On Thursday, Auburn’s 2021 football team will “report” to fall camp. In the old days, this literally meant that the majority of players would arrive on campus. In today’s world of “voluntary” workouts, most players are already on campus and the report date is just a nice way of saying fall camp is starting. On Friday, Bryan Harsin’s first Auburn football team will take to the practice field.
A lot has happened and continues to happen off the field but on September 4th, all of that fades into the background as the Tigers kickoff the 2021 campaign. That’s amazingly only 33 days away. This long and arduous off-season is nearly over.
As fall camp approaches, focus typically shifts to either returning stars or exciting newcomers. Auburn has plenty of both but often times the breakout stars of camp are players who have already been on the roster for previous seasons but either have not gotten the opportunity to showcase their talent or needed time to better develop their skills. This is especially true following coaching changes as new schemes are implemented and fresh eyes get a chance to evaluate the talent on the roster.
Here are five players I think could have a breakout fall camp and be poised for big 2021 seasons.
#80 WR Ze’Vian Capers | 6’4” | 195 lbs | Sophomore
2020 Stats: 7 rec 77 yards 11.0 avg TD
No position group is more wide open than wide receiver. The Tigers are losing their top 3 contributors from last fall in Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, and Eli Stove. On top of that turnover, Auburn is implementing a new scheme that demands more from the wide receivers than just the ability to block, catch screens or go deep. As such, there’s been a lot of speculation over who will emerge as Auburn’s new top targets. Outback Bowl and A-Day standout Elijah Canion has very quickly become a fan favorite. Ja’Varrius Johnson generated the most buzz during spring practice while the recent transfer of former Cal and UGA WR Demetris Robertson has raised a lot of eyebrows.
Lost amongst all the speculation is the one freshman from last season that saw the most action at wide receiver. Former 4-star wideout Ze’Vian Capers saw extensive action last fall and is actually Auburn’s leading returning wide receiver. An unfortunate bowl game injury sidelined him for spring but he’s reportedly healthy once again and will have a chance to prove to Auburn’s new staff that he’s someone that needs to see plenty of targets.
It would be wise to not sleep on the former blue chip prospect out of Alpharetta, GA.
#3 DL Zykeivous Walker | 6’4” | 289 lbs | Sophomore
2020 Stats: 14 tackles TFL sack
Very rarely did Gus Malzahn beat Kirby Smart out for top rated kids UGA really wanted. That was especially true for Georgia natives. Zykeivous Walker was one of those rare victories. The former #79 ranked player in the country was thrown into the fire as a true freshman. There were bright moments where he flashed as a potential impact player but there were also times he struggled to hold up against SEC offensive lineman. It’s very hard to be a day 1 impact player on the line of scrimmage in this conference.
But now the sophomore has a year of experience under his belt and more importantly another year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program. Outside of Colby Wooden, no one on Auburn’s defensive line has played well enough in their careers to be guaranteed a starting role or a high number of snaps. Walker will enter fall camp attempting to unseat Marquis Burks as the starting defensive end/tackle opposite Colby Wooden. Regardless of who wins that competition, I expect Walker to be an important piece of Auburn’s rotation up front along the defensive line.
#55 OT Brenden Coffey | 6’7” | 292 lbs | Senior
2020 Stats: 5 games played, 1 start
One player that jumped out when Auburn released its updated 2021 roster was Brenden Coffey. The former JUCO standout looked thin last fall when he was forced into action following injuries to starting right tackle Brodarious Hamm. There is no question that Coffey has the athleticism to play tackle in this league but the ability to bang with the beasts in the trenches has been a major question mark. Listed at 279 lbs, he struggled at times in his limited snaps getting movement in the run game or anchoring against physical pass rushers.
The California native is now listed at 292 lbs. Given the question marks at offensive tackle heading into this season, Coffey being able to step in as a starter would be a massive boon for this unit. It could allow someone like Hamm to slide inside where his skillset is better suited. There’s more to playing offensive line than being big so we will see if Coffey has improved enough to earn a starting role but he’s someone that could definitely create some noise this fall.
#11 WR Shedrick Jackson | 6’2 | 196 lbs | Senior
2020 Stats: 6 rec 84 yds 14.0 avg
Given how wide open the wide receiver position appears to be heading into fall camp it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see 2 wideouts on this list. Like Ze’Vian Capers, an injury limited Jackson during the spring so he was unable to get many reps in front of this new staff. But the former 3-star out of Hoover has been Auburn’s best blocking wideout for a number of years now and that trait got him on the field a bunch for Gus Malzahn at the 5 spot.
However, in high school what Jackson excelled at was making plays down the field. He had elite ball tracking skills and plus speed that allowed him to consistently get behind the defense. Under Malzahn, he was pigeon holed as a blocker. Now under Bryan Harsin, he’ll have a chance to show he can do more than just hold the edge for a speed sweep. There’s a lot of young WR talent in that room but the veteran pass catcher has a chance to put together his best season as a Tiger this fall.
#11 DB Zion Puckett | 6’0” | 209 lbs | RS Sophomore
2020 Stats: 15 tackles 2.0 TFL PD
Puckett was one of my favorite players in the 2019 class. I actually projected him to be a cornerback for the Tigers.
There aren’t 103 players better than Zion Puckett. There just aren’t. Puckett already has SEC DB size at 6’0” 200 lbs and has great length. He’s not afraid to bloody his nose a little and lay a lick on a ball carrier. What I really like though is he squares up his target and wraps up instead of just trying to knock someone out with a shoulder. With the ball in his hands, he’s a threat to score on any play. He’s got that next level gear that allows him to quickly go from standing still to blowing by defenders with great angles for touchdowns. When the ball is in the air, it’s his, doesn’t matter if he’s on offense or defense. He could honestly play anywhere in Auburn’s secondary but my guess is he starts off at cornerback.
But as I noted in his scouting report, his physicality jumped out when watching his tape and Auburn’s previous staff decided to put it to good use by sliding him inside to the nickel where he spent the past two seasons backing up Christian Tutt. He missed spring with an undisclosed injury (noticing a pattern here?) but is reportedly good to go for the start of camp.
Getting on the field in Auburn’s defensive backfield will be difficult. The Tigers return likely starters in Roger McCreary, Smoke Monday, and Ladarius Tennison. Part time starters and quality contributors Jaylin Simpson and Nehemiah Pritchett also return. Auburn then added a large number of defensive backs in the 2021 class including two potential impact transfers in Donovan Kaufman and Bydarrius Knighten. But even with all of that talent on the depth chart I still believe Puckett is one of the better athletes on the backend of Auburn’s defense and should have a role in this defense this fall. Don’t be surprised if he starts generating buzz in the coming weeks.