The end of the 2017 season was disappointing for Auburn football, but Gus Malzahn stayed focused on the bright future ahead. The Tigers are losing a key group of leaders and playmakers, but they also are returning several players with experience. And as Malzahn likes to say, that means a lot in the Southeastern Conference.
Some things are certainties. Auburn returns its capable wide receivers unit and a long list of players on the defensive side of the ball. And of course, the news that quarterback Jarrett Stidham would be around for one more year was a game-changer. The Tigers have started to pull recruits away from Athens, Ga., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., meaning newcomers will dress and be eager to step on the field.
Positives seem to be everywhere, but that doesn’t mean questions don’t exist. Most of the concerns involve Auburn’ offense. Kerryon Johnson, Kamryn Pettway and a slew of outstanding offensive linemen are next-level bound. More questions will pop up in the coming months, especially as September approaches, but for now, here are the five most pressing questions Auburn must answer.
1. Who will emerge as Auburn’s go-to running back?
The departures of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway leave a huge hole in the Auburn backfield that, one way or another, has to be filled. Running the football hasn’t been difficult for the Tigers under Gus Malzahn and running backs coach Tim Horton, and once again, there are options.
The narrative that likely will be told through the spring and summer is that the unit will move the ball by committee. Coaches will proclaim full confidence in each back, and while that might be genuine, at a certain point one player has to start — or at least, make the first start.
Experience should play a major part in the final decision, but that won’t be the most important factor. Just because Kam Martin notched the third-most carries by a running back behind Johnson and Pettway in 2017 (74) doesn’t mean he’ll lead the way in 2018. Every Auburn running back will be showcased during the Tigers’ A-Day spring game, but the best indication of who will attempt the most carries is the players.
During Peach Bowl practices, freshman JaTarvious Whitlow, who moved to running back from wide receiver, elicited the same eyebrow raises and praise Willis did. The Lafayette, Ala., native’s elusive explosiveness will fit nicely into coordinator Chip Lindsey’s offense. And he’ll have the whole summer to add good weight to his frame in advance of an SEC schedule.
Devan Barrett, Malik Miller and Kam Martin will play a part. Perhaps the best news for the Tigers is that top recruits are still looking to make a name for themselves at RBU. That’s where newcomer Asa Martin fits into the equation. However, Whitlow has the most upside and may have been the most impressive.
Some productivity also could come from the backup quarterback spot. Student-athletes raved about dual-threat QB Malik Willis last spring, and the freshman didn’t disappoint. When the chances arose, even in garbage time, Willis played with confidence and swagger that made fans’ imaginations run wild.
2. How ready will Auburn’s offensive line be under J.B. Grimes come September?
Former offensive line coach Herb Hand had all the pieces he needed last season, but when Auburn’s line stepped into Death Valley in Week 2 against Clemson, the unit was far from ready. Now, J.B. Grimes is back in charge and ready for another go-round.
Unfortunately, Grimes won’t have as many set pieces. Mike Horton, Prince Tega Wanogho and Marquel Harrell will return and offer important experience. Every second the trio plays will be key because they will have to lead the way for some very talented freshmen. Expect Calvin Ashley and Nick Brahms to fill out the line and backup battles to rage.
There’s still time for Auburn to add some linemen ― think graduate transfers ― too. For whichever players end up in Grimes’ offensive line room, the coach’s reputation precedes him.
During his first stint at Auburn, the Tigers managed the biggest turnaround in college football history, running all the way to the SEC Championship Game. Greg Robinson and Reese Dismukes were just a couple of the stars under Grimes’ tutelage. The veteran coach will have his group as ready as possible when Auburn makes another trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Sept. 1 to kick off the season against Washington.
3. Who will be Auburn’s backup QB?
Jarrett Stidham will be the starting quarterback as long as he chooses to wear an Auburn jersey. The rising junior was just a few shaky performances away from being a serious Heisman Trophy contender. Stidham and Chip Lindsey will need someone who’s prepared to step in should any obstacles or issues arise. But will it be Willis or freshman phenom Joey Gatewood?
Cam Newton comparisons are difficult to ignore, and they only bring more pressure. So think of a Nick Marshall comparison instead. Enter Malik Willis. Gatewood has a couple of inches on Willis, and undoubtedly a bright future, but the kid from Atlanta has a year on Gatewood in Lindsey’s system. Willis also comes with, as previously mentioned, edge and attitude to match his talent.
There’s one more thing Willis already has that Gatewood will have to earn: respect. Willis is likable and already has shown his teammates he can lead. Gatewood’s time will come, but not before Willis gets his shot.
4. Can Kevin Steele field an even better defense for the third straight year?
The days of wondering how to replace Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams are long gone. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s second year at Auburn was somewhat surprising, at least for those outside the defensive meeting rooms. Players and coaches insisted the defense might be better without four NFL players, but most were skeptical.
Jeff “Sensei Mud” Holland, Carlton Davis and Co. didn’t disappoint. Of course, Auburn didn’t lose many seniors, but the ones who did make an exit after the Peach Bowl were one of a kind. Tray Matthews, Tre’ Williams and Stephen Roberts played with energy that fueled the entire defense. They will be missed, but the trio (and others who came before them) groomed Auburn’s young defensive standouts to take over, and they aren’t taking that responsibility lightly.
Players such as T. D. Moultry, Big Kat Bryant and Jordyn Peters strung together memorable plays during their initial year, but that’s not good enough for these underclassmen. It will be extremely difficult for Steele to top his second season on The Plains, but it’s not out of the question. In fact, it’s likely. The expectation is to be a top 10 defense, and Steele has proved he’s good at getting what he wants out of his defense.
5. Who will emerge as Auburn football’s top pass rusher?
After the Peach Bowl, T.D. Moultry explained that it took some time for him to get used to wearing Carl Lawson’s number. The underclassman has a lot of respect for Lawson, who finished his rookie season in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals a few weeks ago, but he also hopes to make the number, and the buck position, his own.
Defensive coaches rave about Moultry’s skill set. They dubbed him an effort guy early on. It also was reassuring to see the youngster get significant time at the end of the season. Fortunately for Moultry, he’s got competition — and working alongside Big Kat Bryant is only going to make the duo more threatening.
Right now it looks as if Moultry will start and take over as the new sack master, but it’s going to be a long, hot summer in Alabama. Bryant, a Georgia native, is yearning to return to the SEC title game just as much as Moultry is. Both have the respect of teammates, confidence and striking athleticism. The one who works harder in the weight room has the better chance to shake things up, but Moultry will be tough to beat out.