Not every freshman hits campus ready to contribute immediately. Some, like Bo Nix and Owen Pappoe, can find a way onto the field as a true freshman and play crucial snaps. Others, due to injury or development, aren’t ready and need a year on campus before being ready to break out. That’s where a redshirt season can be so crucial to a player’s development. Even better, with the current rules around redshirts, players can actually see some live snaps while still preserving a year of eligibility.
Often the break out performers for a new season come from the redshirt freshman ranks. JaTarvious Whitlow, Dontavius Russell and Javaris Davis are recent examples of such players. So in 2020, who might emerge as an important contributor to the Tigers’ roster? Here’s a list of 5 names I am keeping an eye on.
RB Mark Antony-Richards
Richards was Auburn’s 4th highest ranked signee of the 2019 class but a brutal leg injury in fall camp eliminated any possibility the former blue chip would see the field. He should be 100% once again heading into fall camp (whenever that actually happens) and has a clear path to the field. The Tigers lost their leading rusher of the past 2 seasons in Boobee Whitlow, leaving a wide open race for the starting spot at RB in 2020. Richards should be in the thick of that race.
As the nation’s #90 player coming out of high school, Richards was recruited to play all over the field by some of the top programs in the country. Some teams liked him on defense, while others thought he could play slot WR. The Auburn staff saw a future Kerryon Johnson when watching his tape and were able to sign him using that pitch. Given Chad Morris’s penchant for using his running backs in the passing game as well, Richards has the skillset to be the top back next season. He would add an explosive element to Auburn’s rushing attack that has been sorely missed in recent seasons.
DE Colby Wooden
Despite being lower ranked than his fellow DL signees, I thought Wooden was the most likely member of Auburn’s 2019 DL class to make an immediate impact last season. Unfortunately, his season ended before it could even get going when he came down with mono last summer. He returned to full health by the end of the year and saw some action late but didn’t get a chance to see many snaps in 2019.
But with a full offseason now under his belt, Wooden is reportedly over 270 lbs and could end up playing either Buck or defensive end for the Tigers next season. Marlon Davidson offered some high praise for the former Archer standout in December:
“He is extremely fast,” Davidson said. “He’d probably run a 4.4-(second) 40-(yard dash). Really does. And he’s just different. He’s not the Big Kat (Bryant), he’s not the T.D. (Moultry), he’s like a Carl (Lawson). Whenever he gets his stuff together, like his technique and everything, he’s going to be really good.”
If Wooden can provide anything close to what Carl Lawson did then I think Coach G will be very pleased with his DL unit in 2020. I don’t expect Wooden to be a starter this year but I do think he will be one of the first lineman off the bench and fully expect him to carve out an important role in this Auburn defense.
OG Keiondre Jones
As has been commiserated on this site plenty of times before, Auburn’s offensive line recruiting has not been great in recent cycles. Since that 2017 class when the Tigers signed three top 200 OL, Auburn has only signed one OL rated a 4* or higher. That man? Mr. Keiondre Jones.
Jones turned heads early in fall camp but a concussion sidelined him and eliminated any chance of the freshman from cracking the 2 deep. But he got some looks in bowl practice and reportedly made a fearsome duo with Brodarious Hamm on the right side of Auburn’s offensive line. With both guard spots up for grabs heading into camp, I fully expect Jones to be in the thick of the race and it wouldn’t shock me if he earned a starting job.
DB Zion Puckett
My favorite member of the 2019 class might have been Zion Puckett. You turned on his tape and saw a kid who made big plays on both sides of the ball. The Tigers had to fight off the likes of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State to land the former 4* athlete’s pledge. But with so much returning talent last season in the back of Auburn’s defense, Puckett was able to redshirt and spend time learning the system. Most of his snaps came from the nickel position but he’s got the versatility that he could slide outside to cornerback or move to safety.
WR Ja’Varrius Johnson
The Tigers offense could use some more explosive weaponry in 2020 after finishing 10th in the conference in yards per play last season. You would be hard pressed to find a more explosive athlete on the roster right now than Ja’Varrius Johnson.
The former 4* prospect out of Trussville, AL is a diminutive 5’9” 163 lbs with great hands and explosive burst that made him a nightmare for defenses in high school. As a senior, he caught 87 passes for 1,683 yards and 18 touchdowns playing against the best competition the state of Alabama has to offer. Look for Johnson to get work behind Anthony Schwartz at the 2 spot and in Will Hastings old role in the slot when Auburn goes 4 wide. If Chad Morris truly does open up Auburn’s offense, don’t be surprised if you start hearing Johnson’s name called often this fall.