Every team gets a few injuries throughout the year. By the end of the season everyone is a bit banged up and worn out. In the grand scheme of things, Auburn was lucky that the injuries sustained by the Tigers weren't worse. Carl Lawson could have been gone for the year instead of just the first half of the season. No, for Auburn the issue wasn't so much how bad injuries were, it was the timing.
The Louisville Game
There was never a good time for Carl Lawson to get hurt. I've discussed his injury and its results in detail in the link just above. However, we did see the immediate affect of it in the second half of the Louisville game. Where Auburn shut the Cardinals out in the first half, Louisville was able to use their mobile QB to gain a lot of yards in the second half and really make a game out of it before the Tigers prevailed.
Lawson wasn't the only injury in that game, though. Tray Matthews also suffered his first injury that led to his being held out of the Jacksonville State game. Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas were also injured in the opening game of the year. Roc Thomas dealt with injuries off-and-on for the remainder of the season. Jovon Robinson got a carry against LSU but then disappeared until the Texas A&M game where he introduced the SEC to his talent.
Those injuries were bad, but not as big as one from the Jacksonville State game itself. In that game, senior CB Josh Holsey went down with a knee injury that ended his 2015 season. Holsey has been one of the most dependable DBs for the Tigers since his true freshman year in 2012. He missed the second half of 2013 with a knee injury. Auburn was already down Tray Matthews in that game. Blake Countess missed the second half after a targeting call. Losing Holsey really put the defensive backfield in a rough spot for the remainder of that game.
Losing Holsey was bad enough for the way the JSU game played out, but more important was losing an experienced senior DB that provided a lot of depth for the defense. Perhaps it paved the way for the emergence of Carlton Davis, but it still would have been nice to have Holsey healthy all season long, as well.
Another promising young DB had his season cut short against Texas A&M. Dinson was hit on a block that sure looked like targeting to me, but was overturned. That hit separated his shoulder, knee, and caused ligament injuries, as well.
Dinson was getting a fair bit of playing time prior to this incident. He wasn't quite as high up there as Carlton Davis was, but still seeing time. Losing him like this may hurt Auburn more in the long run than it did in 2015, but it still forced the Tigers to play some other players. Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts - both sophomores - did fairly well in their relief efforts of the other DBs late in the season.
Speaking of, there's Matthews. He missed the Jacksonville State game, where he was sorely needed, with a shoulder issue. Then he missed most of the last 3rd of the regular season with an ankle injury that was sustained either during the Ole Miss game or in the week leading up to Texas A&M. He missed out on the opportunity to play his former team, UGA, and missed the Alabama game as well.
Matthews, when healthy, is All-SEC worthy. Not having him in the last few games was a severe impact to Auburn's defensive efforts. Matthews' coverage ability could have helped the Tigers' defense on a few key plays that may have led to greater impacts on the games. May have. We never really can tell.
The first injury at the Center position came with Dukeghazi (which is the next article up that I'll write, I think). Back-up center Xavier Dampeer was lost for the season when he was involved in trying to settle Duke Williams down during his bar fight that led to his suspension. Had Austin Golson remained healthy, this wouldn't have mattered. Unfortunately, though, he did not.
Austin Golson was injured during the Georgia game. With him gone, the Tigers turned to Davonte Danzey, who as far as I'm aware had never played Center in a collegiate game until then. Some of the issues showed on snaps at first, and the line wasn't as tough blocking. Auburn had to go the rest of the season with Danzey at the position, including against Alabama. He did a very admirable job against the Tide given his inexperience.
This injury may have been the one that, while only really lasting a little more than a half, hurt the most. In the first half of the Iron Bowl, Auburn was running the ball well. They were already close to as many rushing yards in the half as the Tide were used to giving up in a single game.
Then Avery Young went down. With Young hurt, the line was adjusted and Robert Leff was brought in on the five-man line. Until that point, Leff has seen the field a lot as a 6th OL/TE, which was a large reason for Auburn's success on the ground.
In the second half, the Tigers were never able to get the push they were getting in the first half, and the pass protection wasn't working as well, either. Young would return for the bowl game against Memphis, but who knows what may have happened in the Iron Bowl had Young played the whole game and Auburn continued to run the football well.
This assumes we'd have been running the football anyway, something we stopped doing a number of times in the second halves of games. WarRoom Eagle wrote about it for the Iron Bowl in particular, though. That article sheds a bit more light on why losing Avery Young was so devastating for that game.
I've already touched on the QBs, but outside of Carl Lawson this really was the most devastating injury of the season. By the Arkansas game, Sean White was clicking and the coaches knew what plays to call with him. It's not his fault that the wide receivers were dropping easy passes in the first half (more on that, tomorrow!).
When Gus knows a QBs strengths and the supporting cast works well, then the offense just goes. This was starting to come along. Yes, his yards per play weren't that great, but they were increasing. With increased comfort comes more yards, which means the hurry-up starts coming back. That's when Gus Malzahn's offense gets rolling.
When White got hurt against Arkansas, that was taken away. He was obviously hampered against Ole Miss. I'll never know why he entered the UGA game. Either way, the offense that was starting to show real signs of life and excitement against Kentucky and Arkansas disappeared again.
Every team has injuries, as I noted. Were Auburn's any worse than others in the grand scheme of things? No. They were devastating to Auburn in the nature of the injuries, though.
Losing Lawson's leadership on field so early set the defense back. Losing Holsey for the year was a blow to morale. Lawson, Holsey, and Matthews all three could have made the Jacksonville State game go a bit differently and help keep the team from going to Baton Rouge with that game weighing on them.
Injuries will happen every season. They're something coaches have to know will happen. That's why you have depth and give reps to backups in practice.
This season's struggles all come down to three specific things, to me, though:
1) Carl Lawson's injury against Louisville
2) Xavier Dampeer's injury in the Duke fight
3) Sean White's injury (and, going further back, Tyler Queen's knee).
That Carl Lawson could get hurt was always a possibility. This is the biggest one I think Auburn should have been prepared for, as I've written about already.
Who expects their backup center to be lost for the season in a bar fight? Then your starting center gets hurt and you need to play the 3rd string player in the key position of the offensive line.
Starting QB who is 6'5, 250 lbs with NFL-talent in his arm? He'll be fine! And if he's not, you've got a great QB as his backup. But then that starter struggles, the backup gets hurt, and the QB who should be 3rd string is redshirting after knee surgery.
Oh, and then there's that stable of running backs that kept coming up lame at times, too.
Injuries mount as seasons go along, teams find out some players aren't as good as they expected them to be, and things snowball from there. As bad as these were, Auburn is lucky that only two of the injuries this season were really devastating to the players, themselves.
Are we fixing this issue? Austin Golson will be back next year, and there's a Center recruited from last year's class. Auburn could have the best DL class in the nation on top of Byron Cowart and Prince Tega last season. Sean White, Jeremy Johnson, and Tyler Queen are all coming back and John Franklin III and Woody Barrett are joining them.
Steps are being taken to see the issues that popped up this season are mitigated as well as possible in the future.