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Previews 2017: Arkansas, Auburn and LSU

Auburn Tigers quarterback Sean White. Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Auburn Tigers quarterback Sean White. Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn Tigers

Overview: Despite a clunky season and another loss to Alabama, Gus Malzahn survived to coach another day. But a new offensive coordinator – one that Malzahn may have been forced to yield some measure of control to – has been brought in to try to take Auburn over the hump. The offense figures to be about the same as last year, as a better QB situation may be foiled by issues on the offensive line. This team will ride one of the best defenses in the nation as far as the ride will go.

Projected record: 9-3 (UA, Clem, TAM); 6-2 and 2nd SEC West

Returning offensive starters: 7 (FL, WR, LT, C, RT, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 7 (DT/E, E, WLB, MLB, RCB, FS, SS)
Returning specialists: 1 (PK)

Unit ratings
QB: Vg DL: Ex
RB: Vg LB: Vg
WR: Av DB: Vg
OL: Av ST: Vg


Offensive breakdown: Chip Lindsey has a quality resume, getting results at both Southern Miss and Arizona State despite talent that wasn’t always the best. The question now is how well his spread style will mix with Malzahn’s run-heavy HUNH philosophy. At least the QB situation is more stable than a year ago; Jeremy Johnson is pursuing a pro basketball career, John Franklin III has gone to play for Lane Kiffin, while Auburn will select between Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham and holdover Sean White. Observers were concerned about White’s ability to take the pounding of the SEC game heading into 2016, and those fears proved well-founded. Stidham, who was athletic enough to be recruited as a wide receiver by some teams and who Alabama once courted as a quarterback recruit, comes in with three years of eligibility left. He’s not much bigger than White, but any little bit helps, and Stidham did put up impressive numbers in limited work last year. Auburn’s downfield passing game gets a lot better with him at the controls.

The running back group should be in fine shape, with bulldozer Kamryn Pettway and speed back Kerryon Johnson both returning. Malik Miller and Kam Martin are set to back up those two, but there’s a substantial quality drop-off after Johnson. Chandler Cox is a better athlete than he’s given credit for; he’ll be the team’s H-back and occasional halfback passer. Where Auburn needs improvement is at wide receiver, where holdovers Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton didn’t make an impact at all in 2016. Reserves Eli Stove and Nate Craig-Myers were similarly disappointing. Craig-Myers is competing with Kyle Davis for the open split end position. The tight end position is also in need of an upgrade, as Jalen Harris and Sam Cannella continue to fight for it. How well Auburn develops this group will likely determine the production of the entire offense.

The offensive line is also somewhat scattered. Left tackle Darius James returns but needs to get markedly better. Braden Smith had to move from guard to tackle in the spring just so Auburn could field a competitive unit. Austin Golson is an anchor at center, but the guards – Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton – are unknowns at guard. Depth in the spring practically didn’t exist; Prince Tega Wanogho is the only experienced option at tackle, while Florida State transfer Wilson Bell is either going to push Horton for a starting job, or he’ll be the swing guard. One injury and this could all fall apart.

Defensive/ST breakdown: Predictably, the rush defense was on point last year, leading to a ranking of 7th in scoring defense. Auburn is happy with its depth situation there heading into 2017. Marlon Davidson, probably the best player on the line, is battling nagging injuries and won’t start the season at 100 percent, but Auburn doesn’t absolutely have to have him at that level. Dontavius Russell and Andrew Williams held the other two starting spots coming out of spring. The real key to making this go is whether Byron Cowart can begin to live up to expectations and provide capable backup at the end slots. If he can’t, Auburn needs to move on decisively, and work on developing other highly-rated talent like Derrick Brown and Nick Coe. Another issue is lack of solid depth at the nose position. Either lightly-regarded Jaunta’vius Johnson, who missed 2016 with injury, or a true freshman, most likely Tashawn Manning or Tyrone Truesdell, will have to step up. Things are looking up at linebacker, where Deshaun Davis, Tre Williams and Darrell Williams form the nucleus of a tough-to-deal-with inside linebacker group. Auburn’s version of the Jack position will be filled most likely by Paul James III or Jeff Holland. They’re veterans, but both need to find a higher plateau.

The move to a 3-3-5 as a base (within the 3-4 over/under concept) didn’t quite have the intended effect on the pass defense, which ranked 67th overall in 2016. All eyes will be on the safety group, specifically Tray Matthews, who has one final chance to get it all right. Stephen Roberts has been more consistent up to this point, and will start next to him. Either Daniel Thomas or Jeremiah Dinson will be the nickel. Carlton Davis ought to provide a steadying force at cornerback, , but that’s where the good news ends. Aside from reserve safety Nick Ruffin, there aren’t many veteran faces here. Senior Jason Smith was moved over from receiver to help things out, and might just end up pushing Matthews for playing time. Auburn didn’t get a lot of help in February, as only CB Traivon Leonard was a pure DB add. Like offensive line, Auburn could ill afford any injuries here.

As long as Daniel Carlson stays healthy, Auburn will be a danger to get at least some points any time it reaches the opponent’s 40-yard line. Carlson is one of the best, if not the best placekicker in the nation. Ian Shannon will be the new punter, but Auburn seems to grow specialists like kudzu, so the assumption is that Shannon will be Ray Guy reincarnate. The return game will need some attention, as Franklin was expected to be the guy on punt returns as well as one half of the kickoff return unit. But the Tigers aren’t lacking for athletes.

Overall Trend: Up. The Tigers are starting to put the pieces of a contender back together again, but the roster is very top-heavy talent wise. Auburn’s 1 through 20 are about as good as anyone’s in the league; it’s 21 through 60 that are the issue. As long as two entire units, OL and DB, are so dependent on pristine health and a little touch of miraculous depth development, it’s hard to see Auburn as a contender. But it’s not hard to see improvement.

Proceed to 2017 LSU Preview


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