AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football will get back to work next week when it starts spring practice on Feb. 28. For plenty of young Tigers, it’ll be the first real chance to stake a claim for major playing time.
Auburn returns plenty of experienced talent all across the depth chart, and additions such as former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham are already key names to know.
But spring football is a perfect opportunity for players who were lower on the depth chart last fall to take advantage of open competition. These Tigers aren’t household names just yet, but they could be in the matter of months.
Here are 10 players who could break out during spring practice and become major contributors during the 2017 Auburn football season. Keep these in mind when the Tigers return to action at the end of the month.
LB Montavious Atkinson, junior
In 2016, Montavious Atkinson picked up 30 tackles — including 4.5 for loss — and a unique metaphor from defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. The veteran assistant called Atkinson “a rolling ball of butcher knives” during his sophomore campaign, which was his first at linebacker after moving from safety.
Atkinson rolled his way to a strong finish in 2016, getting half of his tackles in his last 4 games. He developed a reputation for big hits and relentless speed to the ball carrier. Atkinson started 1 game in 2016 because of a Tre’ Williams injury, but he has a shot at serious playing time in 2017. The former safety could move to nickel for the Tigers this spring or work his way up in a tight linebacker rotation.
LB K.J. Britt, true freshman
Most of the attention toward Auburn’s early enrollees this spring will go to quarterback Jarrett Stidham and, to a lesser extent, tight end Salvatore Cannella. But if there’s a player who could make a Marlon Davidson-like jump as a true freshman, watch out for K.J. Britt.
A 4-star linebacker, Britt is a sure tackler who is right at home in the middle of a defense. Auburn must replace backup middle linebacker T.J. Neal, and Britt has the skill set and the opportunity to earn serious playing time in 2017. It all starts with a strong spring for Britt, an Oxford, Ala., native who participated in a few Sugar Bowl practices on campus last December.
DE Nick Coe, redshirt freshman
Auburn has a Carl Lawson-sized hole at Buck this season. Jeff Holland is the early favorite to take over the starting job, and Nick Coe is big enough to fill those shoes. That might be an understatement — Coe is 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds. A former high school wrestling champion, Coe has the athleticism and strength get past college offensive tackles.
Coe arrived at Auburn later than expected last summer, and the Tigers decided to redshirt him. But with a pressing need to rebuild the pass rush after Lawson and Montravius Adams departed, Coe is an ideal candidate to break out in spring practices. He turned plenty of heads in Sugar Bowl prep and could continue that momentum into his redshirt freshman season.
WR Nate Craig-Myers, sophomore
Nate Craig-Myers arrived at Auburn with plenty of hype last year, but injuries kept him from shining in a young receivers group. Craig-Myers had 4 catches for 70 yards and a touchdown. However, in those 4 catches he showcased an impressive catch radius and strong hands.
With Chip Lindsey coming in to install a more balanced offense, Craig-Myers has the potential to take off in 2017. He has the size and physical nature to win 1-on-1 battles on the outside. The Tigers need someone to replace the production of leading receiver Tony Stevens as Darius Slayton and Kyle Davis continue to develop. Craig-Myers could make that group a scary sophomore threesome.
CB Jamel Dean, sophomore
Technically speaking, Jamel Dean already broke out for Auburn. A Ohio State transfer who sat out in the 2015 season, Dean wasted no time climbing to the top of the depth chart in preseason practices last year. However, Dean had a major knee injury during fall camp and missed the 2016 season.
Dean has everything needed to take over at starting cornerback opposite junior Carlton Davis. He has tremendous size for a corner at 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, which is a huge bonus against the bigger outside receivers that dominate the SEC. New defensive backs coach Greg Brown is expected to open up competition across the secondary this spring, and a healthy Dean has a great chance to shine again.
OG Mike Horton, sophomore
Heading into last season, the last 2 “sixth men” on the Auburn offensive line — those players who lined up as extra blockers in jumbo packages — were Braden Smith and Robert Leff. They combined as a devastating run-blocking force on the right side of Auburn’s line in 2016. Mike Horton took over the sixth-man duties, which is a good sign for his future.
Horton has been a practice favorite among players and coaches during his first 2 years at Auburn. He can play guard or tackle, which gives him even more value on Herb Hand’s offensive line. Auburn must replace Leff and Alex Kozan as starters, and Horton is a prime candidate. Watch out for him this spring.
DT Antwuan Jackson Jr., redshirt freshman
Top 50 high school recruits seldom redshirt. But that’s what Auburn did last year with Antwuan Jackson Jr., who was the No. 49 overall prospect and the No. 7 recruit in the class of 2016. The Tigers had plenty of depth at defensive tackle, so they chose to preserve Jackson’s eligibility as he adjusted to the college game.
Auburn doesn’t have that luxury this season after the departure of 3 senior tackles. Jackson was another young player to get rave reviews from older players during Sugar Bowl practice. After the “de-recruitment” of Rodney Garner, Jackson could be in line for a strong redshirt freshman season like current starter Dontavius Russell had in 2015.
RB Kam Martin, sophomore
Injuries at the running back position forced Kam Martin to play more as a true freshman than the rest of these breakout candidates. But changes of offensive and special teams coordinators should open things up even more for Martin, a speedy Texan who had 372 all-purpose yards in 2016.
Lindsey’s beliefs in getting playmakers open in space and throwing the ball more to running backs bode well for Martin’s chances in 2017. Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson will still be ahead of Martin on the depth chart, but Lindsey will try to find ways to get him the ball. Martin will also be a top contender to take over return duties under new special teams coordinator and his current position coach, Tim Horton.
WR Marquis McClain, redshirt freshman
Marquis McClain is the ideal wide receiver to break out as Lindsey installs his offense in Auburn. McClain redshirted in 2016 but caught the eye of several teammates during the postseason. Running back Kerryon Johnson said McClain “looks like a linebacker,” which would make for an intimidating presence at wide receiver.
At 6-foot-2, McClain could be moved around in Auburn’s offense, perhaps to a bigger slot-type role like a tight end. He has impressive speed for someone his size and a vertical that allows him to be a tailor-made red zone threat. If he can put it all together as a redshirt freshman, look out. He’ll get plenty of attention in spring ball.
OT Prince Tega Wanogho, sophomore
The older of Auburn’s 2 Nigerian Princes on the offensive line, Prince Tega Wanogho is in a great position to take over as starting tackle. Wanogho redshirted as a defensive lineman in 2015, and he quickly became a second-string offensive tackle in 2016. He played 1 season in high school, where he had a meteoric rise to 4-star prospect in just a few months.
Wanogho, who is listed at 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, made incredible progress in his brief football career. Auburn has an opening at right tackle in 2017, and starting left tackle Darius James could move inside to guard. The competition will be fierce on the line this spring, but the massive Wanogho appears to have the perfect mix of size, strength and work ethic to become a star.