It's only been two weeks since I wrote about Auburn coming out of the September of Doom, and already the outlook has changed on how this season may end. Things are starting to look up on the Plains as the two games between then and now have shown new direction and life from the offense and continued (and, even, improved) excellence from the Defense.
I could talk about the whole team in this post, but it's the Bye Week, and I need to fill publishing space. So, you're getting one post about the offense and one post about the defense!
The Position Groups
Back before the season started, we had a bunch of previews of the various position groups. You can go back and see those, here. How have they all compared to those expectations?
Wow, have things changed. Before the season, I felt Marcus Davis and Jason Smith would be the first up and most reliable at the wide receiver position. Marcus Davis has slipped a bit and hasn't caught a pass since the Texas A&M game (and only been targeted once since that one) while Jason Smith has almost disappeared completely.
I was hopeful that Tony Stevens would turn a corner. He most definitely has. In fact, Stevens has been Auburn's most targeted wide receiver by a long. He has a few key errors - notably in the LSU game and the tipped pass that resulted in the interception against Mississippi State - but, other than that, he's really stepped up his game. He's catching 88.9% of the "catchable" balls thrown his way and has 408 total yards receiving.
The second most reliable wide receiver has been Ryan Davis. He may be the shortest of the bunch, but he's got good hands and he's dangerous once he gets the ball in those hands. His 212 yards receiving is second on the team, and his 22 targets are also 2nd.
If you'd told me before the season that Tony Stevens and Ryan Davis would be the top 2 receivers at this point, I would have been surprised. I would also have been hoping that it's because they're playing well (they are) rather than everyone else struggling.
Perhaps least surprising is that freshman Kyle Davis is right behind them. Davis has not dropped a catchable pass thrown his way and has made some spectacular plays to catch some that probably shouldn't have been catchable. Darius Slayton is right behind him, as well. Will Hastings put up great stats in the early part of the season, but that has tapered off as the Tigers have gotten into the more physical SEC schedule. Hastings' pass-catching and moves are unquestioned; I think the biggest issue has been blocking the SEC DBs, but that's just my opinion.
Of the wide receivers having a real contribution to the offense of late, Tony Stevens is the only upperclassman. That says a lot about the future potential of this group.
Grade: I'll give them an A-. There have been drops, but not many. There have been excellent plays, better blocking, and the unit as a whole is much improved from previous years. A lot of credit goes to Kodi Burns for that transformation.
We went into this season thinking the line would be one of the biggest strengths. It's taken a few weeks (and possibly a lineup adjustment), but they're starting to get to where we hoped they would be. After some early struggles (that were also play calling related), they've done well enough overall that they were recognized for the midseason honor roll of the Joe Moore Award, which is given to the best offensive line unit at the end of the season.*
I was concerned about Robert Leff a bit before the year, but Leff has overall done a good job. Dampeer was doing well at Center before his injury. I'm really curious what the line will look like when he's healthy. Darius James has played well the last two games, and it's going to be hard to take anyone out of the lineup.
How well are they doing? Even as the Tigers were hit with a ton of negative plays (many of those credited against the passing game, true), this line is still paving the way for the 2nd best rushing attack in the conference behind Texas A&M (and who thought THAT would be the case, this year).
Grade: B+. They're so close to bringing this up to an A, and I have faith in them to do it, soon.
Whew boy, what do we say here? Auburn hasn't thrown a pass to a tight end since CJ Uzomah in the Outback Bowl almost two years ago. We expected that to change with Landon Rice, but... yeah. Jalen Harris has seen a lot of playing time and his role increase, lately, and I have a feeling it's only a matter of time before he's targeted for passes, but we haven't seen that, yet.
As far as H-back goes, Chandler Cox has struggled a bit to pick up some of the blocks he needs to, but he's getting more involved with the offense as Rhett Lashlee takes over. He caught two passes against Mississippi State and came up just shy of a touchdown on one of them.
Auburn's offense really needs a tight end who is also a pass-catching threat. That's the one true missing piece I see, right now. I just don't know if that's going to develop this year, or not.
Grade: C+. Lack of targets more than anything, but zero receptions from the tight end position, only recently some for the H-back, and there been some blocking issues (though things are getting better).
Oh, silly Walt. At the beginning of the season, I noted that this may be the first season that Gus Malzahn doesn't have a 1000 yard rusher at Auburn. I didn't think it would be because of failure to run the football, though. Rather, I thought it would be because the carries would be so spread out.
It turns out that Auburn is on pace to have TWO backs with 1000 yards rushing. That's with both of them missing all or nearly all of a game during the first 6 games, too. Kamryn Pettway actually missed all or most of TWO games.
Therein lies an issue, though. Both of the two primary backs have missed time with injury. Kerryon Johnson's status for the Arkansas game is unknown, right now. Malik Miller is out for a few weeks at least. The depth has gotten to the point that Stanton Truitt is serving double-duty as a wide receiver and running back.
I've argued before that Gus Malzahn's offense is "plug-and-play" when it comes to running backs. We're seeing that play out, this season. That's not to take away from these backs, though. They've made things happen either through moves or through pure power (aided by the line up front) to gain the yards they need.
Grade: A-. They're grinders, but against SEC-level competition we haven't seen them be true home run threats, yet. I think the potential is there. Pettway is deceptively fast with his speed, and Johnson has the moves to make people miss. Kerryon was leading the SEC in broken tackles before his injury in the MSU game. He may still lead in that category for all I know.
They may not be the flashiest, but they're getting the job done.
I'll give individual grades for this one to the two primary signal callers.
For Sean White, it's absolutely an A+. He's leading the SEC in completion percentage by almost 4%. His yards per attempt are 2nd to Chad Kelly by only .2 yards. He's gaining confidence by the game, making better decisions, and doing exactly what this team and its offense need to be successful.
He's not perfect. He holds on to the ball a bit too long in the pocket, sometimes. He's not as much of a running threat as we would like. He doesn't have quite the touch on the deep ball to make it a home run threat every time he throws it.
It's coming together, though. He's really only just now played a full season's worth of games in his entire career. If he keeps getting better, he could be among the best quarterbacks to play at Auburn in a number of statistical categories.
For John Franklin III, I'll say B+. His running ability is unquestioned. His deep ball to Nate Craig-Myers was a thing of beauty, but there are still things that need to be polished in his passing game. Against Texas A&M we saw some great throws and some very questionable throws.
It's an interesting conundrum for the Tigers. If Franklin improves a bit with his passing, where does that put the QB situation? I think it's hard to even think of pulling Sean White with the threat his passing ability has given us, so far, but it's hard to keep someone with Franklin's speed and "take it to the house on any play" ability off the field, too.
Two weeks ago I gave this offense a C+. I'm bumping that up to a B+. I'd like to make it an A, but we're still feeling things out and it's not exactly like the Tigers have played two power-houses in the weeks since the LSU game.
Still, play calling has improved. The Tigers have only failed to score a touchdown in the red zone due to a stop on 4th down and a holding penalty bringing one touchdown back in the last two weeks. It's looking up and the second half of the season is suddenly much rosier than it was three weeks ago.
*I have issues with the Joe Moore Award. They didn't have Georgia Southern even in the semifinalist Top 20 last year while the Eagles' offensive line was paving the way for the nation's #1 rushing attack for the second year in a row. It wasn't because of perimeter runs, either. A ton of the rushes were straight up the middle.