AUBURN, Ala. — Combining an offensive line that just lost four seniors with a new position coach might seem like a recipe for disaster. But the union of J.B. Grimes’ return to Auburn football and a reloading front could be the complete opposite.
Grimes, who has more than 30 years of college coaching experience, is back to help a potential-filled offensive line get closer to its ceiling. Auburn could have two new starters up front, with the remaining three combining for 20 career starts.
“The guys have really responded well to him … he’s such a great teacher,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said earlier this month. “Really slows things down and really teaches form the ground up. As much youth as we have, really thought it was a good time to bring him in and build those guys up from the ground up.”
Grimes believes he has the makings of a top-tier SEC line on his hands. He just needs to mold the raw talent into something greater.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Grimes said last week. “We’ve got to get better at the little things and the details of being a good offensive line. But we’ve got good clay. We’ve got some talent. We have some guys that I believe are SEC talent, as far as their ability is concerned.”
That clay comes in the form of 6-foot-8 Prince Tega Wanogho, who Grimes said had “all-conference” potential at left tackle. It’s also in guards Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton, who are all but guaranteed to be starters on Sept. 1 against Washington.
The other two pieces, center and right tackle, probably won’t be determined “until sometime middle-to-late fall camp,” according to Grimes.
He has a couple of inexperienced but improving centers in junior Kaleb Kim and redshirt freshman Nick Brahms. At right tackle, a pair of blue-chip redshirt freshmen — Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley — had their strong points in spring practice. UMass graduate transfer Jack Driscoll will most likely join them soon, as Auburn continues its push toward the regular season.
“It’s my job to get those guys to play better,” Grimes said. “We don’t have to play tomorrow. We’ve got a little time. We’ve got summer, we’ve got fall camp. And then we jump off into it against the University of Washington.”
Grimes is a renowned technician known for developing talent. His focus on the method comes at an ideal time for Auburn’s offensive line.
Last season, the Tigers were up and down up front. They allowed a high number of sacks in several games and didn’t have a lot of consistency in terms of run blocking.
Grimes returned to the Plains and immediately went to work in improving the technique of Auburn’s linemen.
“Details, details, details,” Grimes said. “It’s the fundamentals of the game, where my eyes are going, where my hands are going, where my feet are going … how to use your hands, how we want your hands to be in regards to what we’re trying to get done. Those are the little things. The pad level has got to get better.”
But Grimes knows only so much improvement can be done between now and the start of the season. None of Auburn’s returning linemen have been full-time starters. At least two will be new to first-team roles.
While a high volume of practice reps will be key over the next few months, Auburn’s young offensive line will have to get better on the fly this fall.
“There ain’t but one way to get experience. … and that’s to get experience,” Grimes said. “You can’t wish experience on ’em, you can’t pray experience on ’em. You got to throw them in and let them play. That’s the only way, and you’re going to have some growing pains. You just are.
“But I like those guys.”