A-Day comes up in five days at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
We’ll get to see the work being done on the facility for the new press box, and we’ll also get to see the work being done on the team for the 2018 edition of the Auburn Tigers. There are several areas that Gus Malzahn will be able to lean upon as we head into what should be another grinder of a season, but there are also several areas that we’ll need some major closure before we head back into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to play Washington this fall.
The defensive line should be fantastic, along with the linebackers. We’re going to be very tough to run on, and the pass rush should be one of the best in the country. Jarrett Stidham should only get better in his second year in Chip Lindsey’s system. However, Kerryon Johnson’s gone, so we’ll need to find a new workhorse at tailback. We’ve had some receiver injuries in the spring with Eli Stove and Will Hastings both going down. The secondary’s replacing some senior leadership, and the offensive line is nearly completely revamped with turnover in the coaching staff and some new faces along the front.
And that’s where we begin our look at the more pressing areas on the team as we head into the spring game this coming Saturday. Auburn’s best teams over the past couple of decades have been built up front. 2004 had Marcus McNeil leading the way, 2010 had a cadre of seniors and All-Americans, 2013 showed us a top five draft pick, and last season was no different with Braden Smith and Austin Golson paving the road.
Now? Smith, Golson, Darius James, Casey Dunn, and Wilson Bell are all gone, leaving a skeleton crew from last year waiting in the wings. How might it shape up this year?
It seems like we’ve gotten a nice boost this offseason with the improvement of one of last year’s starters at left tackle. Prince Tega Wanogho has been said to have taken the “next step” this offseason, getting back to fundamentals like hand placement (maybe he should’ve taken a martial arts lesson with Jeff Holland). The addition of J.B. Grimes back as offensive line coach is one that should help out with the toughness of the Tiger front five. Herb Hand did a fine job, but our lines over the past couple of seasons allowed a ton of sacks and generally lacked the grit that only a guy coaching through cancer can bring to the table. Behind Prince Tega, it looks like Bailey Sharp might be the guy after seeing some time in three games last season. Sharp’s got good size, but the mobility to guard the blind side may leave him as a strict backup option.
In the middle of the line, Auburn’s got a few more options. At left tackle, you want to give a guy with more experience the nod, but in the middle, there are some brawlers that have all played and should all be able to provide good beef for the interior running game. Most notably, two guys that saw good time last season (Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton) are taking the lead for the guard spots, and it’s on the left side that Harrell will likely be called upon. He came in during the LSU game after injuries deemed it necessary, and started the final five games of the year. Behind him, Brodarious Hamm is back in the mix after missing time undergoing cancer treatments, and Tyler Carr also comes in as a guy that’s seen action in 24 games over the past two seasons.
Here’s where Auburn encountered some interesting waters last year, with the addition and subsequent injury of Casey Dunn at the center spot helping and hurting the team. Through the first portion of spring practice, the Tigers have dealt with similar issues after Nick Brahms broke his leg last week and Tucker Brown spent time in one of the infamous non-contact jerseys. At the moment, Kaleb Kim is the only healthy center that Auburn’s got, and so the choices are slim for J.B. Grimes and Chip Lindsey as they try to nail down a cohesive signal-caller on the line. In all areas, but especially here, we won’t know who’s going to start until things get settled in fall camp.
As we move along to the next side of the line, the right guard spot will hopefully go to Mike Horton, who started seven games on the left side, but played in twelve total contests in 2017. Horton’s another guy with good size and upperclassmen experience who could give Auburn a bit of stability on the right side of the line. After Horton, former defensive lineman Tashawn Manning is taking snaps with the second team after making the move from across the line earlier this spring.
Here’s where we may finally get to see the highly-regarded Calvin Ashley start to shine, as he’s been the favorite to take the right tackle spot as spring practice approached, but he’s got competition. Austin Troxell has also gotten some nice reviews as a newcomer through the first portion of spring camp. Ashley’s got the definite size advantage (350 lbs vs 292 lbs), but Troxell has impressed coaches with his length and his ability to learn quickly in his first real action. This is one of the positions on the line where you’d feel good about either outcome, and with co-starters so to speak, it would be a great spot for depth.
There’s talent for sure, but it’ll need to gel much quicker than we’ve seen over the past couple of seasons. Auburn has hit that midseason stride after taking lumps against Clemson and even against teams like Mercer this past year. I think we’d all feel pretty good about a starting five of Wanogho - Harell - Kim/Brahms - Horton - Ashley/Troxell, but we’re starting the season against a team that finished 2017 in the top five in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, yards per carry, and yards per play. Washington’s not going to come into the year starting slowly, and Auburn’s usual offensive lethargy early in the year needs to be eliminated. I’m hopeful that without turnover at the quarterback spot, we’ll be able to get the ball rolling more quickly, but that will largely depend on the protection up front.
Coming tomorrow: Who will the Tigers turn to as they look to replace Kerryon Johnson’s production? A look at the Auburn tailbacks.