Status Report: Offensive Line

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Auburn’s Herb Hand is an enticingly unique coach.

Hand’s off-the-field antics have been well-documented as of late. The 49-year-old coach’s cooking abilities are normally at the forefront of non-football conversation. At Thursday’s assistant coach interviews, however, it was Hand’s elaborate summer vacations that became a hot topic.

“Under the umbrella, with a book and a cooler,” Hand said, describing his ideal relaxation setting. “My family, we’re beach people.”

The grueling trenches that are the front lines of the SEC know no such relaxation, however. The Auburn Tigers reload with a stout front-line in 2017, one that is considered among the top of the conference. But selecting the correct starting lineup and rotation scheme will be no easy task for Hand.

Auburn’s offensive line doesn’t lack talent or experience, but it is experiencing some preseason growing pains. True freshman tackle Calvin Ashley, Auburn’s only five-star recruit in February, was sidelined during Tuesday’s practice with an undisclosed injury. Hand is unsure about the mega-athlete’s status for Auburn’s second scrimmage.

“This is a physical camp,” Hand said. “Guys get little nicks and things. He had a really good scrimmage the other day, but he’s still a freshman. He’s got a long way to go.”

The offensive line clearly has a fair amount of moving and shaking to undergo before Georgia Southern comes to town, seeing as Austin Golson claimed earlier in the summer that “nobody is safe.”

Golson’s spot on the line might as well be a sure thing, along with fellow senior Mike Horton and ironman Braden Smith. Behind that trio, the doors are open for the new big guys to blaze their own trail. Ashley is a favorite to find some sort of role, considering his high ceiling, along with defensive line transplant Prince Tega Wanogho.

“We had a scrimmage on Monday and that started sorting things out,” Hand said. “They’re starting to settle in. Some guys are rising, some guys are settling, some guys are learning.

“[Tega Wanogho] has been rising since he came over with us, very talented guy. His execution from an assignment, technique and fundamentals standpoint is really starting to catch up to his talent level, which is exciting.”

Hand has a good problem to deal with, with more than enough capable players to fill the voids and most of his guys having the ability to play at multiple positions along the line. His plan for sorting out the chaos? The Matrix.

“I’ve had guys in the past call it ‘The Matrix’,” Hand said. “There’s moving parts. Sometimes it looks like a bunch of zeros and ones. I like to play some games right now, I think we overthink sometimes.”

Hand claims that prior to a practice or scrimmage, he’ll scribble down multiple combinations of linemen. Then, he selects a combination of his liking and executes it.

“It’s not just as simple as saying if the right guard goes down, the second-team right guard goes in,” Hand said. “Our goal is always to have the best five on the field. So, if that means somebody gets dinged up and you have to a move a guy’s position to get the best five on the field, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Hand is aided in his decision making by the versatility and knowledge of senior Outland Trophy watchlist member Braden Smith. A month ago, Smith was named to the watchlist for the second consecutive year after taking home first team All-SEC honors in 2016.

Smith represented the offensive line at SEC Media Days in Hoover as Auburn’s lone offensive ambassador. The Olathe, Kan. native’s grit is exemplified in his 27 consecutive starts since 2014, a mark that ranks first on the team.

“Braden is elite, regardless of position,” Hand said. “The thing I love about him is his willingness to do whatever he needs to do for the team. He’s an elite guard. Can he be an elite tackle? Yes he can. I can’t talk highly enough about [Smith] in terms of his mentality and his approach.”

It remains to be seen whether Herb Hand can use his Matrix to solve the ever-growing puzzle of the Auburn offensive line. If he does, the Tigers are in for proven rushing success, considering Hand’s track record. In 2015 at Penn State, Hand’s front five paved the way for Big Ten Freshman of the Year Saquon Barkley, who set the Nittany Lions’ freshman rushing record with 1,076 yards that year. At Vanderbilt, Hand’s offensive line worked in front of tailback Zac Stacy, who broke the Commodores’ season and career rushing records during Hand’s tenure.

Despite the depth chart pandemonium, the veteran coach appears stress-free. It’s almost as if Jordan-Hare Stadium is just another beach.

“It’s just a process,” Hand said. “We’ll be ready by the first game.”

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