A Year of Promise Ahead?

Monday, May 13, 2019

A Year of Promise Ahead?

A clean pocket is key for the advancement of young quarterbacks
(John Reed-USA TODAY Sports)

     War Eagle, everybody! Spring sports are winding down at Auburn, and it is time to look ahead to the 2019 college football season. There were plenty of reasons to be optimistic for this season, even before the previous year ended. A record-breaking blowout of Purdue in the Music City Bowl jump-started the conversation, and lots of good news has broken since then.

     The fact of the matter is that Auburn has been able to stockpile a roster that can compete with the upper echelons of the SEC. In most spots, Auburn will enter this fall with a lot of experience and toughness. Where there were questions, good answers came out of spring ball. This time a year ago, we came out of spring drills wondering if we had any healthy, capable quarterbacks on the roster. This year, 4 quarterback candidates all did good things on A-Day.

     On the defensive line, Auburn had 3 underclassmen that likely would have been picked in the NFL draft. Instead, Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Nick Coe all decided to return for another season. The Tigers already had depth behind these guys, but it was expected that cohesiveness would have to develop across the front next fall. Auburn will have one new starter in the interior, likely to be junior Tyrone Truesdell. We got a look at Truesdell’s ability in the Music City Bowl on one play where he posted up a lineman, then batted a pass right to Big Kat Bryant for an easy walk-in defensive touchdown. I think again this year that we will see a deep, powerful and well rested line up front.

     Auburn will have to put 2 or 3 new starters on the field at linebacker, this season, but I am not too worried. When linebackers coach Travis Williams and coordinator Kevin Steele took over in 2016, DeShaun Davis and Darrell Williams were not exactly household names, but that pair dominated on defense right from the start with Williams coaching them. Now, it is Kenny Britt’s turn to take over as the quarterback for the defense. This is Britt’s 3rd season at Auburn, and he has played in every game. Britt, junior Chandler Wooten and sophomore Zakoby McClain all look ready to go. In addition, early enrollee Owen Pappoe might be the most talented of all of the linebackers.

     Auburn returns most of a veteran secondary. Last year, Auburn was forced to convert wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene to cornerback during practice. Igbinoghene looked quite talented at the new position, but had some learning to do, and was sometimes picked on by opposing quarterbacks. This year in spring drills, Igbinoghene looked much more confident, and his technique was much improved. It is still a bit unsettled who will end up starting at the field corner and nickel positions, but Auburn has the experience and talent to excel at both spots. Some mixture of senior Javaris Davis, sophomore Christian Tutt, junior Jordyn Peters, junior Traivon Leonard, and sophomore Roger McCreary will likely fill those spots.

     Safety is pretty much set in the 2-deep depth chart with a unit that would be at home at any of the top-echelon SEC defensive units. Auburn has seniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas starting with sophomores Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood behind them.

     Auburn’s punting units are in good hands with junior punter Arryn Siposs returning. The Tigers will have to find a starting punt returner, but it was good that sophomore Christian Tutt got some live experience last fall and looked good doing it. Auburn looked good covering punts lasts season, and most of those guys are back as are are guys that have experience blocking punts.

     Auburn was a good place kicking team last season, for the most part. The one area that was not so good was kicking field goals from 40 yards out or more. Honestly, Auburn just tried too many from long range due to the offense stalling repeatedly. Sophomore kicker Anders Carlson returns after a mixed rookie campaign. Carlson was great on kickoffs, and anything inside 40 yards on kicks was like money in the bank. Auburn covered kickoffs well, and teams were actively trying to keep the ball away from dangerous Auburn return man Noah Igbinoghene.

     Auburn had lots of problems on the offensive line last season. There was personnel shuffling, and at times guys did not know how to handle various stunts and slants. There was slow improvement as the season progressed, then a dramatic jump happened during bowl practices. Auburn’s offensive line dominated Purdue in all phases. That has continued into this spring, as 4 different Auburn quarterbacks had clean pockets to throw from when the starters were in the game. Auburn has 5 seniors back as starters on the line. From left to right, it will be Prince Tega Wanagho, Marquel Harrell, Kaleb Kim, Mike Horton, and Jack Driscoll. Nick Brahms, Austin Troxell and Bailey Sharp provide depth behind the starters.

     Auburn lost 4-year starter at H-back, Chandler Cox, to graduation, and senior tight end Jalen Harris transferred out after 4 games last fall. The loss of Harris was huge as Auburn no longer had an SEC-caliber tight end ready to play. Results after that had the Auburn offense managing just 24 points against Southern Miss, 9 against Mississippi State, and 24 against Tennessee. Auburn lost to both the Bulldogs and the Vols, and neither game was really close.

     We were looking for possible answers at tight end on A-Day, but did not get much. Auburn ran 3- and 4-wide receiver looks most of the day, and the defense did not try to take advantage by blitzing. What will happen this fall, when Auburn needs to convert a third and one, is anybody’s guess. For now, senior Spencer Nigh is listed as the only fullback on the roster. We have seen big number 99 into the game on short-yardage and field-oal units the past two seasons, and he has been effective as a blocker. He has not really been targeted in the passing game.

     The heir apparent at tight end is sophomore John Samuel Shenker, who got some spot duty in 2018. Schenker has some receiving skills and is now big enough to take on SEC linebackers one on one. Behind Shenker, freshmen Tyler Fromm and Luke Deal round out the depth chart, although Deal is still rehabbing a knee injury. There was talk last season about using wide receiver Sal Cannella as a tight end, but that has not happened so far.

     Auburn lost its top 2 big play wide receivers to the NFL, Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton. However, there is plenty of speed returning. Auburn had dropped balls last season, but the surest pair of hands, belonging to sophomore Seth Williams, is coming back. Williams figures to replace Slayton at the split end spot, while big target Marquis McClain got a lot of work on the other side, this past spring. If Auburn starts that pair, it will really help in the running game. Both are listed at 224 pounds, big enough to bury the average SEC cornerback on running plays. Auburn has a ton of speed returning, guys like Eli Stove, Will Hastings, Matthew Hill, and Anthony Schwartz. Sal Cannella returns for his senior season. Cannella did not get thrown to much last season. However, Cannella made a good outlet on desperation heaves and was able to use his tall frame to go up and get the high balls.

     Auburn returns every running back used last season, and they have all had another year to get bigger and stronger. It looks like the tag team of Kam Martin and JaTarvious Whitlow will be the main event again this year. Whitlow kind of took over as a freshman last season and really developed as the season went on. I have high hopes for him this fall. Auburn has variety behind the presumed co-starters. Junior Malik Miller has size, power, hands and good blocking techniques. Sophomore Shawn Shivers has track speed. Freshmen Harold Joiner and D. J.  also looked like they were ready to play SEC ball on A-Day.

     Auburn will likely begin next season with a freshman quarterback at the helm on offense. Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix have been named “1, and 1-A” by head coach Gus Malzahn. One or both will get his first live college football action in Arlington, Texas against the Oregon Ducks. Much has been written about the quarterbacks this spring, but really won’t know the answer until we see them in live action.

     Most years, one can write a few words about how difficult Auburn’s schedule is, and this year is no exception. Auburn plays 5 teams likely to be ranked in the top 10. However, I like how the games are spaced out for the most part. Late September/ early October looks pretty grueling, though.

     Auburn starts out playing the Oregon Ducks. I’ll need to do a bit more research, but just on the surface, this team does not look as tough as Washington was in last year’s opener. However, the Jerry Dome in Arlington probably won’t be as much of a home-field advantage for Auburn as Atlanta was last season.

     After the Ducks, Auburn has tune-up games against Tulane and Kent State at home. The Tigers will need those to get the quarterback situation resolved and to get ready for SEC play.

     Auburn’s SEC opener is against Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. The Aggies look to be returning a loaded football team and experienced, talented quarterback Kellen Mond. The early Aggie challenge is a visit to Clemson, sandwiched around cupcake opponents.

     After the Aggies, Auburn hosts Mississippi State. Last season, Auburn could not block Mississippi State’s front and could not stop the quarterback keeper/zone-read play. The Bulldogs lost some beef up front as well as quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. At home, I like the matchup against this team. It also will be MSU’s first road game of the season, and the Bullies host Kansas State and Kentucky earlier.

     Auburn finishes a tough 3-game swing with a road trip to Florida. The Gators had a tough start last season under new coach Dan Mullen, including the first loss to Kentucky in 30 years. However, Florida was very tough down the stretch, and just killed Michigan in the bowl game in Atlanta. I expect this game to be a very tough outing.

     Auburn has a much needed bye week after 3 straight SEC games, then travels to Arkansas. The Razorbacks were easily the worst team in the league last season and also have experienced a lot of transfers out this year. They might improve enough to get out of last place this season. Maybe.

     The next week, Auburn travels to Baton Rouge to play LSU, a venue where Auburn has not won since 1999. Last year, Auburn seemed to have the upper hand over LSU, but just could not stop quarterback Joe Burrow from making plays down the stretch. I thought Burrow was a senior last season, but I was mistaken. He’ll be back for the Bengal Tigers.

     November begins with Auburn hosting Ole Miss. Coming off a couple of years of probation, the Ole Miss defense that was so stout at mid-decade is pretty decimated and depleted, now. Ole Miss has weapons, particularly in the receiver corps. However, this is a mere shell of the team that once beat Alabama 2 seasons in a row.

     Auburn hosts the Georgia Bulldogs the next week. Georgia should be the most talented team in the SEC East, but Auburn catches them at a pretty good time. The back end of Georgia’s schedule goes like this: at Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, bye week, Florida in Jacksonville, Missouri, and at Auburn. Georgia finishes the season with Texas A&M and in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.

     Auburn hosts Samford for a tuneup, and hosts the Iron Bowl a couple of days after Thanksgiving. As always, that will be the toughest game of the season.

My best guess is an 8–4 season. I think against the Ducks, Aggies, Gators, LSU Tigers, UGA and Bama, Auburn drops 4 of 6. Even getting 1 win against those teams might be asking a lot. Auburn absolutely cannot afford a loss against the Mississippi teams or Arkansas.

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