AUBURN, Ala. — This is the SEC Country Auburn Mailbag, where Tigers beat reporter Justin Ferguson answers questions on all things Auburn football, basketball or anything else going down on the Plains.
It’s A-Day week in Auburn, and the Tigers will wrap up their 2017 spring camp in the next few days. This week’s mailbag focuses mostly on the future of Auburn in the trenches after the departure of key players such as Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Alex Kozan.
There’s also the discussion of where the Auburn football job ranks in the SEC as well as a hoops projection and a hypothetical Gus Malzahn play straight out of a movie. Let’s get to it.
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@jthuber96: How much of a drop-off should we expect on the defensive line with the loss of Lawson and Adams?
Depth-wise, Auburn should be in fine shape on the defensive line for 2017. While Marlon Davidson and Dontavius Russell are the only returning starters, think of all the returning linemen who have at least some experience in SEC play — Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown, Andrew Williams, Paul James III and Byron Cowart.
Throw in highly touted redshirt freshmen such as Nick Coe — who has serious star potential — and Antwuan Jackson Jr., and Auburn has the basis for a strong defensive line. Tre Threat has an intriguing skill set at pass rusher after moving from inside linebacker. The numbers are already there.
Production-wise, though, Auburn must replace 23 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks from Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. As defensive line coach Rodney Garner says, that won’t be replaced by just a couple of players. Auburn needs everyone of those rising players to take a step forward. That means players such as Holland and Cowart who were often times half-seconds away from big plays in 2016 must close that gap.
Fortunately for Auburn, Lawson and Adams proved that can happen quickly. Neither had fantastic numbers, at least on a consistent basis, until last season. The Tigers have plenty of options on the edge, and the interior line could be stronger as a whole in 2017 with the development of Brown, Cowart and Jackson.
Auburn has the talent in place to replace those two star players, so don’t expect a massive drop-off. The depth is reminiscent of the 2013 and 2016 lines. It’s just a matter of several individuals getting to that next level over the course of the next few months.
@B_theWDE2: Does being a late enrollee hurt Big Cat’s chances of seeing the field?
The two end spots on Auburn’s defensive lines continue to be some of the most interesting ones on the roster. Right now, Holland seems like the favorite to start at Buck. James and Threat are behind him. Garner flatly said last week Coe was the only player repping behind Davidson at the traditional end spot.
That makes it sound like Auburn could use more depth there. But Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant is a natural Buck, and Garner has made it clear that’s where he’ll play at Auburn. If James plays more of a defensive end role in the fall, Bryant has a clearer chance to earn a role at Buck. There’s also the possibility of Threat moving back to linebacker, but coaches like what they’ve seen out of him there.
Don’t expect Bryant to be a strong candidate for a starting job on this veteran defense as a non-early enrollee. However, his natural pass rushing skills could lead to early playing time if he can get off to a good start in fall camp. Auburn is clearly high on his talent, and I would expect Garner to get him on the field as a true freshman — especially with how deep he wants to get up front.
Steve Greco (Facebook): Braden Smith seems more suited for his natural position at guard. What do you think about leaving him there and repping the two Princes at right tackle?
Braden Smith is a natural “swing” player on the offensive line. He’s a natural guard, but he has the size and the skill set to move out to offensive tackle without much problem. This spring, Auburn has repped him almost exclusively at his new position of right tackle, where he’s set to replace Robert Leff. It’s a good fit for him, as he played some tackle early in his Auburn career.
As for the Princes — sophomore Prince Tega Wanogho and redshirt freshman Prince Micheal Sammons — they’ve occupied different roles this spring. Wanogho played mostly right tackle all last season, and Auburn has only worked him at left tackle so far in camp. Sammons, who reps on the right side, is behind Wanogho right now in terms of development.
In my opinion, current first-team right guard Mike Horton is the next star interior lineman for Auburn. Those inside the program love what he brings to the table as a potential starter. Left guard is the shakier option, and center Austin Golson could easily move there if Jacksonville State transfer Casey Dunn wins a job this fall.
For now, I think Smith at right tackle is the best option for Auburn’s offensive line. That creates a natural opening for Horton, and it gives Sammons more time to develop at right tackle. Wanogho should continue to compete at left tackle with Darius James and possibly play a sixth man role if he doesn’t win a job this year. The 2018 season should be the coronation year for the Princes.
@OlegZeltser: If Auburn job comes open (not saying it will or should) where would you rank it in the SEC West (4th IMO) and SEC as a whole (8th IMO)
This is a great question. So, hypothetically, if every school in the SEC had a head coaching vacancy, how would you rank the jobs?
I believe Auburn is definitely behind Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU in this exercise. Alabama has more money than anyone else in the league and the strongest championship tradition. Florida and Georgia are in two of the most talent-rich states in the country, and they have an easier road in the SEC East. LSU has a virtual monopoly on the always-talented Louisiana talent market and easy access to Texas for recruiting.
Texas A&M’s geography and huge financial resources put it ahead of Auburn as well. Tennessee would just edge out Auburn because of its support, geography and place in the East — but the leadership situation there isn’t a strong suit. But I wouldn’t place any other SEC program ahead of Auburn, which has a better winning tradition than the likes of South Carolina, Arkansas and the Mississippi schools.
Auburn is firmly in the second tier of jobs in the SEC — which still makes it one of the best in college football. It has the resources, proximity to top recruiting areas and fan support to consistently compete with anyone in the league. But it’s also in the sport’s toughest division, which makes runs to Atlanta easier for the likes of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Fourth in the SEC West sounds right to me, and I would probably put Auburn in a tie for sixth with Tennessee. I could see the merits of both the Tigers and the Volunteers in this debate. But Auburn is a top half job in the SEC, and it’s proven it can provide the framework for championships without being the biggest program in any of its top recruiting states.
@DMayes34: Do you see Bruce Pearl leading AU basketball to a similar breakthrough in years four and five like Frank Martin at USC?
This is a great question. Bruce Pearl will head into his fourth year at Auburn in 2017-18, and he still hasn’t reached the postseason. The same went for Frank Martin at South Carolina, where he had his first winning season in year three before making it to the NIT in year four. Then, of course, the Gamecocks made it to the NCAA Tournament in year five under Martin and ran all the way to the Final Four.
Martin had a young team in his third year, and it turned some of the lumps it took that season into real progress in his fourth campaign. One advantage Pearl has over Martin is that he’s recruited at a higher level for Auburn than Martin has had at South Carolina.
However, South Carolina became what it is today by building its team around a fantastic, well-coached defense. The Gamecocks ranked 21st, 36th and 3rd nationally in defensive rating by KenPom over the last three seasons. That was Auburn’s biggest problem in 2016-17. Great defense travels well, and Auburn just hasn’t developed that yet.
It’s going to take a massive defensive overhaul this offseason for Auburn to move toward a South Carolina-like rise. However, the Tigers have plenty of talent, especially on offense, and top-notch recruiting classes continue to flow into the program.
Pearl told fans to expect Auburn to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth next season. It’ll be tough without drastic defensive improvement, but nowhere near impossible. If Auburn can reach some sort of postseason success in 2017-18 with a sophomore-heavy team, it should have a strong, experienced team by SEC standards for year five.
@grahamcarr2: Gus calls in a Fake 23 Blast with a Backside George Reverse to win the Iron Bowl. Which AU player is your Rev and Sunshine on the play?
The final play in “Remember The Titans” — a movie I watched dozens of times growing up — could actually work well for this year’s Auburn team.
So Rev, the injured quarterback who comes off the bench to take the game-winning reverse, lines up at receiver on the final play. The opposing coaching staff in the movie sees Rev check in and immediately thinks the Titans are going to use his speed to burn them on a deep pass.
While John Franklin III fits the former quarterback role here, I’m going to go with Eli Stove. He has the size to be an outside receiving threat, and he’s clearly comfortable with the ball in his hand on sweeps. Let’s use Franklin as the decoy who hands off the reverse to Stove. You have to have a skill player who is comfortable with making a secure handoff in this situation.
Sunshine, the starting quarterback in this situation, has to be Jarrett Stidham. The newcomer who moves from out West and later takes over at QB1? This is too easy. Plus, Stidham has the mobility to run up the field and help pave the way for Stove on the reverse.