very vanilla rushing plan. That has been pretty much proven over the past 6 springs.

     War Eagle! As I have through tournament season, I plan to put up an open thread for basketball tomorrow. I plan to participate remotely, but my coverage will be spotty as I will be at a social event, running off my laptop. I won’t be able to do the almost play-by-play thing I’ve been doing the past couple of weeks. Should Auburn make it to the championship game Monday night, I will be available for that, full-on!

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