Would it be a stretch to say that the offensive line woes were a large part of what ended up getting Gus Malzahn fired?
Probably not. Auburn dominated the opposition in his first couple of seasons with a ridiculously strong offensive line, producing the second-overall pick in Greg Robinson in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Tigers hit a resurgence in 2017 when Braden Smith led the way and went to the NFL. Since then... it’s been a struggle, and the offense has gotten less and less effective each season since that time.
Recruiting has struggled, and Auburn has missed on blue chip after blue chip up front. In the 2018 class, after the Tigers won the SEC West and beat both #1 Georgia and #1 Alabama, they signed two three-star offensive linemen. In 2019, they signed three, with only Keiondre Jones being a four-star player. Last year, Auburn finally signed what could be termed a full offensive line, with five signees in addition to the transfer of Brandon Council from Akron. Still, Gus wasn’t landing the signatures of the absolute cream of the crop. Georgia, in particular, was a hairy thorn in our side. Now, Auburn is in a hole and behind the top of the conference where talent counts at an incredibly high level.
Thankfully, sometimes experience can beat out talent. It’ll have to be Auburn’s hope that that thought is true in 2021, because the offensive line returns everyone from last year, and it could be a strength. Unfortunately, the strength could be an oasis until the next crop of recruits can get up to speed.
With Will Friend on the staff, Auburn will at least be recruiting at a higher level than they were over previous seasons. Friend has, um... quite the pedigree at signing five-star offensive tackles. Be still my heart. If Auburn can start grabbing some guys like that, it’ll turn into the kind of offensive lines we saw that led to success in 2010 and 2013.
Projected Starters: Austin Troxell/Alec Jackson (LT); Tashawn Manning. (LG); Nick Brahms (C); Brandon Council/Keiondre Jones (RG); Brodarious Hamm (RT)
- Biggest Question: What’s the ceiling for this group and what happens if we have to make a shuffle like last year?
Despite all of the doom and gloom, when you acknowledge the fact that Auburn returns all five starters from last season, it doesn’t seem quite that bad. In fact, Auburn will have multiple guys who’ve started games at a couple of positions. You can see the either/ors above with Troxell and Jackson, who both started games at left tackle last season, and it’s the same story with the guard spots. Council can move between left and right guard, so he provides stability there.
The seven guys above started every game last season in some combination, so they should have had that time to gel that we always hear about when you’re inserting some new offensive linemen into the mix. The run blocking actually turned out to be very good by the end of the season, even if the pass protection left a good bit to be desired. If Auburn is to be successful this year, we can’t have Bo Nix getting pressure in his face every other play. A lot of those mistakes happened in the middle, where you had new starters galore, including transfers who were new to the communication and scheme. Nick Brahms absolutely needs to be better this year, and as a third year starter he should be. While he’s never been the most athletic fellow at center, he’s certainly smart enough to put protections in the correct spot. Third time’s the charm, so we need to see something special from him in 2021.
As for the tackles, if Auburn doesn’t have to deal with injury, they could also be solid. BroHamm now has a full season of starting experience under his belt, and whoever takes the left tackle spot will also have roughly half a season of first-string work on their resume. Quite honestly, the first five isn’t the worst thing in the world, and could end up being a relative strength for Auburn this season. I don’t believe that the ceiling can reach 2010 or 2013 levels (or even 2017 levels), but if this is a group that can look a lot like what we saw in 2016, then this could end up being a pretty good little offense.
But what happens if we end up losing a tackle a couple games in? And then a guard goes down and we’re thin? What if Brahms goes down? There are some guys waiting in the wings, but with each move it would diminish the skill a good bit.
The second string could look like this going down the line if we had injuries across the board:
LT: Austin Troxell/Alec Jackson (whichever one isn’t injured)
LG: Brandon Council/Tate Johnson (if Manning is hurt)
C: Jalil Irvin (if Brahms goes down)
RG: Kam Stutts (if Jones goes down)
RT: Brenden Coffey (if Hamm goes down)
The positive there is that we still have a couple of guys who started games last season, but obviously it would be a big step back from the lineup that should start spring as the first five. Overall, the offensive line picture isn’t quite the apocalypse some might make it out to be, but with an injury or two in the wrong place it could really go downhill. We’ll need some luck to make it happen, but it could be a lot worse.