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2018 Spring Position Battles

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Here’s a look at some of the more interesting position battles this spring.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, spring practice starts tomorrow for the Auburn Tigers. The spring is a great chance for bench players to emerge as starters and for contributors to develop into stars. It’s also where many position battles will either be decided or whittled down to a select few. While the Tigers return a ton of production across the board, there are a few positions that will be searching for new starters.

Safety/Nickel

NCAA Football: Auburn at Missouri
Jordyn Peters was a breakout performer for Auburn’s secondary in 2017
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Contenders

  • #20 Jeremiah Dinson (RS Junior)
  • #24 Daniel Thomas (Junior)
  • #18 Jayvaughn Myers (RS Sophomore)
  • #15 Jordyn Peters (Sophomore)
  • #16 Malcolm Askew (RS Freshman)
  • #9 Jamien Sherwood (Freshman)
  • #21 Smoke Monday (Freshman)

It wasn’t that long ago Auburn’s secondary was getting shredded weekly. You could almost bank on one major bust leading to a long touchdown. But that has not been the case in the past two seasons thanks in large part to Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts. However, those two are off to the NFL along with backup safety Nick Ruffin. Throw in the 2017 spring dismissals/transfers of Markell Boston and Marlon Character and you have a position group with some serious turnover leading to some big questions marks. Good thing Auburn might have some answers.

Kevin Steele said time and time again leading up to the 2017 season he was not worried about Auburn’s secondary depth. Not shockingly, he turned out to be correct, in large part because of Auburn’s defensive backs ability to play multiple positions. Guys like Javaris Davis, Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas and Jordyn Peters lined up everywhere in Auburn’s secondary. So while the Tigers lose two key starters they aren’t hurting for guys who have played in big moments in those spots. The question will be who plays where in 2018.

But those returning contributors will also face some stiff competition from early enrollees Jamien Sherwood and Quindarious “Smoke” Monday. The Tigers needed to hit a home run at safety in the 2018 signing class and did just that with this pair. The fact they are both early enrollees makes them twice as valuable as they have a chance to learn the system this spring and add more competition to a position needing someone to step up and be a leader. While there may be some growing pains in transitioning to SEC football, there is no denying the raw talent and it would not be a shock to see both play a lot of snaps for the Tigers in 2018.

Post Spring Prediction

  • Nickel - Peters | Askew
  • Free Safety - Monday | Myers
  • Strong Safety - Dinson | Thomas | Sherwood

For the record, I expect Peters, Dinson, Thomas, Monday and Sherwood to rotate through these three positions and all see meaningful snaps in 2018. This is just how I see the depth chart looking coming out of spring. I am all aboard the Smoke hype train as I believe he was a top 100 prospect in the 2018 signing class. Dinson could honestly start at all three spots but I think he would excel best taking over Stephen Roberts’s old role. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordyn Peters get some reps at cornerback or end up starting at free safety but given his play late in the season at the nickel spot, it’s hard to see him moving from there.

Keep an eye on Malcolm Askew this spring. He was a highly rated and recruited prospect in the 2017 signing class. However, he spent most of his high school career playing quarterback so there was a steep learning curve to transitioning to full time defensive back in the SEC. I would not be surprised to see him earn meaningful playing time in 2018.

Offensive Line

NCAA Football: Auburn at Clemson
Auburn will need Prince Tega Wanogho to take the next step in 2018.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Contenders

  • #64 Mike Horton (RS Junior)
  • #76 Prince Tega Wanogho (RS Junior)
  • #77 Marquel Harrell (RS Junior)
  • #54 Kaleb Kim (RS Junior)
  • #66 Bailey Sharp (RS Junior)
  • #67 Tyler Carr (RS Junior)
  • #72 Prince Michael Sammons (RS Sophomore)
  • #70 Calvin Ashley (RS Freshman)
  • #52 Nick Brahms (RS Freshman)
  • #59 Brodarious Hamm (RS Freshman)
  • #68 Austin Troxell (RS Freshman)

Auburn loses five seniors from last year’s offensive line, four of them starters. On paper, that looks very foreboding heading into the 2018 campaign. But it’s also a bit misleading. The Tigers really had seven starters in 2017. Prince Tega Wanogho, Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell all played a lot of important snaps last season and will be expected to be the anchors of this year’s offensive line. The bigger question is who is ready to join them?

While Horton, Wanogho and Harrell have found their way to the field, the rest of that massive 2015 signing class is still hunting for playing time. It’s now or never time for Tyler Carr, Bailey Sharp and Kaleb Kim. Kim especially as he’s long been the center in waiting behind Austin Golson. But this group will face some stiff competition from a hungry freshman group.

Herb Hand’s greatest gift to Auburn might end up being that 2017 signing class. Calvin Ashley, Nick Brahms and Austin Troxell were all considered top 200 prospects that recruiting cycle. Injuries kept this group from seeing the field as true freshman. Ashley dealt with nagging issues all fall camp, Brahms was recovering from a serious leg injury and Troxell was nursing a twice torn ACL. Ashley and Brahms at least appear healthy and ready to compete this spring. Brahms won the scout team MVP and will push Kim for the starting role while the former 5* Ashley is considered the man to beat at right tackle. If Troxell is ready to go he could be a darkhorse in this group.

The two wildcards, in my opinion, are Prince Michael Sammons and Brodarious Hamm. Sammons, like Wanogho, is a Nigerian native who is still learning the offensive tackle position. He’s had some injury concerns as well that have slowed his development but this spring could be a big chance for him to find his way onto the field. Hamm is a cancer survivor who generated a lot of buzz during bowl practice. I loved his tape coming out of high school and fully expect him to be in the mix at either right guard or right tackle this spring.

Post Spring Prediction

  • Left Tackle - Wanogho | Sammons
  • Left Guard - Harrell | Carr
  • Center - Horton | Kim | Brahms
  • Right Guard - Hamm | Horton
  • Right Tackle - Ashley | Sharp | Troxell

There are a lot of different ways this could shake out. I think both Kim and Brahms could easily start at center but I am buying Hamm stock right now. Supposedly during bowl practice the Tigers slid Horton to center so they could get Hamm on the field at right guard where he impressed. Hamm could also play right tackle though I think his skillset is best suited for the interior. Horton’s ability to play any of the five positions will allow coaches to ensure the best five are on the field. This should be a fun group to watch this spring.

Remember, Auburn is still in pursuit of Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson. If the Tigers were to land the talented offensive tackle that would greatly change things up front.

Running Back

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Auburn
Kam Martin is now the veteran in the running back room.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Contenders

  • #9 Kam Martin (Junior)
  • #32 Malik Miller (RS Sophomore)
  • #5 Devan Barrett (Sophomore)
  • #28 JaTarvious Whitlow (RS Freshman)
  • #20 Asa Martin (Freshman)

If there is one position I don’t really worry about under Gus Malzahn, it’s running back. Auburn’s last two 1,000 yard rushers (Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway) are off to the NFL but AU has been here before. After the 2015 season, the Tigers saw a mass exodus at the running back spot with Peyton Barber surprisingly going pro, Roc Thomas transferring to Jacksonville State and Jovon Robinson being dismissed. That just cleared the way for Bubba’s breakout 2016 season. I will admit though that replacing what KJ meant to this offense will be a big task in 2018 but the Tigers have some really good options.

It will be Kam Martin’s job to take to start the spring. The Texas native brings elite speed to the backfield but the concern is whether or not he can carry the load against SEC competition. He will also have to improve as a pass blocker if he wants to consistently see the field. Malik Miller is in the opposite boat as he brings all sorts of power but there are concerns about his quickness and vision. These two have been in the system the longest so experience will be on their side.

But athletic ability will be on the side of the other three competitors. Devan Barrett, JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin are all very talented but different athletes. Barrett is a slasher in the interior with good quickness that makes him hard to handle in the open field. Whitlow is a fascinating combination of size and speed. He was Mr Do It All in high school and impressed during bowl practice. Martin, 2017 Alabama Mr. Football, is the type of back Lindsey loves in his system. A complete player who can hurt you out of the backfield as a receiver but is also able to pound it between the tackles. I fully expect him to eventually be Auburn’s bellcow, just not sure if it’s this year.

Post Spring Prediction

  • Running Back - Barrett | K. Martin / Whitlow | A. Martin / Miller

This was the hardest position to make a prediction. You could make a very valid case for any of these guys and I wouldn’t fight you. But I have been on the Devan Barrett hype train since I first stumbled onto his tape back in 2015. If he can bulk up some I think he’s got the running style to thrive in Auburn’s system. But I honestly would not be shocked to see any of these guys emerge as the feature back. The one thing I do feel confident in saying is that one of these guys will rush for 1,000 yards.

Buck

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn
Auburn has an emerging superstar in Nick Coe.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Contenders

  • #10 Paul James III (Senior)
  • #91 Nick Coe (RS Sophomore)
  • #1 Big Kat Bryant (Sophomore)
  • #55 T.D. Moultry (Sophomore)

Pass rush was the #1 concern for this Auburn defense heading into the 2017 season. I mean how do you replace the production of Carl Lawson? Pretty easily actually, you insert Jeff Holland. Sensei Mud had an arguably better season last year than Lawson in 2016. In fact, Auburn’s defensive line somehow got better in 2017 after losing four seniors. This year, the Tigers just have to replace Holland. That’s still a big piece but there are four very talented options available to the Tigers.

You might be confused why I have Nick Coe listed at the Buck but when Auburn went into their “Rabbit” pass rush package last year, it was Coe that was opposite to Holland. That’s exactly the same role Holland filled in 2016, granted he was the #2 at Buck while Coe was the #2 at SDE. Still, Coe is talented enough he could play anywhere on the defensive line. If Auburn wants to get the best four on the field then it might mean playing Coe at the Buck.

But even if Coe does move over, it would be far from a sure thing he won the job. I have said multiple times on this site, I thought T.D. Moultry was a top 20 player in the 2017 signing class. By the end of the season the young man had moved all the way up to #2 on the depth chart behind Holland and played some important snaps late in the season. He’s probably the favorite heading into the spring. Don’t count out Big Kat though. The star pass rusher played mostly at strongside defensive end last year due to depth concerns. He could still see time there in 2018 but I expect Auburn to give him a shot at the Buck again this spring. No matter what happens, it’s clear Moulty and Bryant are the future of Auburn’s pass rush.

The wildcard in this bunch is former JUCO star Paul James. James was the A-Day standout last year but that did not translate to on field production in 2017. Both Moultry and Coe passed him on the depth chart last season and James didn’t really see many meaningful snaps late in the year. But this is his last chance to see the field and you have to think the motivation is there for the 6’3” 260 lb senior. We saw some flashes at A-Day of what this kid can do, so a strong spring is not out of the question. Bottom line, Auburn has four really good options at this position in 2018.

Post Spring Prediction

  • Buck - Coe | Moultry / Bryant | James

I am subscribing to the theory that Auburn is going to find ways to get their four best defensive lineman on the field as often as possible. I think those four will be Derrick Brown, Dontavius Russell, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe. Of that group, you want Coe at the Buck. But I also fully expect Moultry and Bryant to see a lot of playing time in 2018 as well. What I am really interested in seeing is what Auburn’s pass rushing “Rabbit” package looks like this season. I like the idea of Coe and Davidson on the interior with Moultry and Bryant at end. This defensive line is gonna be really good again.

Backup Quarterback

NCAA Football: Auburn at Missouri
With Jarrett Stidham sitting out most of spring practice, Malik Willis will have a chance to prove he’s the future of Auburn’s offense.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Contender

  • #14 Malik Willis (Sophomore)
  • #1 Joey Gatewood (Freshman)

No position is more beloved than the backup quarterback. Always the future, always the answer to offensive woes. Well it should delight fans then that the backup quarterback battle will be center stage in this year’s spring practice as Jarrett Stidham will be out for most of the spring recovering from shoulder surgery. So in reality, the 2019 starting QB race starts this week.

Auburn offered Willis about as late as you can possibly offer an early enrollee and got him to flip from Virginia Tech. Boy aren’t they glad they did. The Tigers entered the spring with six quarterbacks on roster last spring only to see three transfer (Tyler Queen, Woody Barrett, John Franklin) and their returning starter kicked off the team just a quarter of the way into the season. Willis took full advantage of the opportunity and impressed in his limited garbage time snaps. It’s hard to not think Nick Marshall when watching Willis dart around in that #14 uniform but I do think they are a bit different. Marshall was probably a step quicker but Willis is probably a bit better as a passer. He will start the spring running with the 1s.

But Willis’s backup spot is far from safe. Auburn’s top rated signee in the 2018 class, Joey Gatewood, brings an incredible skillset to the table. At 6’5” 235 lbs, Gatewood adds the QB power run game back to the playbook but also has the speed to run for a 50+ yard touchdown. The big question for him is his consistency as a passer. He took huge strides in that aspect in 2017 and he will get a lot of reps this spring. It is going to be a lot of fun to watch his development over the next few seasons.

Post Spring Prediction

  • Backup Quarterback - Willis | Gatewood

While I love Gatewood and believe that of all of Auburn’s quarterbacks on roster, he has the highest ceiling, I think he’s a few years away from being SEC ready. Willis, on the other hand, is an already talented passer and has a year of experience on his side. Chances are very good Auburn will be searching for a new starting quarterback in 2019 so this spring is a great chance for both of these guys to show the coaching staff they will be the man ready for the job.

War Eagle!