After missing a week of practice due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Auburn returned to the practice field this past week culminating in the 2nd scrimmage of fall camp. The Tigers are expected to begin UK prep this week with a scrimmage on Saturday focused on specific situations. With kickoff fast approaching, here are some thoughts on what little info has emerged from this extremely unique fall camp.
One of the livelier subjects up for debate this off-season has been around which running back would emerge as the Tigers top rusher. Despite the loss of two time leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow, Auburn fans are understandably excited about the potential of this 2020 backfield. Most of the discussion has been about rising sophomore DJ Williams, now healthy red shirt freshman Mark-Anthony Richards and superstar freshman Tank Bigsby. I myself have posited that Richards will be Auburn’s top back while my colleagues were split between DJ and Tank.
We might all be wrong.
While the youngsters have earned plenty of buzz, it’s one of the veteran backs who looks to be leading the pack right now. Shaun Shivers has reportedly stepped up as not only the vocal leader in Auburn’s young RB room but also possibly its on field leader with his play too. Gus Malzahn mentioned over the weekend that the explosive junior has been working exclusively with the ones and scored on a 80 yard TD pass during the 2nd scrimmage.
Over this off-season, I have consistently written off possibility of Shivers being the Tigers top back because I have never really seen him as a 15+ carry type of back in the SEC. But the south Florida native has a history of proving folks wrong and it sounds like he will likely be the first Auburn running back to touch the ball this season.
Can he lead the Tigers in rushing? I am still skeptical, again not because I don’t think Shivers is talented but more because I think those three youngsters have everything needed to be big time SEC backs. But I won’t at all mind being very wrong because as Xavier McKinney well knows, Shivers ain’t afraid to take your head off and folks that’s really fun to watch.
Offensive Line Taking Shape
Probably the number one question mark for this 2020 Auburn football team is at offensive line where the Tigers must replace four starters. It’s a position that really hasn’t been a strength for the Tigers since 2017 and a spot Auburn must have ready week one against the Kentucky Wildcats.
For much of the off-season, the expectation has been Nick Brahms and Brodarious Hamm are locks to start. That looks to be true with both having been made available to the media and reportedly been working with the first team at center and right tackle respectively. Per both Brahms and Hamm, two other names appear to have nailed down spots in the starting lineup.
Austin Troxell is finally health again and after a slow start to camp appears to be settling in at the left tackle position. On the other side of the line, Akron graduate transfer Brandon Council has impressed teammates with his leadership, quickness and versatility. He’s reportedly working at right guard next to Hamm but could play any of the 5 offensive line positions as needed.
“You can tell Brandon is an experienced guy,” Malzahn said. “That’s probably the best way to put it. He is very versatile… and I think he can play all five positions. His experience and his versatility, I think, will be very good for us this year.”
That leaves left guard still up for grabs with three contenders in Tashawn Manning, Alec Jackson and Keiondre Jones. Manning has reportedly seen the most snaps with the ones out of that group but it sounds as if that battle still rages on.
Malzahn has made it clear that it’s not just about finding a starting five but about really identifying 10 starters up front so that staff can feel comfortable with depth heading into what will be one of the more unique football seasons in recent memory. Assuming Manning starts at left guard, Jones and Jackson would likely be the next two up. Brendon Coffey has gotten some positive praise and might be the #3 OT if needed. That gives the Tigers 8 players they have some confidence in heading into the season. I suspect JUCO OT Kilian Zierer and Jalil Irvin are the final two.
If the Tigers do in fact trot out a starting five of Troxell, Manning, Brahms, Council and Hamm, I think that group has chance to be really strong in the run game. I do think though there are major question marks about this unit as pass protectors especially at offensive tackle with two new starters. Fans and coaches alike won’t really know whether this unit can get the job done until September 26th but there appears to be plenty of optimism that they will surprise some people this season.
Two Freshman DL Impress
If you are a true freshman defensive lineman wearing a single digit number you better be ready to play day 1. From the sound things, 2020 signees Jay Hardy and Zykeivous Walker are prepared to make an immediate impact for the Tigers.
Walker has mostly worked at defensive end where it wouldn’t surprise me to see him earn the #2 spot behind Big Kat Bryant. He was a huge recruiting win over Kirby Smart and has drawn comparisons previously to Marlon Davidson.
Hardy though might prove to be the more important impact player. With Coynis Miller’s dismissal, Auburn has even more depth concerns in the interior of its defensive line. Tyrone Truesdell returns as the anchor up front with Daquan Newkirk likely starting beside him but that’s it when it comes to SEC experienced defensive tackles.
Supposedly JUCO signees Dre Butler and Marquis Burks are expected to contribute early but don’t be surprised to see Hardy see action inside as well. Honestly, it sounds like the Tennessee native is working both at DT and DE making it likely he sees the field early and often for the Tigers. It doesn’t hurt that his veteran teammates compare his abilities to 7th overall pick Derrick Brown.
“I really think Jay has come along pretty good, and he reminds me of Derrick with his body type,” said senior defensive end Big Kat Bryant, who wears jersey No. 1. “I was looking at him the other day from the back, and it reminded me of Derrick. For Jay, it’s learning process right now, and everything this year is not usual or normal, so the learning curve is a little bit different for him.
“He’s got a great motor. He’s got a great attitude. He’s just got to learn everything, and he’s coming along with that.”
“I feel like he’s going to be very versatile, and there will be a lot that he can bring to the team,” Truesdell said. “He reminds me a lot of Derrick, just seeing how he plays and how certain things stand out to me and how fast he can catch on. That means a lot, because with all that’s going on, we’re going to need guys ready.”
If Hardy can even sniff Brown’s level of talent then the Tigers will be in very good shape not only this season but for the next two as well. Despite the attrition along the defensive line it’s hard to believe Coach G won’t have another top unit in the SEC on the field this fall.
4th CB Emerges
Heading into fall camp, Auburn’s coaching staff seemed confident they had 3 SEC caliber corners on the roster in Roger McCreary, Marco Domio and Nehemiah Pritchett. McCreary looks ready to take over as the Tigers top corner while Domio and Pritchett are locked in a competitive battle for the other starting spot. However, depth is so important this season given the pandemic but also at cornerback due to SEC offenses continuing to become more pass oriented. Assuming no injuries and no positive covid tests, three corners is likely all Auburn needs.
But chances are good someone will go down this season and the Tigers need to have an answer if that were to happen. Fortunately, it appears red shirt freshman Jaylin Simpson has emerged as a viable candidate at corner in recent days.
Auburn S Smoke Monday says sophomore Nehemiah Pritchett, JUCO transfer Marco Domio and redshirt freshman Jaylin Simpson have been working at the vacant CB spot across from Roger McCreary.— Nathan King (@byNathanKing) August 20, 2020
Simpson is a former four star signee who spent most of last season working at free safety. I always thought his skillset better suited corner and it sounds like he’s impressed since moving over this fall. That’s big news for the Tigers and should give Auburn even more depth at such a critical position on defense. It’s looking more likely that Kevin Steele’s defense will reload, not rebuild in 2020.
The Best Fall Camp Quote
If this is even remotely true then maybe, just maybe, Auburn fans will get to see an explosive offense again this fall. Please CFB gods let this be true....
One of the major changes in 2020 involves the receivers. Instead of focusing on playing one or two spots, all of the receivers are required to be able to carry out all of the assignments, no matter where they are lined up on a particular play.
“It is very important because now you are not really locked into a position,” Schwartz said about the change with the receivers. “Now, you can go anywhere. You can go from boundary to the field from the slot to backfield and to the field again.
“It is important to know what everyone is doing so you can just hop in and not miss a beat. Especially with what’s going on, God forbid, we could have three receivers go down, God forbid, and they would have to step right in and be ready.”