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Position Grades: #8 Auburn 29, #23 Kentucky 13

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Tigers played very well at certain spots, others need some improvement.

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

Auburn’s 1-0 after a 29-13 victor against Kentucky, and while we wish we had a team with Cam Newton handing off to Bo Jackson and Cadillac Williams with Terry Beasley running the deep post and protection from Willie Anderson, Greg Robinson, Reese Dismukes, and Steve Wallace, that’s not the reality. Both sides of the ball looked much better than many thought, especially after the lack of practice and a comparison to other SEC squads that looked awful at times.

If the offense and defense both came alive in the second half, and Auburn pulled out a victory doubling the line over a ranked opponent, how did each piece look? Let’s grade it out!

QUARTERBACK - A-

I thought Bo played a fantastic game Saturday. He didn’t have a single WTF throw where he air mails the ball 10 yards over Seth’s head. Instead, outside of throw aways, he gave his wide receivers a shot on every pass. He also threw some perfect darts and I think he’s greatly improved in the short game. Last season, he had a tendency to be erratic throwing those quick screens resulting in wideouts having to use half a second to adjust to the pass and then attempt to get to full speed. Saturday he did a great job giving them a chance to get going immediately.

But...

The standard is extremely high for Bo and if Auburn is going to be a contender in the SEC this fall they need the best from Bo each week. While I understand that it’s probably hard to trust this offensive line, he has to do better staying in the pocket and waiting for the full passing concept to develop. He missed some opportunities because he didn’t like his first read and started drifting out of the pocket. It might mean taking a sack or two but if he can more consistently navigate the pocket to buy a little more time to give these talented wide receivers the time to get open, he could have a special season.

Chad’s also giving him checkdowns with backs out of the backfield. Take em Bo. A 3 yard dump off is better than a throw away. I saw a much better version of Bo Nix this Saturday. Now it’s about building on that success and continuing to improve. He has a chance this weekend to shut up a lot of haters. Let’s get it done

RUNNING BACKS - C (pending larger sample size)

I don’t quite know if we saw enough of the tailbacks to make sense of the race for who’s actually number one. Shaun Shivers was named the starter, and he was the leading rusher out of the backs with 29 yards on just 6 carries. He had one particularly solid run, shedding tacklers, showing the speed, and getting out of trouble, but there’s not enough of a sample size. It feels like much of Chad Morris’ impact on the offense came in the passing game, and the backs were a little left out. Some of that had to do with Kentucky holding a large time of possession advantage, but the tailbacks had just 20 total carries for 65 yards. Not great. The line is responsible for a lot of that misery, but Auburn needs to establish a rotation and let the most talented guys play. D.J. Williams didn’t seem to hit the hole he needed a couple times, and he wasn’t aware that he needed to plow ahead on 4th and 1 instead of dancing. It’s unfortunate, but that slip near the goal line will also cost him in this assessment.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS - A

Sure, the passing game didn’t rack up over six bills like Mississippi State did. But these receivers looked as polished as I’ve ever seen them at Auburn. Seth Williams obviously had the huge day with six catches for 112 yards and two scores, but even his non-touchdown catches were big plays. Not only that, but on multiple occasions he looked like the meanest guy on the field blocking for Anthony Schwartz or Shaun Shivers. Eli Stove looked like his pre-injury self, with five touches for 62 yards and a score. While his touchdown was certainly an All-SEC throw from Bo, that over the shoulder catch was no joke. Schwartz showed again he’s the fastest man in football, blowing by any “angles” defensive backs tried to take on him.

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

As for the tight ends, after all the offseason talk, they weren’t really featured in the passing game this week. That doesn’t mean they weren’t used in the offense, though. Most notably, Pegues was the motion man on the Schwartz screen that nearly went for a touchdown, allowing the big man to get a head of steam to block downfield. A few plays later Pegues and Luke Deal combined to set the edge for DJ Williams on the touchdown. John Samuel Shenker tacked on a catch for the two point conversion seconds later, although that was the only action the tight ends got in the receiving game.

While the volume wasn’t there to get everyone touches, the receivers had a dynamite game when called upon. Keep playing like this and we might just have ourselves a passing game.

OFFENSIVE LINE - B-

This offensive performance up front needs to be viewed through a different lens than how we should be grading this group for the next 9 games. I cannot imagine being in a huddle in a live SEC game with 4 other linemen around me who weren’t the same 4 linemen all or most of fall camp. COVID-19 forced this coaching staff to get creative with rotations during fall camp, and we saw a lot of it Saturday as a result. Which frankly I like, because you’re trying to use the Kentucky game to find your guys and not have to do this the next week in Athens. That being said, Left Tackle is a spot for concern at the moment as Alec Jackson looked like Saturday was his first start with multiple false starts and being a half step slow in his pass protection at times. Austin Troxell didn’t fare much better to my naked eye, but perhaps the coaches will see something on film that tells a different story. Bottom line is that whatever 5 guys are our starters, which I think Council, Brahms, and Hamm are all but guaranteed to be just that, they desperately need reps together.

The reason for the B-, which would be a C on any other week, is due to only 1 sack surrendered out of this group. Also there were times on the ground, especially late, where the hole was there and the back just missed it, or fell down in the case of DJ Williams. They did their job of protecting Bo Nix, which is what we needed to win this game. The challenge is going to be when their job is to help move the line of scrimmage on the ground...like this weekend.

DEFENSIVE LINE - B-

Overall I thought Auburn’s defensive line did a fine job down the stretch of wearing out Kentucky’s OL. But the standard along the defensive line is excellence and it won’t change just because of NFL departures. Rodney Garner wouldn’t adjust it for them so we’re not going to adjust it here.

DeQuan Newkirk was a revelation on Saturday. He said he is finally healthy and it has showed. Look for him to be serviceable in filling the literal giant void left by Derrick Brown. Colby Wooden early on looked lost, and in the second half you could see the game started slowing down a bit for him. He’s going to be special. You don’t often have a guy who could’ve been an end out of HS be able to put on his level of weight and still be so athletic. We’re going to need him to grow up fast, but he’s got a huge level of potential for this group. Truesdell is never going to get the stats, but his work in plugging gaps on the inside is critical and overall I thought we did a good enough job to win the game in plugging the A/B gaps.

What it still appears this line is missing is a legitimate Carl Lawson/Jeff Holland pass rush out of the Buck position. Maybe that’s because of a bogus targeting call on Derrick Hall. But the fact is we didn’t see it on Saturday and that has been the achilles heel of this defense since 2018. We need to find a body that can rush the passer and find him right now. On the other side, having Big Kat go down with an injury earlier in the week was disappointing, and I think affected the group a bit early on, as it put a different cast into positions they may have not expected to be in on Monday or Tuesday of last week.

One thing I love about Rodney Garner (and there are many, many things I love about Rodney Garner) is that on the second series for Kentucky you saw an entirely new defensive line. Rodney is going to baptize every one of these boys into fire so they can grow up and become men before our eyes. It’s the reason why Kentucky couldn’t get near the push in the 2nd half. Us having fresh legs up front through 4 quarters of football is key to winning close games, and we’re going to have our share of those this year. There’s an abundance of room for improvement, but life after Derrick and Marlon must go on, and we have the right mix of talent and coaching to have this group exceed expectations moving forward.

LINEBACKERS - B

It’s a little more difficult to make plays when you don’t have Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson occupying 3-4 blockers on every play. That said, K.J. Britt and Owen Pappoe both made their impacts felt early and often yesterday. After Kentucky’s script ran out, and Auburn could adjust, Britt, Pappoe, and Zakoby McClain ended up totaling 27 tackles, 2.5 TFLS, a sack, and a fumble recovery. Pappoe’s sack and fumble recovery were both huge plays that iced the game late when Auburn had built a comfortable lead.

Early on, Britt read Kentucky’s plan perfectly multiple times, and made form tackles, but the Cats still gained the necessary half yard to convert on a couple of third and short situations. It seems like the linebackers had to learn that they’re the stars of the defense now and they need to play a little differently than roaming around and waiting for something to filter to them like they could last year with the defensive line helping in front. After a bit of a slow start and allowing Kentucky’s run game to flourish in the first half, they locked down and were one of the main reasons that the Cats couldn’t do much at all after halftime. Slow start, great finish, excited for more.

DEFENSIVE BACKS - A-

If I could break this down into corners and safeties, I’d definitely be giving the corners an A+. They were the most outstanding unit in the game this week for me, holding Terry Wilson to just 6.5 yards per attempt. Roger McCreary specifically had himself a game, with an interception that should have gone the distance for a score, and a forced fumble in the second half. He wasn’t alone, though, with Christian Tutt and Jaylin Simpson looking outstanding in pass defense. Nehemiah Pritchett, the next man up, got burned a few times, but I’m willing to let that slide as the fourth corner.

In the back, the trio of Jamien Sherwood, Smoke Monday, and Jordyn Peters had a solid but not perfect game. One of the only big pass plays came when Smoke got beat by his receiver, and Peters (who was playing over the top) just whiffed on a tackle to limit the gain. They did play well in the run game, however, with 15 total tackles between the three of them (10 of them belonging to Smoke).

Overall, it was a really strong showing for the junior class of defensive backs, especially with most of them earning their first starts. We’ll see how they look against more polished passing games, but luckily they will have time to gear up for that. The next three games are against Georgia, Arkansas, and South Carolina, which should give them plenty of time before facing some more polished air attacks later in the year.

SPECIAL TEAMS - B

If Saturday was a tribute to Coach Dye, then Auburn had to be sound in the kicking game. Let’s see...
Field Goals: N/A
Extra Points: 3/3 and a swinging gate 2 point conversion!
Punting: 5 punts. 3 downed inside the 20 with only 1 return for 6 yards. What? Yeah I counted Bo’s punts even though the entire offense was on the field. Coach Dye would have loved it.
Kickoffs: 5 kickoffs. 2 touchbacks and a 24 yard average on the other three (which beats a touchback)
Kickoff Returns: 2 returns for a 32 yard average. Both came from the goal line or inside the endzone, which means they improved on a potential touchback.
Punt Returns: N/A, but Christian Tutt let one get past him, which ended up going 75 yards. On the plus side, Kentucky attempted a fake punt that lost yardage, so that’s certainly a plus.

If we’re doing +/- on grades, this is certainly into B+/A- territory. As it is I have to ding Tutt for misplaying that punt, which came out of UK’s own end zone. That said, give Max Duffy some credit. He did win the Ray Guy last year. All totaled, a very good day from the special teams unit.

COACHING - A-

If you’ve ever been on twitter during an Auburn game, you’ve seen the moaning and groaning that occurs whenever the PAT team lines up in the swinging gate. But folks, Auburn got a good look, pulled the trigger, and reaped the rewards. Ultimately the extra point didn’t matter in Auburn’s 16 point victory, but extra pressure was applied to Kentucky when they managed to score another touchdown and attempted their own two-point conversion. Additionally, Auburn’s 9 other SEC opponents will now spend an extra 20 minutes a week practicing this formation Auburn won’t use again until 2024. So yeah, excellent coaching decision.

Even outside that decision, though, the coaching was solid. Auburn made defensive adjustments after the first drive and offensive adjustments throughout the game. We should give Gus credit for letting Chad Morris run the show, as promised.

I was disappointed on the first drive when Auburn faced 3rd and 2, rushed, then punted on 4th and 1. I also would have liked Gus to have been a bit more upset after the faux-targeting call just before halftime. Take a 15 yard penalty there if you’re going to kneel it anyway.

A win is a win is a win. Coaches are remembered for their win/loss record over all else, so great job on the W, coach.

FANS - A

Attendance is going to be a problem, but those who made it in the stadium made their presence known. Or maybe it was just piped in noise? I don’t really care. I was worried it was going to sound like A-Day and it didn’t, so that was enough for me. It also seemed like people were wearing masks which makes this an easy grade to give.