We are single digit days away from the return of college football. Auburn seasons are typically unpredictable but it feels even more difficult this off-season given the coaching change, COVID controversy and usual toughness of the schedule. By the end of week 6 we will know real quickly how good or not good this team will be in 2021.
Next week, Auburn will enter game week prep and head coach Bryan Harsin stated this week that they have already created the scout team and are in the final stages of nailing down the depth chart. So before things become official, I figured I’d take one last stab at what the two deep might look like come kickoff.
This won’t be a deep dive like previous versions but instead just a high level view of where things appears to be trending heading into next week. If a player isn’t listed it means I don’t see them playing a major role for the Tigers this fall.
Unquestionably the biggest concern heading into the 2021 season is Auburn’s offense. Is this really the year for Bo Nix and has he really improved so much? Can Auburn’s offensive line be good enough to give the offense a chance? How far can Tank carry this team? Do the Tigers have any weapons at wideout?
Plenty of questions to be answered. Here’s a rundown on how I think things look next week.
- QB: Bo Nix | TJ Finley
- RB: Tank Bigsby | Shaun Shivers | Sean Jackson OR Jarquez Hunter
- WR (X): Ze’Vian Capers | Elijah Canion
- WR (H): Ja’Varrius Johnson | Tar’Varish Dawson
- WR (Z): Demetris Robertson | Shedrick Jackson | Malcolm Johnson Jr
- TE: John Samuel Shenker OR Luke Deal | Tyler Fromm OR Landen King
- LT: Austin Troxell | Kilian Zierer
- LG: Brandon Council | Alec Jackson | Kameron Stutts
- C: Nick Brahms | Jalil Irvin
- RG: Keiondre Jones | Tashawn Manning | Kameron Stutts
- RT: Brodarious Hamm | Brenden Coffey
Barring a surprise twist, Bo Nix will be Auburn’s starting quarterback against Akron. But Bryan Harsin made it very clear that things could change quickly if needed. Nix has reportedly had a very Nix like camp. Flashes of brilliance followed by frustrating decisions or inaccuracy. Consistency has eluded Nix for much of his career and if it continues to do so Harsin will have no qualms inserting TJ Finley.
The LSU transfer was clearly behind Bo to start camp and from everything I heard had the worst first scrimmage between Nix, Finley and Dematrius Davis. But in recent weeks things have started clicking for Finley and those who attended practice this past Saturday thought the big man looked more impressive than Auburn’s returning starting quarterback. As I have mentioned before, who starts vs Akron is not interesting to me. Who starts vs LSU and Georgia? That’s when things could get REALLY interesting.
There are no controversies at running back with Tank and Shivers leading the way. Unfortunately, much hyped true freshman Jarquez Hunter has missed a substantial number of practices due most likely to COVID protocols. That left an opportunity for someone to step up in that 3rd RB spot and from the sound of things walk-on Sean Jackson has done just that.
Jackson was high school teammates with former AU commit Armoni Goodwin and a 3-star prospect with a handful of G5 offers. However, the big man felt he had SEC talent and agreed to walk on at Auburn. He’s been one of the bright spots for the offense running with violence and proving to be a weapon in the passing game as well. Long term, Hunter is probably still the better bet to see the most carries behind Tank and Worm but don’t be surprised if the 3rd back out on the field next Saturday night is the freshman walk-on.
There hasn’t been a ton of clarity at wide receiver outside of the fact that this group has improved from their spring performances and that UGA transfer Demetris Robertson is emerging as the leader of the unit. Recently, veteran Shedrick Jackson has been earning praise for his play and is pushing for a starting role. Ze’Vian Capers, Ja’Varrius Johnson and Elijah Canion are all likely to see plenty of action too this fall.
Auburn will spend the majority of its time this fall in 11 and 12 personnel sets. This is in part due to the talent in that tight end room but it’s also due to concerns with Auburn’s offensive line. Luke Deal appears poised for a breakout season while there’s a ton of growing buzz surrounding true freshman Landen King. If he can start showing more reliable hands he could be an x-factor in this offense this fall.
Finally, there’s the group fans are most concerned about. Surprisingly, Harsin was very open about where things stand up front heading into the final weekend of the pre-season listing a true 2 deep for reporters.
Auburn's starting OL hasn't been set, but here's the two-deep at the moment:— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) August 25, 2021
LT: Austin Troxell and Kilian Zierer
LG: Brandon Council and Alec Jackson
C: Nick Brahms and Jalil Irvin
RG: Keiondre Jones and Tashawn Manning
RT: Brodarious Hamm and Brenden Coffey
The biggest surprise is unquestionably Tashawn Manning currently running with the 2nd team. I thought he was Auburn’s most consistent offensive lineman last fall behind Brandon Council. I am going to take that as a positive in that Keiondre Jones is emerging as an impact player. He was a rare 4-star OL signing for Malzahn and the big man has the potential to be one of the sturdier run blockers in the conference.
While Auburn’s offense has had a tough fall camp things have been a lot of fun on the defensive side of the ball. Derek Mason’s group appears to be clicking and is loaded with impact players especially in the back 7. The Tigers were aggressive in the portal on this side of the ball and it appears to be paying off.
For this depth chart, I am going to stick to just a starting 11 featuring a nose tackle on the field, one edge and a nickel.
- DE: Colby Wooden | Zykeivous Walker | Caleb Johnson
- NT: Tony Fair | Marquis Burks | Lee Hunter
- DE: Marcus Harris | Dre Butler | JJ Pegues
- EDGE: Derick Hall | TD Moultry OR Eku Leota OR Romello Height
- MIKE: Owen Pappoe | Chandler Wooten
- WILL: Zakoby McClain | Wesley Steiner OR Cam Riley
- N: Donovan Kaufman | Ladarrius Tennison
- CB: Roger McCreary | Ro Torrence OR Dreshun Miller
- CB: Nehemiah Pritchett | Jaylin Simpson
- FS: Bydarrius Knighten | Zion Puckett
- BS: Smoke Monday | Cayden Bridges
Auburn’s front has had their way with the first and second team offensive lines. There’s not a player on Auburn’s roster right now that can block Colby Wooden and I am not sure there are ton in the conference that can either. More importantly though has been the emergence of Tony Fair who has wowed coaches and players alike with his combination of size, quickness and work ethic. There were some concerns about Fair being in good enough shape to contribute this fall but he’s very quickly eased those by how hard he’s worked since arriving on the Plains.
Marcus Harris is the other DL transfer and appears set to see a starting role. He’s a perfect fit for what Derek Mason wants to do up front and is someone that could very quietly have a monster year for the Tigers. Even better is that he and Fair shouldn’t have to play a ridiculously high number of snaps due to the emerging depth up front. I fully expect to see plenty of Walker, Butler, Burks, and Hunter this fall.
Probably the biggest story for the defense leaving fall camp has been the improved play of Auburn’s outside linebackers. Derick Hall is the leader of the group but Moultry, Leota, and Height have all gotten positive reviews. Pass rush has been a problem for Auburn especially when it comes to speed off the edge. There’s been enough buzz to make me believe we will see improvement in that area this season.
There’s no question who will lead Auburn’s defense and team in 2021. The linebacker duo of Pappoe and McClain will likely challenge for the honor of being the best backer pair in the country. Chandler Wooten is 1B and has reportedly had a strong camp. It’s a testament to that room that the two players selected to be team captains are both linebackers.
Where things get really exciting is on the backend of this defense. I truly believe Auburn has a chance to field the best secondary in the conference this fall. Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday return has veteran leaders but it’s been the play of the transfers Kaufman and Knighten that could really elevate this unit.
Both came in ready to contribute immediately and have consistently been apart of the first team. Ladarius Tennison is a durn good football player and the fact he might not be a starter just shows the talent level in Auburn’s secondary. Knighten’s starting role might not be completely sewed up though because Zion Puckett has been turning head too. Undoubtedly, Auburn will mix and match personnel depending on matchups each week.
The biggest surprise has to be at cornerback where highly regarded West Virginia transfer Dreshun Miller has struggled to break through. My understanding is that it hasn’t been due to poor play on his part, in fact there are some who believe he’s one of the best cover corners on the team, but more a testament to the play of guys like Pritchett, Simpson and Torrence.
Pritchett very quietly had an incredible season last fall and looks poised to build on that success. A healthy Simpson gives Auburn essentially a 3rd starter at cornerback. But more surprising has been the play of late JUCO signee Ro Torrence who looks poised to see some meaningful playing time this year. He’s a big kid at 6’3” but also possesses excellent speed and is probably someone you use in specific packages or matchups where you want to play some press coverage on a big bodied wideout.
I have high expectations for this Auburn defense in 2021.