Previews 2018: Arkansas, Auburn and LSU


 

Jul 19, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn talks to the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 19, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn talks to the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn Tigers

Projected record: 9-3 (MSU, UGA, UA); 5-3 and 3rd SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 6 (FL, HB, LT, RG, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (DT/E, DT, NT, MLB, RCB, FS)
Returning specialists: 0

Unit ratings

QB: Vg DL: Vg
RB: Fr LB: Av
WR: Av DB: Fr
OL: Fr ST: Av

Overview: The SEC’s most momentum-driven team gets a chance to boost its championship hopes early with an opener against Washington. If Auburn wins that game, the Tigers could well enter November undefeated, and after that anything is possible. But this is also a team taking a decided step back on both lines of scrimmage, and a potentially troublesome situation at running back is largely being glossed over by staff and media alike. The schedule is also against Auburn late in the year, and losses to Georgia and Alabama could once again bring heat to Gus Malzahn.

Offensive breakdown: Jarrett Stidham could have taken off for the NFL but didn’t, and Auburn will have to rely on him even more heavily in 2018. Stidham proved to be a good fit for Auburn’s attack, finally giving Malzahn a pass-first ball distributor who had both accuracy and arm strength. His scrambling ability is just enough to make him a factor in the running game, but that will never be Stidham’s stock-in-trade. There is good depth behind him, with the biggest question being when Joey Gatewood will finally pass Malik Willis for the backup job. Gatewood may prove to be one of the best QBs Malzahn has signed at Auburn before it’s all done.

The offensive line situation, though, could make all the quarterbacks’ duties more difficult. Auburn should be OK at guard, as both Marquel Harrell and returning starter Mike Horton can play the position well. The question marks are the tackles. Prince Tega Wanogho was one of the worst left tackles in the SEC last year, and he’s really still learning how to play the position at a basic level. If he can’t improve his technique quickly, Auburn might have to start freshmen on both sides. For now, Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley are competing solely for the right tackle slot. Troxell would probably be the one to move left if needed. At center, Auburn likes another freshman, Nick Brahms, but an injury has set him behind holdover junior Kaleb Kim.

Auburn’s system tends to make stars at running back out of ordinary talents – a good thing, because presumptive starter Kam Martin is an ordinary talent. Auburn tends to use either massive, bruising backs, or scatbacks, and Martin is cut from the scatback mold. JaTarvious Whitlow, true freshman Asa Martin and big back Malik Miller round out the depth chart. Miller has been cutting weight to try to get his speed up, but apart from Martin, there isn’t really a back here with any kind of “wow” factor. Auburn’s H-back position, which is either a fullback or tight end by alignment, includes Chandler Cox, who is a decent runner when given the chance and a good receiver. His backup, Spencer Nigh, has an almost cartoonish build (6’0”, 275) and wears number 99 even though he plays in the backfield.

Auburn has a solid receiver corps, if it can stop getting hurt. Both Will Hastings and Eli Stove are out with leg injuries as camp starts, and Stove in particular had developed into a weapon as Auburn’s resident jet sweep artist. With them out, most of the work will fall to more traditional receivers Ryan Davis, Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. While those three could play for anyone in the league, depth falls off precipitously and fast. Shedrick Jackson came out of the spring as Davis’ backup at split end, but he’s not an impact player. The next-most-used receiver for now might end up being backup tight end Sal Cannella. Starter Jalen Harris had a couple of good games last year but was largely inconsistent and out of the public eye.

Defensive/ST breakdown: The defensive line will again lead the team, and the starting trio of tackle/end Marlon Davidson and tackles Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell may be the best in the league. But the question of depth is yet to be answered beyond Nick Coe, who is probably as good as the starters. Tyrone Truesdell is the best of the interior players, and Andrew Williams has significant experience but lacks the explosiveness of Brown. True freshman Coynis Miller might end up being the best of the second-line players, but probably not this year. All three of the starters are expected to be drafted, so this is sort of a last hurrah for this particular group.

Auburn runs the same 3-4 over/under Alabama does, owing to Kevin Steele taking the system with him from Alabama. T.D. Moultry and Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant are battling to replace Jeff Holland there. Neither Moultry nor Bryant appear to have Holland’s ability, but Holland himself was made more effective by getting to play next to Davidson, Brown, et al. The other three linebacker positions come down to respected senior Deshaun Davis in the middle and senior role players Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson, both of whom were more nickel/dime players last year, flanking him. There’s somewhat of a drop-off behind the starters, so staying healthy will be a key consideration.

Every year, Auburn claims to have the secondary fixed, and then something happens along the way. While the Tigers ranked well in overall pass defense statistics in 2017, there were occasional lapses, and the team’s top three players from a year ago are all gone now. Cornerback Jamel Dean returns, as does safety Jeremiah Dinson. While both have had their foibles in the past, they’re being looked to this year as leaders. Jarvaris Davis came out of spring as the off-corner and Daniel Thomas as the new strong safety. All four starters are juniors. Depth was of particular concern, as the reserve safeties are freshmen and the corner package was thin enough that receiver Noah Igbinoghene had to move over for a time. He’s listed back at receiver in fall camp, which means Auburn must feel good about Travion Leonard at that spot. True freshmen Christian Tutt and Jamien Sherwood might find roles early on.

Reputation alone probably is what Auburn to reach a ranking of “Average” in TideFans.com/NARCAS’s preseason rankings, because both kickers are new. Daniel Carlson yields the placekicking spot to his brother Anders, while returning punter Aidan Marshall is expected to give up his spot to Australian Rules Football prospect Arryn Siposs. Despite Auburn having a deep collection of skill talent every year, the Tigers have struggled to make an impact on returns recently.

Overall Trend: Neutral. The losses on offense are mitigated somewhat by strong recruiting on defense and a defensive line that will be tough to move. Even with the line’s prowess last year, though, Auburn held only one team, Georgia Southern, to single digits and looked very average in the postseason. The offense almost can’t help taking a step back in 2018, which is going to put a lot of pressure on a back seven that returns just three starters and was often the reason for Auburn’s troubles a year ago.

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