AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football starts the most crucial season of the Gus Malzahn era on Monday afternoon.
Auburn returns to the practice field for the start of 2017 fall camp with another quarterback competition — although it’s one that should be settled early. The Tigers will continue their transition to first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and rally around the success from returning defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
There won’t a shortage of intriguing storylines this fall on the Plains, even on a team that could return the program’s most starters in more than a decade. Plenty of pieces can be moved around between now and Sept. 2, when Auburn opens 2017 inside Jordan-Hare Stadium against Georgia Southern.
Starting with the presumptive starting quarterback, here are 11 Auburn players to track over the next few weeks as the Tigers move closer to their fifth season under Malzahn.
QB Jarrett Stidham
Jarrett Stidham will enter his first fall camp with Auburn football in a battle against returning starter Sean White. Stidham is expected to win the starting job within the first few weeks of practice, but White will put up a tough fight in his full return from injury. The former Baylor quarterback will command plenty of attention in the month of August as he looks to lock down the No. 1 gig and further build chemistry with his offensive teammates.
QB Sean White
White will enter fall camp bigger and healthier than he was in the spring, when he was still nursing injuries suffered late in the 2016 campaign. Although he’s a clear outsider in the battle against Stidham, White is going to get his first clear shot at holding onto his starting job in camp. How White pushes himself and how he reacts once a decision has been made by the coaching staff will be an interesting storyline over the next few weeks.
WR Kyle Davis
Kyle Davis entered 2017 as one to watch in Chip Lindsey’s revamped Auburn offense after his solid true freshman season last fall. However, Davis missed all of spring practices due to what Malzahn called “personal business.” Davis has been back on campus for the last few months and is expected to be full speed when fall camp opens Monday afternoon. The rangy Georgia native has plenty of potential in an improved passing attack, and the top roles in Auburn’s receiving room are up for grabs.
OG Wilson Bell and C Casey Dunn
Wilson Bell and Casey Dunn arrived at Auburn this summer as graduate transfers, and they’ll immediately compete for playing time on a veteran offensive line. Bell, Auburn’s largest player on the fall roster, started double-digit games at right guard at Florida State and is a favorite to claim one of the two guard vacancies. Dunn is a natural center from Jacksonville State, but he could move to guard if Austin Golson holds onto his job. These two players could be the catalysts to a lot of experiments from offensive line coach Herb Hand in camp.
OT Calvin Ashley
Auburn’s lone 5-star signee in the class of 2017, Calvin Ashley will hit the practice field for the first time as a Tiger this week. Ashley joins a tackle group that returns two veterans in Braden Smith and Darius James, so a starting job will be a long shot for the talented freshman. However, coaches say Ashley will get every opportunity to win playing time in fall camp. How Ashley does over the next few weeks will determine whether the Tigers get him out on the field in 2017 or give him a redshirt.
DE Paul James III
Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner said in March that Paul James III was still trying to mentally get over the knee injury that cost him his first year at Auburn. James didn’t show that at A-Day, winning defensive MVP as the most productive player in the opposing backfield. James will compete for the starting Buck defensive end job vacated by the NFL-bound Carl Lawson. Auburn needs a lot of reinforcements in its pass rush this fall, and James could lock down one of those roles with a strong camp.
DE Markaviest Bryant and LB T.D. Moultry
Throughout the summer, Gus Malzahn mentioned Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant and T.D. Moultry as possible instant-impact players as true freshmen. Both could contribute immediately to the Tigers’ pass rush. Bryant is a natural Buck defensive end, and Moultry will split time between Buck and the pass-rush friendly strongside linebacker position in camp.
CB Jamel Dean
Malzahn said sophomore cornerback Jamel Dean is close to 100 percent with his knee heading into fall camp. This time last year, Dean was well on his way to earning a starting job at cornerback as a redshirt freshman. But a knee injury cost him the entire 2016 campaign, and he’s been on the comeback trail ever since. Auburn has a starting job at cornerback open across from Carlton Davis. Even if Dean doesn’t grab that role, expect him to contribute in a big way this fall as he gets back to full speed.
DB Daniel Thomas
Where will Daniel Thomas line up this season for the Tigers? The sophomore defensive back, who was a last-minute addition in Auburn’s 2016 class, broke out late last year with a pair of Iron Bowl interceptions in place of starting nickel Rudy Ford. While Ford is off to the NFL, Thomas might not automatically inherit the nickel job. Jeremiah Dinson looked like the leader after spring camp, but Thomas could play an important role at safety — a position that has three seniors with starting experience and little else. Keep an eye on his movement in camp.