AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn returns to the practice field Sunday afternoon, it will officially be game week again on the Plains.
On most Sundays here at SEC Country, Auburn gets handed a report card for its performance on the previous day. But since the Tigers weren’t in action yesterday, the grades won’t be handed out — right?
Wrong. Before Auburn gets game week practice rolling for Arkansas later today, here’s a unit-by-unit midterm report card for the first half of the 2016 season. As always, A+ is an all-time great performance, C is average, and F is a complete failure.
Fortunately for Gus Malzahn, the Tigers are leaning more on the positive side of that spectrum after rallying from a 1-2 start to the campaign.
Once Auburn finally got off the quarterback carousel and gave Sean White time to establish himself as the No. 1 option, Auburn’s passing game has clicked at an efficiency that it hasn’t had since Cam Newton was on the Plains. And while White isn’t the game-changing athlete Newton or Nick Marshall were, he’s a true weapon in an offense that has been tweaked toward his strengths.
White has completed 70 percent of his passes this season, which is good enough for a Top 10 spot nationally. He’s also averaging 9 yards per attempt — again, the best mark for an Auburn starting quarterback since Newton. White’s precision on short- to intermediate-range throws has been outstanding, and he has laced together several streaks of downfield completions in certain games this season.
The sophomore needs more consistency in his deep throws, as he has a tendency to miss a surefire touchdown or two each game. But he’s playing outstanding football since Rhett Lashlee took over as primary play-caller. If Lashlee continues getting this level out of White and find more ways to get John Franklin III’s speed and improving arm into the game in certain spots, Auburn’s offense could do some major damage in the second half.
Running Backs: A
After Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson all left Auburn in the offseason, there were plenty of reasons to feel iffy about the Tigers’ rushing attack. That tune has drastically changed after six games, as Auburn ranks 10th nationally in rushing yards per game despite the fact it doesn’t have a true dual-threat at quarterback.
Kerryon Johnson has gone above and beyond in proving that he has the strength and toughness to be an every-down running back in the SEC. (He should be back from a minor ankle injury for Week 7.) He’s had four games of 90-plus yards this season and scored 6 touchdowns in five games that he was able to finish. Johnson has versatility and power, making him a great fit for the Auburn offense.
Kamryn Pettway is coming off a stunning performance against Mississippi State in which he rushed 39 times for 169 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has three 100-yard games this season, including two against SEC foes. The 240-pound Pettway is the perfect complement to Johnson in this 1A and 1B philosophy at running back. Watch for more carries in the second half for true freshman Kam Martin and converted wideout Stanton Truitt.
Wide Receivers: B+
Hello there, Tony Stevens. The senior wide receiver who only had 20 catches in his first three seasons at Auburn now leads the team with 24 receptions, 408 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2016. He has a chance to become Auburn’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Ronney Daniels in 1999. Even though White likes to spread the ball around, Stevens is the most consistent vertical threat on the roster.
Kyle Davis is averaging 23.56 yards per catch this season, and the true freshman has shown he’s capable of making some truly absurd ones. Ryan Davis has been Auburn’s short-yardage savior in the first half of the season, averaging 8.16 yards per catch on 19 grabs. Redshirt freshman Darius Slayton is emerging as another solid weapon this fall.
It hasn’t been all positive, though, for Auburn’s wideouts. The unit was iffy at times on perimeter blocking and had some problems with drops in key games — especially Stevens and fellow senior Marcus Davis. But there’s plenty of depth here, and the Tigers keep improving in those two areas under first-year receivers coach Kodi Burns. A strong day against Mississippi State should give them plenty of momentum for the second half of the season.
H-Backs/Tight Ends: C+
The true measuring stick for these two positions — blocking — could use a lot more consistency in the second half of the season. Starting H-back Chandler Cox was the culprit on a fair amount of negative plays in Auburn’s early-season slump, but he had back-to-back solid performances heading into the bye week. Tight end Jalen Harris has had fewer mistakes when he’s gotten into the game, which will happen more in the second half of the season as Auburn faces more 3-4 defenses.
Cox grabbed a pair of passes from White against Mississippi State and could be a valuable option on certain play-calls and checks. Harris still hasn’t recorded a catch, though, making it 19 straight games since the Tigers had a completion to a traditional tight end. The potential is there, especially in the red zone, if Auburn can tap into that position.
Don’t expect Cox to get more snaps at Wildcat quarterback or running back in the second half of the season. The former has gone absolutely nowhere when it’s been used, and the latter didn’t happen much even when Auburn was down a pair of running backs against Mississippi State. Cox should just stay at H-back and work on being more of an impact player there.
Offensive Line: B-
Let’s break this first half of the season down into two quarters. In the first quarter, Auburn’s offensive line was a mess. The Tigers ranked last nationally in negative plays allowed with weak pass protection and a lack of a consistent push along the interior of the offensive line. In the second quarter, things started to turn around with fewer sacks and tackles for loss chalked up to the front five.
For Auburn’s last two games, the improved play went along with a switch in the starting lineup. An injury to Xavier Dampeer moved left tackle Austin Golson back to his old position at center. Darius James came off the bench to become a starter on the blind side. In those games, Auburn has played its best offensive ball of the season.
When he gets healthy, Dampeer might not have a starting job waiting for him. Auburn has looked better with Golson back over the ball in both phases of offensive line play. Alex Kozan and Braden Smith are looking like All-SEC candidates at guards. Right tackle Robert Leff, who struggled mightily early in the season, is playing at a higher level. The recovery makes this unit better than average, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
Defensive Line: A+
Auburn’s sudden defensive surge this season all starts up front. While the stats haven’t always been there this season for the defensive line — and they’re starting to pile up in this three-game winning streak — the constant pressure and relentless run-stopping has. This strong defensive line unit is living up to the hype in 2016.
Carl Lawson has 5 sacks in the last three games for Auburn and was the SEC’s defensive lineman of the week after a huge game against Mississippi State. Montravius Adams is making a lot of money this season by coming back to school, swallowing double-teams and making plenty of impact plays for a defensive tackle. Marlon Davidson sometimes looks like the best defensive lineman on the field for Auburn, which is incredible for a true freshman.
The depth makes this unit even more dangerous. Derrick Brown looks like a future star down the middle, Jeff Holland is a quarterback hurry machine, and Byron Cowart seems to be on the verge of making some huge plays. Auburn can attack in waves defensively because of this talented defensive line, which has been the catalyst for one of the Tigers’ best defensive starts since the days of Tommy Tuberville.
Travis Williams has done some serious, serious work as a first-year linebacker coach this season. This unit only returned one established contributor in Tre’ Williams and started a pair of sophomores with only a few snaps to their name in Week 1 against Clemson. That didn’t matter. Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams have been excellent playmakers for Auburn’s defense.
Davis is the emotional leader of the group after barely playing at all in his last two years. He’s the one calling out the adjustments and getting players set on the field, which is incredible to see for a young player. Darrell Williams is right behind Davis in production, and Tre’ Williams leads the unit in tackles as an elite run-stopper.
Auburn has also gotten some key contributions from Montavious Atkinson and T.J. Neal is spots this season, putting more confidence into a position that inspired little heading into the season. This unit makes a small number expected mistakes each week, but it has 100 percent delivered in every facet of linebacker play so far in 2016.
Defensive Backs: B+
At cornerback, Carlton Davis continues looking like an All-SEC type of performer for his lockdown coverage and ability to rack up pass breakups. Josh Holsey bounced back from injury woes to become a veteran presence on the outside, and Javaris Davis has produced at a high level thanks in large part to his speed and heads-up style.
Nickel back Rudy Ford is leading the team again in tackles and is the most consistent player in the back seven this season for Auburn. Tray Matthews can pile up the tackles, but he’s had a notable mistakes on several of Auburn’s opponents’ biggest plays, whether in run support or over-the-top pass coverage. Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin continue to develop into strong playmakers.
Auburn would love to see more interceptions from this unit after only coming up with 3 in the first six games of the season. If the Tigers can force more takeaways here and tighten up on the big-play mishaps at the safety spots, they’re looking at the best year of pass defense on the Plains in quite some time.
Special Teams: B
While he’s not perfect, Daniel Carlson is looking more and more like the best kicker in college football. He’s only missed one field goal — a blocked one from a long way out — and has been virtually automatic in forcing touchbacks on kickoffs. He also has a touchdown run, which he scored on a fake against Arkansas State.
Kevin Phillips has stepped his game up by averaging more than 40 yards per punt this season, and only two of his boots have been returned for a loss of 3 yards. Auburn has only allowed 5 returns in both kicking and punting all season, which is a great testament to the gunners on the special teams units. The Tigers have made sure the only big plays that come from the special teams this season are their own.
Unfortunately for Auburn, those are only coming from kicks and punts. Marcus Davis is only averaging 7.8 yards per punt return this season, and the Tigers rank 99th nationally in kick return average. Auburn might need to try some new options in that department in the second half.
The multi-quarterback plan in Week 1 vs. Clemson was a disaster. Malzahn’s offensive strategy two weeks later against Texas A&M just didn’t work, either. But Malzahn’s decision to give up his trademark play-calling to Lashlee in Week 4 was a surprise and a complete success so far. Lashlee has added more wrinkles to the standard Malzahn attack and helped the Tigers find their edge in the red zone again.
Malzahn’s hire of Kevin Steele as his third defensive coordinator in four seasons wasn’t received with a ton of excitement, but there’s nothing but that now among the Auburn fan base when it comes to the defense. Steele has been aggressive in his calls, and his first-year position coaches have created some noticeable development on that side of the ball.
After starting 1-2 and sitting on an increasingly hotter seat, Malzahn gave up total control of the offense as his defensive coaches continued their magic. Since his change in strategy and headwear, Auburn is 3-0. The next two weeks will go a long way in determining if Malzahn has a bounceback season on his hands, but the coaching decisions in the second quarter of the season have been huge.