Spring Practice for Gus Malzahn's fourth season as head coach of the Auburn Tigers is slated to begin next Tuesday. There are plenty of questions surrounding the team following 2015's disappointing performance. There are holes to fill, competition at various positions, and newcomers to challenge for playing time.
Auburn brought in an unprecedented nine early enrollees for the 2016 recruiting class. That's nine players who will have a chance to get a leg up on the remaining 11 signees arriving in the summer. If you've already forgotten who these nine are, be sure to check out our round up of them from back in December.
Which are the most likely to see the field early and often? Well, this is a blog, it's the offseason, and there's just not much else going on right now, so I decided to offer up my very not-so-expert opinion. Here they are, ranked in order of least likely to get early playing time to most likely.
9) John Broussard, DB
I could be completely wrong on this as Broussard is a versatile player who could very well end up taking over the Nickel slot and seeing a lot of playing time. He's the hardest of this group to project for me. As things stand right now, though, as a cornerback I think Auburn is set with the two likely starters being Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean. There's some depth behind them, too, and at only 164 lbs I think Broussard needs some time in the weight room before he's ready to step into a big role.
8) Malik Miller, RB
Miller's role on the 2016 team will be determined by the health of the other running backs. Juggling four backs was a negative last season, and I can see Auburn sticking to just three if they're able to this fall. Jovon Robinson, Roc Thomas, and Kerryon Johnson are a very effective trio. Each has had injury issues, however. In a perfect world, Miller is a special teams player for 2016 unless he turns out to be an absolute baller on the practice field and jumps ahead of the others. That very well could happen.
7) Tre Threat, LB
The lone true linebacker in the 2016 class, Threat steps into a situation with a team needing contributions from new linebackers. The addition of T.J. Neal from Illinois last week takes a bit of the pressure off Kevin Steele and Travis Williams, but they will have to find players. Right now the presumed starters are Tre Williams and Neal if we're in a two-linebacker set. Darrell Williams and Richard McBryde from the 2015 class are ready to make their presence known, as well. Then there are journeymen JaViere Mitchell, Cameron Toney, and Deshaun Davis.
Auburn isn't hurting as badly as some think at linebacker, but there's definitely an opportunity for someone to step in. Still, I think Tre Threat will be a bit too raw to do much this season.
Edit: I left out Jeff Holland somehow in this. How did I do that? When Auburn is in a three linebacker set I think Holland, Williams, and Neal are the three starters. Though Paul James is listed as a linebacker, too. So maybe we're better off at this position than I thought (assuming everyone stays healthy).
6) Antwuan Jackson, DL
Auburn has a fair amount of depth at the defensive tackle position right now with Adams, Russell, Lawrence, and Swain returning in 2016. Jackson could get a step ahead of summer arrival 5* Derrick Brown in the spring period, but I can see others like Jauntavius Johnson stepping in, first. I foresee limited playing time or a redshirt for Jackson, but he will definitely be a big contributor in 2017.
5) Marlon Davidson, DL
Davidson's situation is similar to Jacksons, although Davidson was recruited as a strong side defensive end. He has the frame to move inside and play on the interior, but if he makes that move, he needs more weight room time before he sees the field. If he stays on the edge, then playing time may come earlier. Carl Lawson, Byron Cowart, and Paul James are the likely starting rushing ends. James is possibly a Buck/LB, as is Lawson, though. Auburn needs edge rushers, so there's a chance for Davidson to make a name for himself early.
4) John Franklin III, ATH
You're probably screaming that I'm stupid for putting Franklin here. I put him this far back simply because he has to face a quarterback competition with a few other more experienced players before his final positioning is known. There's every possibility that he wins the starting job and Auburn goes into 2016 running the Nick Marshall offense. Of course, he could also struggle with the reads and game plans and not come out the winner. I don't think Auburn names a starting quarterback prior to the week of the Clemson game (publicly, at least), though, so it's hard to say exactly how much of an impact Franklin will have.
3) Paul James, DE/LB
James is going to see the field early and often. You don't sign JUCO players to sit them on the bench, and as the nation's #1 JUCO DE, James is primed to provide the other bookend to Carl Lawson on the line. Of course, that's assuming he stays at defensive end. It doesn't look like he will. According to his signing day profile and the official site's roster, James is listed as a linebacker.
Defensive End, Linebacker, it doesn't matter. He's going to play. He's too talented a pass rusher to not play, and Auburn needs pass rushers. Expect to see him all over the field.
2) Kyle Davis, WR
Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray are gone, and Auburn's wide receivers haven't exactly been the best at consistently catching the football over the last few years. Whether Auburn goes run-heavy with the zone read or has a more traditional quarterback and balanced attack, there need to be receivers who are legitimate threats to catch the ball and make plays. Kyle Davis, one of the top wide receivers in the 2016 class, provides that.
Davis will see the field very early IF he can block effectively. That's the other caveat for this group. The Tigers need receivers who can stay on the field and effectively run all of the plays in the playbook. I think he'll be one of Auburn's starters at wide receiver, but he's got some stiff competition from his own 2016 classmates he'll have to beat out, too. Getting in early and having a spring to become familiar with everything about Gus Malzahn's offense will help him win out over the other three newcomers for the most early playing time in my opinion.
1) Landon Rice, TE
The biggest glaring hole in the offense in 2015 after the quarterback struggles was the lack of a tight end. When Auburn needed a big body at the end of the line, they turned to Robert Leff. Leff is an offensive lineman, though, not a TE. Auburn hasn't effectively used a TE in a while (CJ Uzomah was almost criminally underused), but now they have one with tons of potential.
Rice is 6'5, 250 lbs. He's a big body with great hands. He can play that edge position on the offensive line and play it as a true TE as a pass catching option. I suspect he's going to get a few wheel routes and QB bootleg throwbacks (aka The Lutzie) thrown his direction in 2016. He'll be competing with Kamryn Pettway and Chandler Cox as a TE/H-back, but he is so versatile that I think he'll be out there a lot.