AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football ended its 2016 season on a sour 8-5 note, but the Tigers believe there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful for the future.
The main source of their hope can be found right here — a projected depth chart for the 2017 season. Auburn could return as many as 16 starters on offense and defense from a team that went to the Sugar Bowl. With the right replacements and some upgrades at certain positions, Auburn could be in line for a huge campaign in the fall.
After taking a way-too-early look at what Auburn has coming on its 2017 schedule, let’s take a detailed walk through the projected depth chart for 2017, starting with the offense.
This is an extremely early projection. Lots of names and roles will change between now and the start of the season. But, judging by the 2016 depth chart, practice observations and what those in the program have said during the last few weeks, here is the best guess at the pecking order when Auburn opens spring practice in a couple of months.
(Players in italics are current 2017 commitments who have not arrived at Auburn yet. Players with asterisks by their names are eligible for medical redshirts for 2016 and could have their classifications changed.)
- Jarrett Stidham, sophomore
- Sean White, junior -OR- John Franklin III, senior
- Woody Barrett, redshirt freshman
- Tyler Queen, sophomore
- Malik Willis, true freshman
Jarrett Stidham is the odds-on favorite to win Auburn’s starting quarterback job, especially after injuries kept Sean White and John Franklin III from putting on a good audition in the Sugar Bowl. White might not be healthy enough in time for spring ball, and Stidham has already gotten a few practices in with the Tigers.
Stidham is the best pure passer Auburn has signed since Jason Campbell in 2000, and he has several starts under his belt against tough Power 5 competition from his time at Baylor. He gives Auburn a stronger arm and some more mobility at quarterback than it had with White at his best.
Both White and Franklin said recently they plan to stay at Auburn, even if they lose the starting quarterback job to Stidham. With his injury issues, White has value as an experienced backup. Franklin could see time in a Wildcat role with his speed, as the Tigers haven’t talked of moving positions yet.
If everyone stays, look for White to be the true No. 2. After redshirting in 2016, Woody Barrett could start getting some snaps as the dual-threat quarterback of the future for Auburn. The Tigers also have Tyler Queen, who has fought through injury problems of his own, along with dynamic early enrollee Malik Willis.
After the way the offense tanked following White’s injuries in 2016, all this depth and potential for development are great things for Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee.
- Kamryn Pettway, junior
- Kerryon Johnson, junior
- Kam Martin, sophomore -OR- Malik Miller, redshirt freshman*
- Stephen Davis Jr., redshirt freshman
- Devan Barrett, true freshman; Alaric Williams, true freshman; Octavius Matthews, junior
Auburn returns all of its top running backs except for Stanton Truitt, the converted receiver who decided to transfer earlier this week.
Kamryn Pettway is back after leading the SEC in rushing yards per game and deciding to stay in school for at least another season. Fellow sophomore Kerryon Johnson will provide the versatile burst behind him as a do-it-all back.
What Auburn does behind its dynamic duo will be interesting. The fleet-footed Kam Martin emerged as the top third option, but Malik Miller brings more size and power. Miller has a chance to get a medical redshirt after only playing in the first few games of the season. If anything, Miller and Martin could be a similar smash-and-dash pairing like Pettway and Johnson.
Behind that quartet, Auburn has Stephen Davis Jr., who didn’t play this season and wasn’t at bowl practices. His status with the team is unknown, but he’s still currently on the roster at running back.
Auburn is bringing in three more players who can play running back in this current class of commitments. JUCO transfer Octavius Matthews might play more of a slot receiver role once he gets to Auburn, but Devan Barrett and Alaric Williams are names to watch for the future in the Tigers’ factory of top-notch rushers.
- Chandler Cox, junior
- Jalen Harris, junior
H-back is straightforward at the moment. Chandler Cox will return for his third straight season of starting as Auburn’s lead-blocking specialist. He could also get some more carries at running back, but the Tigers will have more depth there in 2017.
Jalen Harris is Auburn’s top blocking tight end — more on that position later — but he backed up Cox at the H-back spot this season. He might become more of an in-line, hand-in-the-dirt blocker in 2017 if a newcomer becomes the go-to man in receiving situations.
Wide Receiver – X
- Darius Slayton, sophomore
- Nate Craig-Myers, sophomore
Wide Receiver – Z
- Kyle Davis, sophomore
- Marquis McClain, redshirt freshman
The 2017 season should be owned by the sophomores at wide receiver for Auburn. With a more consistent arm at quarterback, the highly touted receivers will have more opportunities to shine downfield.
Darius Slayton started 11 of 13 games in 2016 at outside receiver, and he should be penciled in as a returning starter in 2017. Slayton finished with the second-most receiving yards on the team in 2016 and is the most consistent blocker on the outside. That’s a huge bonus to potential playing time in this offense.
Kyle Davis has the best chance to start opposite Slayton on the outside. He averaged more than 20 yards per reception and became a go-to on third-down situations. If you’re looking for someone to have a sophomore surge type of season, look no further than this Georgia native.
Behind Slayton and Davis, Nate Craig-Myers is the top dog. Craig-Myers couldn’t get on the field consistently in 2016, as injuries hampered his consistency as a true freshman. But he has an impressive catch radius and frame for a vertical threat. He should be able to rotate with Slayton and Davis on the outside. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain caught plenty of eyes in Sugar Bowl practices and will be a name to watch in spring practice.
Wide Receiver – Slot
- Eli Stove, sophomore
- Ryan Davis, junior
- Jason Smith, senior
- Will Hastings, junior
- Noah Igbinoghene, true freshman
Auburn has plenty of talent at the slot next season, and the Tigers could use several of these players at the same time in 4-wide sets. Eli Stove became the hot hand in the second half of the season for Auburn, picking up six starts in the final seven games of his true freshman campaign. With his speed, route-running and experience at taking handoffs, he should be a key playmaker in 2017. Stove is more at home in the slot, but he can also line up at X or Z next season.
Ryan Davis finished 2016 with the second-most receptions behind the outgoing Tony Stevens. He’s a fierce competitor who blocks extremely well for his smaller size, and he has sure hands in the slot. If Stove lines up more on the outside, Davis is the top player to watch on the inside.
Jason Smith and Will Hastings have experience, but their playing time fell off in the second half of the season behind Auburn’s bright young talents. Hastings got on the field a little more toward the end of the year, but Auburn won’t have to rely on him as much in 2017. Smith’s bigger impact might come in special teams. Auburn’s lone receiver commitment for the 2017 class, Noah Igbinoghene, has the look of a playmaker like Stove in the Tigers offense.
- Jalen Harris, junior -OR- Salvatore Cannella, sophomore
Jalen Harris was Auburn’s lone scholarship tight end in 2016, and he caught two passes for two touchdowns. The Tigers brought JUCO transfer Salvatore Cannella to provide more of a receiving threat at the position. Cannella could also line up at outside receiver some, too, as he doesn’t fit the blocking type of tight end Auburn is used to seeing.
The easiest prediction here is Harris plays in the heavier, run-first packages, while Cannella gives Auburn more of a dynamic receiver down the middle of the field — especially in the red zone.
- Darius James, senior
- Prince Tega Wanogho, sophomore
- Calvin Ashley, true freshman
Darius James started the final nine games of the season at left tackle after Austin Golson’s move back to the inside. James became a consistent force in pass protection as the season went on, and he should be firmly in the driver’s seat for the starting job again in 2017.
Prince Tega Wanogho was the backup to Robert Leff at right tackle during the regular season, but he flipped to left tackle during Sugar Bowl practices. The Nigeria native still needs some time to get used to the speed and talent level of the college game, but he has the physical tools to be a dominant tackle in time.
Five-star offensive tackle Calvin Ashley could make a run for playing time in his first season at Auburn. The Tigers’ highest-rated commitment reaffirmed his pledge Thursday after some message board chatter had him down as a possible flip to Maryland. He projects as a future star at left tackle.
- Marquel Harrell, sophomore
- Tyler Carr, sophomore
- Nick Brahms, true freshman
Things could get interesting at guard for Auburn with Alex Kozan now off to the next level. Marquel Harrell backed up Kozan in 2016, and the outgoing starter spoke highly of him last month.
“Marquel’s been bringing the funk on some people on his pulls,” Kozan said. “Power player. Good versus guys, head-up on them. He’s a very powerful, even when he doesn’t have good technique he’s still able to get movement so he’s a young up and comer.”
Mike Horton could challenge for the starting job here depending on what happens on the right side, but let’s stick to Harrell as the new left guard for right now. Tyler Carr has experience on the inside as a reserve, and 4-star offensive guard signee Nick Brahms will be a high-flying name to watch once he makes his full recovery from a broken leg.
- Austin Golson, senior
- Kaleb Kim, sophomore
- Nick Brahms, true freshman
Austin Golson looked more comfortable at center this season for Auburn, and the Tigers performed better with him over the ball. Golson will be a huge help to whoever takes over at quarterback in 2017. That position in Malzahn’s offense is often referred to as the “second quarterback.”
Kaleb Kim will continue to be groomed as the center of the future, and he’ll have some opportunities to make a name for himself at guard in offensive line coach Herb Hand’s constantly rotating practices. Brahms has some experience at center and could play there post-recovery.
- Braden Smith, senior
- Mike Horton, sophomore
- Bailey Sharp, sophomore
For continuity’s sake, Braden Smith — fresh off announcing he would stay at Auburn for his senior season — is back at right guard. Smith is an athletic mauler at guard, and the Tigers ran the ball exceptionally well behind him and Leff in 2016.
But Smith has the ability to play right tackle, and he could move back there in 2017 if the Tigers want to use him to replace Leff. That would open up an opportunity for Mike Horton, who has long been a practice favorite of players and coaches, to take over at right guard.
Consistency is important on the offensive line, so let’s keep Smith at right guard for now. But don’t be surprised if Auburn tries him on the outside again during spring ball.
- Deon Mix, senior
- Prince Sammons, sophomore
- Austin Troxell, true freshman
If Smith stays at right tackle, watch out for Deon Mix. He repped at right tackle in emergency packages during Sugar Bowl practices. Like Leff, his vast experience as a backup could push him to a strong senior season as a starting tackle.
Prince Sammons received rave reviews at right tackle before Auburn departed for New Orleans, with one teammate saying he didn’t allow a single pressure on that side of the field. Like Wanogho, he is virtually new to the game of football, but there’s a lot to like about his strength and size.
Four-star offensive tackle commitment Austin Troxell is recovering from a major injury of his own, but he projects to be a strong run-blocking force on the right side down the road. Auburn has plenty of depth across the front five, even with the departures of Kozan and Leff.