AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football was able to answer a few questions during spring practice — or at least come closer to the answers that fans will want to know before the season kicks off Sept. 1 against Washington.
Until camp opens again in either late July or early August, the Tigers will go to work away from the watchful eyes of media members and cameras. The work that happens in the summer will be crucial for an Auburn team looking to repeat as SEC West champion and get back into the College Football Playoff picture.
The absence of formal practice won’t stop the storylines from churning. Something has to fill these long months without football. Here are the six biggest ones that will dominate the summer on the Plains.
Auburn’s running backs battle rages on
Auburn’s plan was to cut its battle of the running backs down to three competitors after spring practice. That means one will have to step back among Kam Martin, JaTarvious Whitlow, Malik Miller and Asa Martin, as Devan Barrett is in a new-look hybrid role at receiver.
Whitlow might have the most buzz exiting spring practice, but coaches like Kam Martin and Miller’s experience. This unit is built for a deeper rotation than the workhorse-heavy attack plan of seasons past, so there might not be a real “winner” here.
Calvin Ashley vs. Austin Troxell at right tackle
Two redshirt freshmen are in a heated battle at right tackle, as Austin Troxell moved ahead of former 5-star Calvin Ashley in terms of first-team reps during the spring. Malzahn and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes both like the competition there.
Ashley has all the talent to turn into a dominant tackle at the SEC level, but it just hasn’t all clicked early in his Auburn career. This battle with Troxell could light a fire in him over the summer months. But if Troxell continues to prove he’s the better option, Auburn should be strong on the right side in 2018.
Getting and staying healthy at center
Kaleb Kim and Nick Brahms both missed the last stretch of spring practice with leg injuries. The two major contenders for the center battle should be back for summer workouts, where the competition will continue at what is arguably the second-most important position in the Auburn offense.
Kim seemed to be the favorite for most of the spring, as he took most of the first-team reps during open practice viewing periods. If he can stay healthy, Brahms looks like the ideal centerpiece of an offensive line for years to come. Kim’s experience could be the difference-maker in this battle.
Finalize the nickel and dime package shuffles
Auburn’s dominant defense put on a show at A-Day, and Kevin Steele should know almost all of his starting 11 by now. The questions will come whenever the Tigers have to line up in nickel and dime packages, as they have a large number of versatile defensive backs who can mix and match.
Is Javaris Davis better at cornerback or nickel? Where does Jordyn Peters fit after an ankle injury slowed down his spring? Which freshman safety gets the most minutes if Jeremiah Dinson or Daniel Thomas move in one of these packages? There are plenty of possibilities here for Steele, Greg Brown and Marcus Woodson to pick.
Will any freshman WRs break into the rotation?
Eli Stove and Will Hastings will continue to recover from their respective ACL tears, and there’s a chance neither of them play at all in 2018. That opens the door for a new face or two to play immediately at wide receiver. After adding Shedrick Jackson in the spring, Auburn will welcome former 4-stars Matthew Hill, Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz over the summer.
Hill was the highest-rated of the bunch, but Schwartz’s Olympic-caliber speed will be hard to leave on the sidelines. Williams brings an added element of size at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds. If these young receivers can make a good impression in the summer, that will go a long way toward playing time in the fall.
Special teams overhaul gets a new face
Auburn’s special teams play was mediocre last year, and the rebuilding effort began in the spring with a new cast of characters. Punting still left something to be desired, though. That should change this spring with the arrival of Australian Rules football import Arryn Siposs.
This punting situation looks like Siposs’ job to lose. Australian punters have become some of the best in college football over the last decade, and Auburn has one of its own now. How quickly Siposs adapts to his new home and his new team will be key for a unit that needs something different in 2018.