AUBURN, Ala. — It’s another edition of the weekly Auburn Mailbag here at SEC Country, where beat reporter Justin Ferguson answers reader questions on all things Tigers, the Plains and whatever else comes through the Twitter mentions.
This week’s mailbag focuses on spring practice depth charts and a look ahead to the 2017 football season. Auburn’s quarterback battle and the linemen who will be in charge of protecting the winner are two of the biggest storylines this offseason, and the first scrimmage gave insight into where they stand right now. Let’s dive right into this week’s mailbag.
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@Standrew5998: Does Stidham have any serious challenges to his starting position? From what I hear, Malik Willis is turning heads.
It’s no secret Jarrett Stidham leads the way in Auburn’s quarterback battle at the moment. But he hasn’t had an opportunity to take on a full-strength Sean White just yet. The coaching staff won’t make a decision until White practices at 100 percent, and the former starter is getting some first-team reps this spring.
It would be a major shock to see Stidham not win the starting job this fall, barring some offseason injury. However, keep in mind Auburn’s offense moved the ball well with this group of skill players and a healthy White last season. White thrives on being the underdog, and he won’t lose this competition without a serious fight.
Ultimately, though, Stidham came to Auburn for a reason. He has a stronger arm, and his familiarity with RPOs is a huge plus in this battle. White will push him hard and will be an extremely valuable backup this fall thanks to his experience. Completely counting White out would be foolish, but Stidham is a safe bet.
As for Malik Willis, the true freshman is proving to be a dynamic playmaker with Auburn’s second and third teams. Sources say he was the MVP of the first spring scrimmage, hands down. Willis reminds a lot of observers of Nick Marshall — and not just because of his number. He’s quick with the ball in his hands, and he has a very active arm for a dual-threat freshman.
Redshirting Willis would be the smartest move in 2017, especially with White on the roster and Stidham coming in with three years of eligibility. Like White, he’ll be there to push Stidham to a higher level throughout preseason. If he stays on his current path, Willis could be a star in a couple of seasons.
@warneagle: Any word on a preferred OL configuration yet?
On assistant coach media day Tuesday, Herb Hand laid out virtually every possible combination for the Auburn offensive line this spring. Outside of center, each position on the offensive line has at least four players who have taken snaps there in practices.
Right now, the first-team offensive line steadily has been this:
- LT: Darius James
- LG: Marquel Harrell
- C: Austin Golson
- RG: Mike Horton
- RT: Braden Smith
Hand said Tuesday left guard is “the one question mark position.” It’s also the position that has the most possibilities attached to it right now.
Harrell could lock down the position. Golson, who has played some left guard this spring, can slide over — Auburn has graduate transfer Casey Dunn arriving from Jacksonville State in a couple of months. The Tigers also could move James to left guard, although he’s practiced mostly at tackle this spring. Auburn has Prince Tega Wanogho and incoming 5-star Calvin Ashley at left tackle, and it could add Cal transfer Aaron Cochran.
The right side of the offensive line appears to be secure with Horton and Smith, although Hand stressed that nothing is settled. A lot hinges on Dunn’s ability to win a starting job in a short amount of time and the possibility of adding an instant-impact player in Cochran.
If I had to predict the starting offensive line for Week 1 right now, I’d go with James at left tackle, Golson at left guard, Dunn at center, Horton at right guard and Smith at right tackle — with Wanogho serving as the “sixth man” blocking tight end in jumbo packages. A lot can change, though, in a few months.
@EricBowman_: Which rivalry game is Auburn football most likely to win and most likely to lose this season?
First, let’s define “rivalry game” for Auburn. In my personal opinion, the 2017 rivalry games would be Alabama, Georgia and LSU — with a gap in importance between Georgia and LSU. Many feel Gus Malzahn needs to win at least one of the Alabama and Georgia games after three straight 0-for seasons against them. I tend to agree.
I think Auburn has the best chance of beating Georgia this season. Georgia returns a lot of talent in 2017. Both teams should be better than they were in 2016, but I think Auburn is ahead of Georgia in terms of offensive potential. If Auburn’s backfield would’ve been healthy last year, the Tigers would’ve won in Athens soundly.
This game comes right after three straight on the road, and I think that’ll make the home-field advantage that much stronger for Auburn in another tight rivalry contest. A second-year Dave Aranda defense at LSU should be ferocious, and I think Matt Canada is a good pick to get more out of all that athletic talent on offense. Plus, that game being in Death Valley makes me think it’ll be tougher for Auburn.
The rivalry game Auburn is most likely to lose, until I’m proven otherwise, is Alabama. The Crimson Tide have the most talented roster and the best coaching staff in the country. Obviously, Clemson proved beating the Tide is possible with a dynamic offense and tough defense. Auburn could have those pieces in place, but beating Alabama is still the toughest mountain to climb in the sport.
@justme277: Who wins more games next year — Malzahn or Lashlee? Malzahn or Pearl?
While this question seems dripping with sarcasm — at least the second one, anyway — I wanted to take this question from one of my favorite commenters on Twitter to take a look at what Rhett Lashlee has coming his way at UConn.
The Huskies went 3-9 last season, and they haven’t had a winning season since 2010. UConn ranks 75th in offensive returning production and 105th in returning defensive production by Bill Connelly of SB Nation. It ranked dead last nationally in points per game last season and was in the bottom 10 in yards per play.
Simply put, Lashlee has a huge task on his hands at UConn. Holy Cross in Week 1 looks like the only guaranteed win on the schedule. The ceiling for UConn is probably knocking on the door of bowl contention. It’s going to be fascinating to watch: A.) how much Lashlee’s scheme differs from the Auburn one at UConn and B.) how much that can fix one of the nation’s worst offenses.
As for the second question, the most games Malzahn and Auburn football can win in 2017 is 15. Pearl’s hit that mark in two of his three seasons, and next season’s team should be an improved postseason contender if it can fix its defensive woes. So pick Pearl here.
@JKoenAU: What’s your opinion on the best ribs in AU? What’s your opinion on Moe’s chicken wings?
The weekly Auburn food question streak continues. I’m never going to turn down one of these.
I’m not much of a ribs person unless I’m at a place that specializes in them. Auburn doesn’t have one of those — something like an Archibald’s in Tuscaloosa. But if I had to pick, I’d go with the ribs at Byron’s. Mike and Ed’s is my go-to barbecue place in Auburn, but Byron’s ribs are a notch above.
As for the second question, I always get wings every time I go to Moe’s Barbecue downtown. They have good size, they’re always smoked well, and Moe’s version of white barbecue sauce is much better than the heavily vinegar-based stuff you see with other barbecue chicken dishes in the state. Moe’s has my favorite wings in Auburn, even if they’re non-traditional.