AUBURN, Ala. — Braden Smith knows a strong guard when he sees one. After all, he just spent two years as a starter there for Auburn football.
The All-SEC selection’s move from guard to right tackle in spring practice, after longtime starting left guard Alex Kozan’s departure, created a hole in Auburn’s depth chart. But Smith sees a lot out of a possible new starter Mike Horton.
“He’s a really talented player,” Smith said last week at SEC Media Days. “I’d say he probably could’ve started last year, especially on some other teams. But he waited his time. He’s putting in the work.”
The 6-foot-4, 318-pound redshirt sophomore has been a hot name around Auburn’s football building since he arrived in 2015. The Atlanta native spent his first year as a redshirt freshman making a name for himself in practices with his strong work on the scout team.
Last year, under first-year offensive line coach Herb Hand, Horton was a reserve at right guard. More importantly for his future, though, Horton played as the extra offensive lineman in jumbo packages.
The “sixth man” has been a success for Auburn under Gus Malzahn. Smith filled the spot in 2014 before taking over as a starter. Robert Leff took the role in 2015 and had an impressive senior season as the Tigers top right tackle in 2016.
This spring, Horton took over Smith’s right guard spot in practices. Hand was impressed with his first run as a “starter.”
“Yeah, Mike‘s a physical dude inside,” Hand said in the spring. “He’ll come off the ball and displace people. You know, when you have Braden on one side of you — if you’re double teaming a three-technique, for instance — that helps. … And then Austin Golson on the other side who has got a lot of experience. Those guys, Mike‘s had the benefit of playing between that, which is always a good thing.”
Horton will enter fall camp as a strong contender to be a starter. But he isn’t the only candidate.
Auburn added former Florida State guard Wilson Bell as a graduate transfer this summer. The 355-pound Bell started 18 games for the Seminoles at right guard over the last two seasons.
Bell could plug into right guard and force Horton, who played some left guard with Marquel Harrell in spring camp, to the other side.
However, the arrival of another graduate transfer — center Casey Dunn from Jacksonville State — could put Austin Golson on the move. The Tigers could realistically start five seniors on their starting line in 2017.
But it’s fair to say Horton has the best shot of any non-senior to start this fall. Like Smith, Golson thought Horton could have started as a redshirt freshman in 2016.
“You could throw him in there right now in the starting five and he’ll be just fine; I believe for sure he could do that,” Golson said last December. “I think he’s gotten so much better as the year’s gone on, and he’s become more of a leader as well. I look forward to getting to play with him in the future.”
Horton also has a big believer in Hand, who raved about his potential during spring camp.
“He’s been doing a great job in his development, as well as his execution, his understanding of the offense,” Hand said. “I just think Mike has a very high ceiling, as well. I love coaching Mike. He’s a coachable guy. He wants to be great.”
Some inside the program believe Horton has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Kozan and Smith by progressing into an All-SEC-caliber guard.
From what Smith says, that could be sooner rather than later.
“He’s putting in the work,” Smith said. “He’s tough, physical and has really good feet. And he’s been one heck of a player.”