AUBURN, Ala. — On paper, Auburn football should have its most balanced roster under Gus Malzahn in 2017. But each positive aspect of the Tigers roster has a potentially troublesome flip side. Here’s a preview of Auburn’s upcoming season using each position’s biggest reason for confidence and its biggest reason for caution.
There’s a lot for Auburn fans to like about the Tigers’ offensive line in 2017. Although they lost a pair of starters, few teams in the country can compare to the veteran expertise Auburn will have in the trenches this fall.
Auburn has a versatile All-American candidate who might be a better fit at his new position on the edge. Senior experience is everywhere thanks to consistent success in the graduate transfer market under head coach Gus Malzahn. And there are still several former blue-chip linemen who haven’t had a chance to crack the starting lineup yet.
But, just like every other position on the offense, the offensive line must adjust to some of the newness that comes with a first-year offensive coordinator and a potential change at quarterback.
Replacing an excellent multi-year starter and a surprisingly efficient one-year first-teamer won’t necessarily be easy, even with the numbers Auburn has up front.
2017 Auburn football offensive line
- Darius James (Senior; 6-foot-4 and 324 pounds)
- Braden Smith (Senior; 6-foot-6 and 303 pounds)
- Prince Tega Wanogho (Sophomore; 6-foot-7 and 301 pounds)
- Prince Sammons (Redshirt freshman; 6-foot-7 and 292 pounds)
- Bailey Sharp (Sophomore; 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds)
- Calvin Ashley (True freshman; 6-foot-6 and 350 pounds)
- Austin Troxell (True freshman; 6-foot-6 and 292 pounds)
- Brodarious Hamm (True freshman; 6-foot-5 and 344 pounds)
- Tucker Brown (Junior; 6-foot-3 and 288 pounds)*
- Wilson Bell (Senior; 6-foot-5 and 355 pounds)
- Mike Horton (Sophomore; 6-foot-4 and 318 pounds)
- Marquel Harrell (Sophomore; 6-foot-3 and 308 pounds)
- Tyler Carr (Sophomore; 6-foot-5 and 316 pounds)
- Nick Brahms (True freshman; 6-foot-3 and 276 pounds)
- Ryan Meneely (Sophomore; 6-foot-2 and 322 pounds)*
- Peyton Nance (True freshman; 5-foot-11 and 318 pounds)*
- Austin Golson (Senior; 6-foot-5 and 312 pounds)
- Casey Dunn (Senior; 6-foot-4 and 292 pounds)
- Kaleb Kim (Sophomore; 6-foot-4 and 293 pounds)
- Trent Kelley (True freshman; 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds)*
CONFIDENCE: A massive amount of experience
According to longtime college football expert Phil Steele, only two teams in all of major college football have more returning experience on the offensive line than Auburn. The Tigers return 106 career starts up front, and that’s after losing two starters to the NFL this past offseason.
Experience is everywhere up front for Auburn assistant Herb Hand and his unit. Braden Smith enters his third season as a full-time starter, but he moved from right guard to right tackle in spring ball. Austin Golson has started every one of his games at Auburn, and he played a full season at Ole Miss at the start of his career. Darius James came to Auburn from Texas with experience and added eight starts in 2016.
The Tigers also got two large boosts in offensive line experience with the graduate transfers of former Florida State guard Wilson Bell and Jacksonville State center Casey Dunn. Both of them were multi-year starters at their previous campuses.
Auburn already had a good amount of depth coming back with the likes of Mike Horton, Marquel Harrell, Prince Tega Wanogho and Prince Micheal Sammons. The Tigers also had three blue-chip offensive line signees lined up before adding the graduate transfers — including former 5-star Calvin Ashley.
Offensive line experience is a classic predictor for future success in college football. While Auburn has a couple of major holes to fill — and it still wants to mix and match for the best combinations — it can rely on a lot of faces who have played in the trenches at an extremely high level.
CAUTION: Both starting guards must be replaced
In a power-running scheme like Auburn has and probably will continue to employ, guard play is huge. The Tigers love to pull their guards to pave the way for big plays on the ground. Alex Kozan became one of the SEC’s best offensive linemen for his consistency at that spot, and Smith generated All-American buzz for his work there, too.
But with Smith moving to right tackle — a position that will have greater pass protection importance in Chip Lindsey’s offense — Auburn has to replace both guards this fall. Horton looked to have the inside track on the right guard spot in spring, while Harrell was still a question mark at left guard.
“When you have a guy, Alex Kozan, who’s really been the anchor there for so many years, it’s a natural deal,” Hand said this spring. “Marquel is doing fine. We just have to fine-tune his technique and fundamentals. He understands the ‘who-tos.’ His ‘how-tos’ have got to get more consistent. But that’s my puzzle piece right now.”
Hand has some contingency plans in place, and Bell will have a great shot to claim one of those starting jobs in preseason practices. James and Golson have the ability to move to different spots and create new combinations.
The Tigers return so much firepower in the backfield, but they need a strong offensive line to reach their full rushing potential. Although Auburn has experienced bodies to plug into the depth chart, both guards will be first-time starters in a Tigers uniform. That could open things up for some growing pains, especially in the first half of the season.