Somehow, someway, fall camp is here.
No, starting practice does not guarantee there will be football this fall but it does at least keep the dream alive. After what has been one of the strangest off-seasons of all time, it’s nice to have a little taste of normalcy. The season still hangs in the balance but for now we can at least imagine what this Auburn team could like look this season.
Usually with these depth chart projections, I try to give a snapshot of where I think things might stand right now. Without spring practice though it seems kind of silly to use that criteria. Instead, I am going to give my best shot at predicting the depth chart we will see come game 1. Also, unlike the cowardly coaching staffs around the country, I will not resort to the easy out of using `OR`s to keep everyone on the roster happy. Call your shot or shut off your laptop. That’s what my dad would always say.
- #10 Bo Nix | 6’2” | 213 lbs | Sophomore
- #14 Grant Loy | 6’5” | 230 lbs | Senior
- #24 Cord Sandberg | 6’3” | 222 lbs | Sophomore
- #15 Chayil Garnett | 6’1” | 216 lbs | Freshman
One of the biggest questions facing this Auburn football team in 2020 is whether or not Bo Nix has taken the next step. As a true freshman, Nix was thrown into the fire against one of the toughest schedules in America. He performed admirably but far from spectacularly. There were incredible moments where you could see the All-American potential and frustrating lows that had fans wondering if he was the right quarterback for the job.
He completed less than 50% of his passes in 3 of Auburn’s biggest games last fall. That can’t happen this season. He averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, one of the worst for quarterbacks under Gus Malzahn since Jeremy Johnson. That must improve this fall. He had only 3 games where he threw multiple TDs. He needs to double that number in 2020.
But there is also plenty of positives to build on. When Auburn needed him most, he often rose to the occasion. Nix seemed at his best when the Tigers upped the pace of play and took his handcuffs off. Even in losses against LSU and UGA, Auburn stormed back in large part due to Nix carving apart elite secondaries. It’s up to Chad Morris to find a way to harness all of Nix’s raw talent and elevate his play from “good for a true freshman” to “one of the best in the SEC”.
Running Back (4)
- #21 Mark Antony-Richards | 6’1” | 208 lbs | rFreshman
- #4 Tank Bigsby | 6’0” | 204 lbs | Freshman
- #3 D.J. Williams | 5’10” | 216 lbs | Sophomore
- #8 Shaun Shivers | 5’7” | 179 lbs | Junior
- #22 Harold Joiner | 6’4” | 215 lbs | rSophomore
I am still clinging on to my early summer prediction of Mark-Antony Richards being Auburn’s RB1 in 2020 but my confidence has faded dramatically. Why? Well it has nothing to do with Richards who I still believe is immensely talented. It has more to do with Tank Bigsby. It’s hard to ignore the buzz building around the true freshman who has apparently impressed coaches and teammates alike with his attitude and work ethic since arriving on the Plains. I won’t be upset in the least if my Richards prediction is wrong because it likely means Bigsby has lived up to the hype.
However, entering fall camp, D.J. Williams is absolutely the man to beat. Having him at #3 doesn’t mean I think he’s bad. It means I think that highly of the ability of the two freshman listed ahead of him but it wouldn’t be a stunner if the rising sophomore held onto the top spot. He showed flashes in 2019 of his big play ability but he also failed to snatch the #1 spot from Boobee Whitlow when given the chance. I will add that if DJ Williams is Auburn’s 3rd best running back this fall that’s a testament to how quickly Carnell Williams has elevated the talent in that room.
Shaun Shivers and Harold Joiner are the veterans of the group and the biggest wildcards. Shivers will always be an Iron Bowl legend but I still don’t see him as an every down back. I am still not sure if Harold Joiner even is a running back. The Tigers seemed more apt to use him as a pass catcher than a ball carrier in 2019. We will see if that changes this fall. I’m ok with him making me look really dumb though with a breakout season.
Tight End (3)
- #87 Brandon Frazier | 6’7” | 270 lbs | Freshman
- #47 John Samuel Shenker | 6’3” | 241 lbs | Junior
- #86 Luke Deal | 6’6” | 247 lbs | rFreshman
- #85 Tyler Fromm | 6’5” | 237 lbs | rFreshman
- #89 JJ Pegues | 6’2” | 300 lbs | Freshman
That’s right, calling my shot here folks. The tight end position is about to become MUCH more involved in Auburn’s passing attack and I think the man leading the charge will be a true freshman. Brandon Frazier was Chad Morris’s #1 TE target last cycle. He landed his pledge while head coach at Arkansas and then landed him again when named offensive coordinator at Auburn. You don’t work that hard for a kid to sit him on the bench. He’s a big man at 6’7” 270 lbs but is a legit vertical threat and has the ability to make plays after the catch. He might not start the season as the #1 guy but I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s a starter by season end.
Pegues is the biggest wildcard of the bunch. 6’2” 300 lbs is not something you usually see at tight end but you also rarely see 6’2” 300 lb kids with Pegues’s athletic ability. He more fits the mold of Malzahn’s preferred athlete at the 3-back and Gus seemed almost giddy about this kid on signing day. I expect the Tigers to draw up some specific packages to get him involved but not sure he sees regular time at tight end out the gate.
Wide Receiver (9/Split End)
- #18 Seth Williams | 6’3” | 211 lbs | Junior
- #9 Ze’Vian Capers | 6’4” | 194 lbs | Freshman
- #81 J.J. Evans | 6’3” | 210 lbs | Freshman
The 9 spot has been a gateway to the NFL under Chad Morris. DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, Mike Williams and Courtland Sutton all starred at this position for Morris. All four were NFL draft picks with Hopkins and Williams both going in the 1st. Might Seth be next?
The Tuscaloosa native emerged as Auburn’s most potent offensive weapon in 2019. Despite missing some time with a shoulder injury the rising junior caught 59 passes for 830 yards and 8 touchdowns. Williams excelled at winning 1 on 1 matchups and should get even more opportunities to eat under Chad Morris. What might matter most is whether or not Auburn can establish a #2 threat to take some of the pressure off Williams and give him more space to work in 2020.
With Zach Farrar transferring out and Matthew Hill moving to defense, I expect a pair of true freshman to see most of the work behind Williams at the 9. Capers has drawn some early comparisons to Williams and seems the likeliest of the freshman class to become the next dominant outside WR for the Tigers.
Evans was a big play receiver in high school and would give the Tigers some more speed at this spot ala Darius Slayton/Sammie Coates. He’s a big kid too at 6’3” 210 lbs so he’s got the frame to beat press coverage on the outside. I am excited about this freshman crop of wideouts and interested to see who can start to emerge as the next man up behind Seth.
Wide Receiver (5/Big Slot)
- #11 Shedrick Jackson | 6’0” | 201 lbs | Junior
- #17 Elijah Canion | 6’4” | 213lbs | Freshman
With Sal Cannella departure and Chad Morris’s arrival, I expect to see some changes at this WR spot moving forward. Under Malzahn, the 5 was initially the tight end before merging into some sort of tight end/wide receiver hybrid featuring bigger framed athletes who excelled as blockers. That could still be the case under Morris but he’s also used this position as the grooming ground for the next 9 man so don’t be surprised if someone like Ze’Vian Capers gets some work here this fall.
However, it’s pretty obvious Shedrick Jackson will be the man heading into the season. I am still high on Jackson’s potential and am hopeful the Tigers find more ways to use this kid to stretch defenses vertically. He excelled in high school at taking the top off of defenses. He’s shown he will put in the work as a blocker now it’s time to reward him with some deep balls.
Keep an eye on Canion. He was the lowest rated wideout of the bunch but might be the freakiest athlete. I also expect Auburn to cross train wide receivers more under Morris so don’t be surprised if you see Jackson and Canion get some action at the 9 as well.
Wide Receiver (3/Slot)
- #12 Eli Stove | 6’0” | 191 lbs | Senior
- #6 Ja’Varrius Johnson | 5’9” | 160 lbs | rFreshman
- #23 Caylin Newton | 5’11” | 201 lbs | Junior
Ok so I am cheating a bit on this one. By adding a fourth WR on the depth chart, I can avoid the traffic jam at the 2 and list both Stove and Schwartz as starters.
Eli Stove had his most productive season last fall and will look to build on it with a strong senior campaign. To do that, Chad Morris needs to find a way to get him, Williams and Schwartz all on the field at the same time more often. Last season, Auburn’s three best WRs did not play double digit snaps together. That needs to change in 2020.
Johnson is a breakout player to watch. He’s got a similar skillset to Ryan Davis with possibly more explosiveness. 160 is pretty damn light though for SEC football but it doesn’t matter if no one can get their hands on you.
You know Newton is going to attempt at least one pass on some sort of trick play this fall. I am interested to see if he can find a way onto the field. My guess is his snaps will be limited this season but he will have a chance to see more regular playing time in 2021.
Wide Receiver (2/Flanker)
- #1 Anthony Schwartz | 6’0” | 179 lbs | Junior
- #5 Kobe Hudson | 6’1” | 196 lbs | Freshman
- Malcolm Johnson Jr | 6’1” | 185 lbs | Freshman
The player that was likely the most excited to see Chad Morris arrive on the Plains was probably Anthony Schwartz. Injuries have slowed things but it’s also felt like Malzahn isn’t quite sure how to harness all of Schwartz’s speed. I expect Morris to use him like he did Sammie Watkins back in 2011. Lots of designed concepts to get the ball in his hands in a variety of ways from speed sweeps to deep shots to quick hitting concepts over the middle. For Auburn’s offense to reach its full potential the Tigers must find a way to truly establish Schwartz as one of the scariest offensive weapons in the SEC.
Behind him are two freshman. I have high hopes for Kobe Hudson but I suspect he’s a year away from being heavily involved in the offense. Malcolm Johnson Jr is supposed to be playing his senior year of high school this fall instead he will be playing an SEC only schedule. That’s a large jump for any kid.
- #68 Austin Troxell | 6’6” | 312 lbs | Junior
- #65 Alec Jackson | 6’5” | 315 lbs | Junior
- #77 Kilian Zierer | 6’7” | 294 lbs | Junior
- #72 Prince Michael Sammons | 6’7” | 313 lbs | Senior
The biggest question mark at the position with the most question marks heading into fall camp is the left tackle position. Despite Auburn’s struggles to recruit highly rated prep offensive tackles, they have found a way to pretty consistently have an NFL calibre player at this key position each season. That doesn’t look so certain heading into the 2020 campaign.
There is no question Austin Troxell has SEC level talent. But three major knee injuries in six years is hard to ignore. If he’s truly 100% and can stay healthy all fall, I would expect him to be Auburn’s starting left tackle and to have a strong season. However, he will be facing some fierce competition this fall camp.
Kilian Zierer was my pick to be Auburn’s starting left tackle back in the fall but he too is recovering from a serious knee injury. Malzahn says he’s “almost” back to 100% which is good but given his little experience at the position along with most of his time on Auburn’s campus to date focused on rehab, I doubt he’s Auburn’s day 1 starter. He might emerge later in the fall.
That means former defensive lineman turned tackle, Alec Jackson, has a tremendous opportunity in the coming weeks to make a move up the depth chart. It also wouldn’t be unprecedented considering Auburn’s most recent starting left tackle. He worked at the position all last season so hopefully he enters camp more focused on elevating his game than learning the position. It will be fascinating to see how things play out at left tackle.
- #71 Brandon Council | 6’4” | 325 lbs | Junior
- #56 Tashawn Manning | 6’3” | 324 lbs | Junior
- #62 Kameron Stutts | 6’4” | 325 lbs | rSophomore
It’s still early but there’s been a lot of positive buzz surrounding former Akron standout Brandon Council. The graduate transfer has two years of eligibility remaining and is likely the most versatile piece on Auburn’s offense line. He’s reportedly worked at guard to start his Auburn career but he’s played both center and tackle previously in his career. That flexibility makes it likely he starts somewhere on the offensive line. If Troxell and Zierer struggle to get their legs underneath them and Jackson proves not ready, don’t be surprised to see Council bump outside.
Behind him are two intriguing players. Tashawn Manning, like Alec Jackson, arrived on campus as a defensive lineman but has now transitioned to the offensive side of the ball. When Auburn’s 2nd team offensive line entered the games last fall, Manning manned the left guard position. The competition is stiff in the interior of Auburn’s offensive line but I expect Manning to be very involved. If he doesn’t earn a starting spot chances are good he will be the first guard off the bench after an injury.
There’s also Kameron Stutts who wasn’t a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school but a kid who I really feel like has a chance to develop into a solid player on Auburn’s offensive line. I would be surprised if he earns a starting gig this fall but we’ll see if he can make some noise in the coming weeks.
- #52 Nick Brahms | 6’3” | 299 lbs | Junior
- #79 Kamaar Bell | 6’2” | 325 lbs | rFreshman
- #57 Avery Jernigan | 6’3” | 306 lbs | Freshman
The one position that seems certain starting camp is the center position. After playing merry go round with Kaleb Kim the past two seasons, Brahms finds himself the lone returning starter and the likely leader of Auburn’s front five. He struggled as a freshman due in large part to so much strength lost after a gruesome leg injury but improved as a sophomore. Now it’s about taking the next step from “good enough to start” to “being one of the best centers in the league”.
Behind him are two kids that will likely be battling out to be Brahm’s incumbent in two years. Kamaar Bell was the last player to make it to campus in 2019 and took a redshirt without seeing any action. Now with a year of strength training under his belt, Bell looks poised to emerge as Auburn’s backup center this fall. He’s a powerful kid who will add some bulk to the interior of Auburn’s offensive line.
But Bell will face some stiff competition from one of the more underrated members of Auburn’s 2020 signing class. Avery Jernigan ain’t flashy but he loves hitting folks and has the skillset to be a really good player for the Tigers in the very near future. I am really intrigued to watch this position battle unfold over the coming years between Bell and Jernigan.
- #58 Keiondre Jones | 6’3” | 335 lbs | rFreshman
- #50 Jalil Irvin | 6’2” | 310 lbs | Sophomore
- #54 Tate Johnson | 6’3” | 309 lbs | Freshman
Before a concussion sidelined him for the fall, Keiondre Jones was turning heads as a true freshman. That buzz returned during bowl practice and I think he’s the frontrunner to take over Mike Horton’s old spot.
But he’s far from a lock. Jalil Irvin was Auburn’s backup right guard last fall and probably enters the fall as the #1 guy. I thought Irvin’s future would be at center for the Tigers but Auburn slid him over to guard last spring and the results have been positive. Depending on what happens at right tackle these two could also see competition from Brodarious Hamm if Jack Bicknell decides to bump him back inside.
- #59 Brodarious Hamm | 6’5” | 330 lbs | Junior
- #65 Brenden Coffey | 6’5” | 279 lbs | Junior
- #76 Jeremiah Wright | 6’5” | 340 lbs | Freshman
Despite never having started for the Tigers, Brodarious Hamm is the name that keeps coming up when folks talk about offensive lineman with the highest ceilings. Hamm started his career at guard but slid outside last season and looks poised to be Jack Driscoll’s replacement this fall.
The biggest wildcard at offensive tackle this fall has to be Brenden Coffey. The JUCO signee looked destined to be a Tiger over the summer before Zierer’s commitment seemed to end any chance of it happening. Then when Jonathan Buskey’s academic status became uncertain, Auburn pushed for and eventually landed the big man. Coffey is a tremendous athlete who could also slide inside if needed. If he shows out this fall, it would give Auburn the flexibility to move Hamm back inside. I suspect though he starts his career off as the #2 guy
Looking at Auburn’s offensive skill players, it’s easy to see the incredible potential of this offense. But examining the offensive line quickly makes it hard to get too high on this offensive attack until the abundance of questions are answered up front. I think there’s talent on this OL but all of it is unproven. With no spring, a new offensive line coach and just a few weeks from kickoff, building and developing this new offensive line is this offense’s biggest challenge to reaching its ceiling.
Tomorrow, we will take a look at the defensive side of the ball where a number of super stars are gone but a ton of proven talent remains.