AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football will officially wrap up its 2017 spring practices Tuesday with one last “clean up” session following Saturday’s A-Day game.
The last 15 practices on the Plains featured several noteworthy debuts on the coaching staff and the most important position on the field. It also was a time for younger players to make major moves up the early depth charts and claim their roles on the 2017 squad.
Let’s take a look back at the major storylines and developments from Auburn’s 2017 spring camp and where the Tigers stand heading into the long summer months.
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Auburn football will pass more in 2017
After running the ball nearly 70 percent of the time during the 2016 season, Auburn knocked that number down to 60 percent in its first scrimmage. Two weekends later, the first-team offense threw the ball more times than it ran it in the first half of the A-Day spring game.
Those 18 first-half rushes to 20 passes also included a couple of scrambles by Jarrett Stidham, so the run-pass call balance was even more lopsided than in years past. That’s why Malzahn brought Chip Lindsey in to be his offensive coordinator — the Tigers needed a stronger passing attack to be a complete competitor in the SEC.
Starting running back Kamryn Pettway didn’t play much in the scrimmages, which could’ve had some effect on the run-pass balance. However, the Tigers communicated the message loud and clear this spring that they won’t be nearly as run-heavy as they were in the first four years under Malzahn.
Jarrett Stidham is clearly the best QB on campus
Stidham lived up to the hype during the spring game, completing 80 percent of his passes for 267 yards — including a few deep balls that went for huge gains. The former Baylor quarterback fit the ball into tight windows and showed great command in the pocket of Auburn’s tweaked offense.
Returning starter Sean White was a good option for Auburn when healthy, and he’ll still technically get a chance to win the starting job when he fully returns to action in fall camp. However, Stidham proved himself to be the strong-armed mobile quarterback Auburn just didn’t have in 2016. (Freshman Malik Willis, the surprise of the spring, could be the second-best quarterback right now.)
Auburn didn’t waste any time with Stidham, putting him as the first-team quarterback in drills from day one of spring ball. He ended camp virtually locked into that spot for the 2017 season.
Auburn is still looking for its No. 3 RB
Pettway will start at running back, and the versatile Kerryon Johnson will back him up in 2017. But outside of that combo, the Tigers have to find separation at running back. Running backs coach Tim Horton said his biggest goal in the spring was to find a clear-cut No. 3 behind Pettway and Johnson.
The spring game didn’t unveil a true favorite in the competition. Sophomore Kam Martin might have the edge, but walk-on C.J. Tolbert received the most touches with the first team after a Johnson ankle injury. Then there’s redshirt freshman Malik Miller, who had that job in 2016 before an early-season knee injury.
The battle will continue into fall camp, and it’ll pick up another option in 4-star signee Devan Barrett. Horton said Barrett could compete for that role from the moment he arrives on campus. Auburn needed all the depth it could get at running back last season, and it also needs its reserves to take a step forward in 2017.
Nate Craig-Myers is ready to be a leader at WR
Auburn opened spring practice without its top two leading returners at receiver — Darius Slayton and Kyle Davis. While Slayton came back later in camp, the Tigers still needed someone to step up in a young wide receiver room that had to get used to several new quarterbacks.
Sophomore Nate Craig-Myers was the name most inside the program saw as that emerging leader. He struggled with injuries for much of 2016 and had an underwhelming debut season. Now fully healthy, Craig-Myers showcased great athleticism and hands, especially during his 154-yard spring game performance.
Craig-Myers looks like the ideal split end for Auburn with his size, speed and catch radius. He could be the go-to outside receiver for Stidham this fall with the way he performed in spring ball.
Tigers’ OL won’t be sorted out any time soon
Auburn entered spring practice with two main offensive line gaps to fill with the departures of left guard Alex Kozan and right tackle Robert Leff. The Leff question quickly was answered by moving right guard Braden Smith to right tackle and inserting the highly touted Mike Horton at right guard.
Left guard is more difficult, and it picked up even more intrigue this spring. Marquel Harrell took the majority of the first-team reps, but offensive line coach Herb Hand called left guard a “wide-open” battle. The Tigers later picked up graduate transfer guard Wilson Bell from Florida State.
Incoming graduate transfer Casey Dunn could push Austin Golson out of his starting center job, and Auburn practiced Golson at left guard some this spring. The pieces could continue to move, depending on Prince Tega Wanogho’s development at left tackle and senior starter Darius James’ versatility. Auburn has a lot of moving parts here.
Auburn’s DL could be its deepest since 2013
Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner said he wanted 10 championship-caliber linemen in 2017. The Tigers had nine scholarship players in their rotation last season, and four of them have moved on from the program. However, this line could be even deeper in 2017.
Marlon Davidson and Dontavius Russell are returning starters who took over key leadership roles in the absence of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Jeff Holland looked more like a true defensive end in spring ball. Derrick Brown will be a difference-maker as a starter at tackle. Paul James III won A-Day MVP for his work at both defensive end spots.
Nick Coe, Antwuan Jackson Jr., Andrew Williams and the position-changing Byron Cowart and Tre’ Threat each had their times in the spotlight during spring ball. This summer, Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant, Alec Jackson and Tyrone Truesdell enter the mix. Massive amounts of depth don’t equal on-field production, but the Tigers definitely have the bodies to replace their top playmakers up front.
The LBs are ready to build off strong 2016
This time last year, Auburn’s linebacking corps was a gigantic question mark. The Tigers had little returning experience outside of Tre’ Williams, and Travis Williams was a brand-new position coach. However, the linebackers became the heartbeat of a defense that made a tremendous improvement in the 2016 campaign.
This spring, every key player was back for the Auburn linebackers. Tre’ Williams is a senior leader, and Deshaun Davis had a strong spring game with a first-team high six tackles. Darrell Williams looked a lot bigger after offseason workouts, and he could be in for a monster year. Junior Montavious Atkinson developed to the point that the coaching staff now considers him a starter.
Behind those four leaders, Chandler Wooten impressed as an early enrollee with his quick learning and instincts at linebacker. Fellow true freshman K.J. Britt picked up a lot of “mental reps” as he recovered from injury. T.D. Moultry, who might be the best linebacker of them all, will join this summer. This is the strongest position group on the team.
Depth is an issue in the secondary
Injuries were an issue at cornerback during spring camp for Auburn, and a true lack of numbers hurt at safety. Jamel Dean and Jayvaughn Myers missed the entire stretch while recovering from 2016 injuries, which only let Auburn truly go two-deep at cornerback. At safety, Markell Boston’s dismissal gave Auburn just three scholarship players at the position — all seniors.
This secondary already had to replace cornerback Josh Holsey and longtime nickel Rudy Ford. While the Tigers are confident in the talent of cornerback duo Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis, one injury could put the unit in a tough spot. Nick Ruffin is good cover for both Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety, but the Tigers need to develop other options behind him.
Auburn brings in three more defensive backs this summer, and all of them could play safety. The top-level talent is enough to expect a solid season in the secondary, but new secondary coach Greg Brown doesn’t have a lot of established depth at the moment.
Punting could be a problem
New Auburn special teams coordinator Tim Horton came right out and said it during spring practice — sophomore punter Ian Shannon needs more consistency. Shannon only averaged 30 yards in his three punts last season behind Kevin Phillips, and he missed the spring game due to a death in his family.
Auburn doesn’t want to put senior kicker Daniel Carlson back at punter. Keeping Carlson’s leg as fresh as possible for field goals is a must, and cross-training him didn’t quite work earlier in his career. Carlson’s younger brother Anders, who arrives this summer, can punt. However, the elder Carlson doesn’t think the Tigers will use him there.
Auburn wants more consistency out of Shannon after a shaky spring. He’s the best option the Tigers have at this point, and the next few months will be vital to his development. Phillips was a real weapon last year for Auburn, as his punts rarely came back for returns.
Gus Malzahn is thinking big-picture
Malzahn opened spring practice by saying he was “looking forward to being the head coach” this spring. He retired his play-calling clipboard and handed full control of his offense to Lindsey. The move back to CEO Malzahn was imminent.
And during the portions of spring practice that media were allowed to view, Malzahn looked the part. He let Lindsey run the show with quarterbacks and the offense as a whole after being more hands-on in 2016. Malzahn continued to let Steele build his defense, and the tone of his post-practice comments were usually focused on the team as a whole.
Only time will tell if Malzahn can stay in that mode for all of 2017, but the spring was a good start for him. Malzahn needs a strong season on the Plains in order to solidify his longterm future at Auburn. Looking more like a head coach should only help his chances, as it’s exactly what a team needs to compete in a conference like the SEC at a high level.