AUBURN, Ala. — The game won’t count in any record book, and the coaching staff’s ultimate goal will be an injury-free showcase that doesn’t show too much for future opponents. But Auburn football’s 2017 A-Day spring game definitely won’t be one to ignore.
This year’s A-Day game features several noteworthy debuts on the offensive side of the ball and a much-needed feeling of consistency on what was a constantly shifting defense. The Tigers want to answer several key questions at certain positions before spring practices end early next week, and A-Day will go a long way in getting to that point.
What should Auburn football fans pay attention to the most when the spring game kicks off at 2 p.m. ET/1 p.m. CT on Saturday on the SEC Network? Here are 10 things to watch in Jordan-Hare Stadium’s return to football.
1. Jarrett Stidham
Perhaps the biggest transfer of the college football offseason will take the field in front of Auburn fans for the first time Saturday. Stidham, the projected starting quarterback, will lead Auburn’s first-team offense in his first “game” as a Tiger.
While Auburn will stick to the basics on offense, the coaching staff should give Stidham several chances to show off his strong arm. With returning starter Sean White sitting out as part of his recovery from a forearm injury, the stage is set for Stidham to make a statement in his first game with a crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
2. Debut of Chip Lindsey’s offense
For the first time since Gus Malzahn arrived at Auburn, a new face will run the offense at A-Day. First-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has control of the Tigers’ attack, and Malzahn brought him back to the Plains to breathe new life into Auburn’s passing game. The new era has its public debut Saturday.
However, Malzahn stays guarded in practice situations, not wanting to give out much information in a televised setting. With a new offensive coordinator in place, Auburn won’t open up the full playbook at A-Day. But Tigers fans should be able to see several tweaks Lindsey brings to the offense — including run-pass options, more emphasis on throwing the ball and drop-back pass plays.
3. Malik Willis and Woody Barrett
True freshman quarterback Malik Willis has been the surprise of spring camp. With White out injured, Willis stepped up to make impressive plays in practice and scrimmage situations, mostly with the second-team offense. Willis is elusive and has a lively arm, which give him the potential to make a few highlight-reel plays at A-Day.
Redshirt freshman Woody Barrett’s stock seemed to drop after a solid set of bowl practices as Willis became the talk of the quarterbacks, non-Stidham division. But a vocal section of the Auburn fan base has wanted to see what Barrett is made of for quite some time. They’ll get their chance Saturday.
4. Progress of young wide receiver group
Even without sophomore Kyle Davis, Auburn’s receiver group has plenty of young options to choose from as it builds toward the 2017 season. Jason Smith, Ryan Davis, Will Hastings and converted quarterback John Franklin III are the key upperclassmen in the group.
Most of the attention has gone to the likes of Darius Slayton, Nate Craig-Myers, Eli Stove, Marquis McClain and versatile tight end Sal Cannella — all underclassmen. That group, with the addition of Kyle Davis, should make up the bulk of the starting rotation this fall. It’s time to show how much progress they’ve made in an offense that should air it out more.
5. Who will step up on the defensive line?
Auburn must replace the production of star defensive tackle Montravius Adams and defensive end Carl Lawson this season. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner said he wanted at least 10 championship-quality linemen by the start of the season. He has options behind the likes of Marlon Davidson, Dontavius Russell, Jeff Holland and Derrick Brown. But he needs more.
Keep an eye on former 5-star recruit Byron Cowart, who looks like a new man after moving from defensive end to defensive tackle this spring. Returning edge rusher Paul James III and pickle-loving 6-foot-6 powerhouse Nick Coe are the next wave at end. Showing out at A-Day would go a long way toward getting into Garner’s 10.
6. New-look offensive line
Like the defensive line, Auburn has two quality starters to replace on the offensive line. Former right guard Braden Smith shifted out to right tackle to replace Robert Leff, and he’s seemed to lock down that position. Mike Horton filled in the right guard spot well. However, the left guard spot is still up for grabs — and it could change when Jacksonville State transfer Casey Dunn arrives in the summer.
Replacing both guards will be tough for the Tigers, as they were the heartbeat of the SEC’s top rushing attack last season. Sophomore Prince Tega Wanogho could move closer to a regular season role with a good showing at tackle Saturday. This has quietly been one of the biggest storylines of the offseason for Auburn.
7. Progress of pass defense
Another position group, another duo to replace. Auburn returns its top three safeties — all seniors — in Tray Matthews, Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin. Carlton Davis should have a cornerback job locked down again. However, the Tigers need replacements for breakout 2016 star Josh Holsey at corner and longtime nickel fixture Rudy Ford.
Auburn has plenty of options at those two positions, even a couple who didn’t participate fully this spring. The Tigers like what they see in the speedy Javaris Davis at corner, and the battle between Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas has been a good one. The extra work in practice going up against a more balanced offense should show at A-Day.
8. The race for the No. 3 running back job
Auburn knows what it has at the top two running back spots this season. Junior Kamryn Pettway led the SEC in rushing yards per game last season — he might even sit out A-Day — and junior Kerryon Johnson can serve a number of purposes as a key reserve. However, running backs coach Tim Horton wants clarity behind those two.
Sophomore Kam Martin finished the 2016 as the No. 3 running back, but redshirt freshman Malik Miller had it before a season-ending knee injury. Walk-on running back C.J. Tolbert could easily have another strong A-Day performance after a promising spring. Watch out for the battle between Martin and Miller.
9. A new era for Auburn’s H-backs and tight ends?
Lindsey liked versatility with the “extra man,” so to speak, in his offense at Arizona State. One player could shift between H-back, tight end and fourth receiver all on the same drive. In the past, though, Auburn used the two positions in clearly defined roles. That could change, starting Saturday.
Chandler Cox could get some opportunities to catch the ball at starting H-back. Jalen Harris, Auburn’s only true hand-in-the-dirt tight end, could move around. And Cannella could benefit greatly from showing that he can be a solid blocker in addition to his potential as a red-zone receiving threat.
10. Is the buzz back?
Last spring, Auburn was fresh off a disappointing 7-6 season, and the A-Day attendance was the worst of the Malzahn era. This year, the addition of Stidham and Lindsey, combined with a better 2016 campaign, should make for a better buzz around Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
Auburn shouldn’t expect a packed house Saturday, but there should be a better turnout from the orange and blue faithful. Fans have plenty of storylines to observe, even in an exhibition among teammates. This weekend could set the tone for how the Plains feels in early September.