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Position Group Previews: Offensive Line

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Today, we preview Auburn’s biggest question mark heading into the 2018 season.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve talked quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers but now it’s time to talk about the big uglies up front. While it’s hard not to be excited about all the weapons at Auburn’s disposal this season, none of that will matter if the Tigers can’t block anybody. Not blocking anybody is something that happened WAY too often the past two seasons and is a big reason why JB Grimes has returned to the Plains.

Left Tackle

Here’s a hot take. JB Grimes is about to produce his second 1st round NFL Draft pick.

Prince Tega Wanogho is as talented an athlete as you will find on any offensive line this fall. His big problem is he really doesn’t know how to play the position just yet. JB has been working all offseason to change that

“I saw him make great strides during the course of the spring,” Grimes said. “The biggest thing, first of all he’s a gift guy. He’s got a lot of ability. I mean, he’s got that.”

Yet Wanogho struggled early in the season with pass protection. The finer details of offensive line play — such as footwork and hand placement — are a work in progress.

Fortunately for Wanogho, Grimes specializes in the little things.

“The biggest thing with him is he’s got to learn how to use his hands better,” Grimes said. “Then he’s got to learn to get his feet, you know as your toe goes, so goes your shoulders. As your toe turns, your shoulder and your hips are going to turn. We’ve got to get them to where they’re more square in everything that we do. … Then in the running game we’ve got to do a better job of getting our hands inside.”

At 6’7” 307 lbs, the Nigerian native possesses unreal athletic ability but struggled with the basic fundamentals of pass and run blocking last season. That was really shown in Auburn’s week two loss to Clemson when he was abused by Clelin Ferrell. Repeatedly, he was either too slow off the snap, dropping his hands to expose his chest or not keeping his hips square down field which opened an inside lane to the quarterback. All of these are issues that Grimes has been working hard to fix during the spring and fall camp.

But by the end of the season, I thought he was performing at a higher level than Darius James. Against both Texas A&M and Georgia (the first game), he replaced the senior at left tackle and got the job done. In 2018, Auburn needs him to take that next step and become a more consistent pass protector on Stidham’s blind side. There’s no denying he’s got the tools, it’s now about him putting those tools to good use every single snap.

Behind him sits veteran Bailey Sharp. I think more than likely he’s Auburn’s 4th option at tackle. JB Grimes compared Sharp to former starting offensive tackle Robert Leff this past spring. It will be interesting to see if pushes for playing time later this season as maybe Auburn’s 6th offensive lineman. More than likely, he will only see time on special teams and in blowouts.

Buried deep on the depth chart is another Nigerian born athlete in Prince Michael Sammons. He was a late coup for former Auburn offensive line coach Herb Hand in the 2016 signing class but has yet to make much of an impact. Nagging foot injuries appear to have slowed his development. Considering there’s been basically nothing reported on the young man all offseason, I suspect we see little of him this fall.

Left Guard

I was a big Marquel Harrell fan when he signed with the Tigers back in 2015. The Georgia native just seemed to play with that edge but it was clear he would need some time to develop. That time has passed and now he’s become one of the stalwarts of Auburn’s offensive line.

Harrell did not enter the 2017 season as a starter. However, after injuries sidelined Mike Horton, he got his opportunity and took full advantage. He started the last five games of the season and is expected to pair with Wanogho on the left side giving Auburn a powerful duo.

Behind Harrell appear to be the future of Auburn’s interior offensive line. It’s somewhat ironic that the two Auburn players on the roster to have beaten cancer are now battling each other for playing time at guard. Brodarious Hamm and Tashawn Manning are two guys that are easy to cheer for. Hamm signed with Auburn as a high end 3* offensive tackle while Manning was a low ranked defensive tackle. Both have flashed some big time potential in the spring and this fall. I suspect one, if not both are starting for the Tigers in the near future.

Center

Probably the biggest question mark for this Auburn offensive line entering fall camp was what would happen at center. Auburn’s top two options in Kaleb Kim and Nick Brahms both got injured in the spring, prolonging the position battle. That forced Auburn to experiment with Mike Horton at the center position in an effort to get the best five on the field.

However, after Auburn’s first scrimmage of the fall, Kaleb Kim apparently proved he was the man for the job. The redshirt junior has waited his turn and has appeared to take full advantage of the opportunity. A former Army All-American, Kim was a highly regarded prospect coming out of Hoschton, GA in 2015. It’s taken time for him to find his way onto the field but chances are pretty good when Auburn faces off against Washington in 9 days, Kim will be snapping the ball to Stidham.

Unfortunately, Nick Brahms’s injury forced him out of action for most of fall camp. He hasn’t really had an opportunity to compete for the position as he has been recovering from another serious leg injury. However, he’s gotten some limited work in recent practices and Chip Lindsey has not ruled out the chance that Brahms could end up competing for the starting spot as the season goes on. A little competition sure wouldn’t hurt either one of these players.

With the injuries this past spring, walk on Tucker Brown got a chance to work with the ones. Brown has actually seen more game action than either Kim or Brahms working as a hybrid TE/OT in Auburn’s unbalanced sets last season. It sounds like that might continue this fall. Always cool when a walk on finds a way onto the field.

Auburn’s most recent center signee, Jalil Irvin, will more than likely redshirt this fall. However, with the new rules he should have a chance to see action in four games. I’m really excited about his potential and interested to see his development in the coming years.

Right Guard

Theres’ been no debate about whether or not Mike Horton would start for the Tigers. The debate has been where will he start. Early this fall, I thought chances were pretty good it would be at center but after Kaleb Kim stepped up and won the job, the coaching staff were able transition him back to his more natural position at guard. Horton started the 2017 season as Auburn’s starting left guard but injuries limited his action later in the year. He’s a guy I expect to have a big season in in 2018.

One of the biggest disappointments both in the spring and fall has been Calvin Ashley. The former 5* was given every opportunity to win the starting right tackle job in the spring but was beat out by Austin Troxell. The coaching staff then moved him inside when Horton began working at center. But an injury in the first scrimmage paired with the emergence of Kaleb Kim has relegated him to the 2nd team once again.

However, it’s not time to give up on Calvin Ashley just yet. Only a redshirt freshmen, Ashley is still working on transforming his body to play at the SEC level and is still developing the technical aspects of his game. In high school, Ashley was so much bigger and stronger than the majority of his competition that he didn’t need to worry too much about hand placement or where his hips were pointing. I still think he has a bright future ahead of him. He and Auburn just have to be patient and consistent.

Finally, don’t sleep on my man Kameron Stutts. I sung his praises all last recruiting cycle so I was happy to hear JB Grimes give him some love last week. Stutts will undoubtedly redshirt this fall which should allow him to drop some bad weight, build up more lower body strength and work on playing with better pad level. But his tape reminds me a lot of Marquel Harrell’s in where you can see he’s a dude that plays with that edge you can’t really teach. I fully expect him to find his way into a starting role at some point in his Auburn career.

Right Tackle

One of the fiercest competitions this fall was at the right tackle position. After beating out fellow signee Calvin Ashley in the spring. Austin Troxell had to defend his starting spot again this fall. It appears he did not win this competition but I think that says more about his competitor’s ability than his own.

Jack Driscoll might end up being Auburn’s most important pickup this offseason. After striking out at the offensive tackle spot in the 2018 class and missing on graduate transfer Calvin Anderson, the Tigers were able to steal Driscoll away late from some PAC-12 competition. A graduate of UMASS, Driscoll actually is Auburn’s most experienced lineman having started 20+ games in his career already. Grimes provided arguably the soundbite of the day last week when he raved about the Connecticut native:

“My daddy said a long time ago, he said, ‘A blind hog will find an acorn every once in a while,’” Grimes said. “OK, well, I think we found us an acorn in that one in getting a grad transfer from UMass who probably had no stars coming out of high school. He was a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end that now, in my opinion, watching him on tape, is an SEC football player.

I think that’s about as high a praise as a man like JB can give someone.

As for Austin Troxell, his time is coming. According to Grimes, the competition basically came down to the fact that Driscoll is stronger right now than the redshirt freshman. I suspect that the former 4* will work to change that with Ryan Rusell this fall. If either Wanogho or Driscoll go down with an injury, it appears Troxell will be the first man into the game.

I thought he would be a good football player for the Tigers but I did not expect it to happen this quickly considering the fact he suffered back to back ACL injuries his last two years of high school. Give him credit for putting in the work to not only recover but to make himself a key piece of this offensive line. It’s clear he’s going to be an important piece of the puzzle for the Tigers in the future.

War Eagle!