So… now what?
Spring ball has concluded for Auburn after 15 spring practices, including three scrimmages, one of which took place this past Saturday in front of 41,489 fans at the annual A-Day spring game. Now, with players technically off-duty until the official summer workout regimen commences, seventh-year head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff are set to devise their plan of attack for the summer.
That plan will include exit surveys and interviews for position groups, analysis of how the strategies for spring practice panned out, and re-evaluations of lineups.
“We’ll assess everything,” Malzahn said after A-Day. “We’ll have a good week this coming up week to assess all positions and really step back and kind of get a good plan about… who we’re going to be next year.”
With 135 days until Auburn’s season opener at AT&T Stadium against Oregon, a breakdown of players, questions left unanswered through 15 spring practices and a projected depth chart for the Tigers’ post-spring roster, beginning with the offense:
- Joey Gatewood, redshirt freshman OR Bo Nix, freshman
- Malik Willis, junior
- Cord Sandberg, redshirt freshman
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As Auburn spring games go, this year’s edition of A-Day was as eye-opening as they come. As promised, Auburn’s offense returned to its rapid-fire pace with Malzahn as the play-caller, and the players reaped the benefits. In the first half, where the first- and second-team players took most of their snaps, the Orange and Blue team offenses racked up 359 total yards.
In that offense, former blue-chip prospects Gatewood and Nix were the most impressive.
In speaking to coaches and players all spring, it’s been apparent that the quarterback battle has been a two-horse race between Gatewood and Nix for some time. Gatewood came out as the starter Saturday, sharing time with Nix in the first team offense.
Malzahn insisted postgame that’s just how offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham’s “random” quarterback rotation ended up shuffling out in the third scrimmage, but Gatewood and Nix proved their starting worth on the field. Gatewood went 8-for-12 with 130 yards and two touchdowns against Nix’s 11-of-17 passing for 155 yards and two scores. Nix also tossed a pick in the second half.
Both seemed more than comfortable in the sets Malzahn set up for them — tight but pass-heavy, with an emphasis on downfield shots.
Gatewood is a 6-foot-6, 235-pound monster of an athlete who, according to teammates, is near impossible to tackle in the open field. However, while donning an orange noncontact jersey in the spring game, his handful of nifty runs were hurriedly blown dead by Malzahn, who stood behind the offense, quick to his whistle.
So, the Jacksonville, Florida, product was restricted to the pocket, where he seemed comfortable uncorking a few long balls. Meanwhile, Nix, who is considered the best passer of the bunch, was precise with his throws, yes, but also displayed veteran-level awareness and speed when scrambling out of the pocket. His dual-threat prowess was most evident on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Eli Stove on a free play after an offsides penalty.
Willis threw the scrimmage’s first touchdown on a deep shot to redshirt freshman Matthew Hill and displayed his signature quickness on read-option looks. And Sandberg, the 23-year-old southpaw, had just one incompletion on 8-for-9 passing.
Neither Willis nor Sandberg are out of the competition, but as summer turns to fall camp within the coming months, expect Gatewood and Nix to be the contenders in a fight to the finish for the under-center duties come August 31 against Oregon.
- Prince Tega Wanogho Jr, senior
- Bailey Sharp, senior
- Kameron Stutts, redshirt freshman
Wanogho is one of Auburn’s top NFL talents on the entire roster. After electing to return for his final season on The Plains, Wanogho expressed in the spring his desire to continue to work on fundamentals. As a former defensive tackle, Wanogho possesses the size necessary to become an elite SEC left tackle. Position coach J.B. Grimes will look to polish off Wanogho’s basics come fall camp.
Meanwhile, the senior Sharp impressed coaches as one of the O-line’s top performers this spring. If any of the other four slots along the line need shoring up for one reason or another, look for Sharp to be one of Grimes’ first options off the bench.
- Marquel Harrell, senior
- Tashawn Manning, sophomore
- Alec Jackson, sophomore
- Brodarious Hamm, sophomore
Like Wanogho, Harrell elected to return for his final season. He started all 13 games for the Tigers last season and received the 2018 blocking lineman of the season award prior to A-Day.
Manning is a worthy backup but keep an eye on converted defensive tackle Alec Jackson. Senior right tackle Jack Driscoll said this spring that Jackson learned Auburn’s entire offensive playbook before the first scrimmage, then proceeded to hold his own against the Tigers’ elite D-line in that scrimmage.
- Kaleb Kim, senior
- Nick Brahms, sophomore
- Jalil Irvin, redshirt freshman
- Kamaar Bell, freshman
Both Kim and Brahms were given chances at center last season, and both were wildly inconsistent. But, now fully healthy, Kim has impressed this spring as the literal centerpiece of the all-senior starting offensive line. Look for Brahms to work hard behind him, though, as he prepares for a possible two seasons as the starter after Kim graduates.
- Mike Horton, senior
- Austin Troxell, redshirt freshman
- Brodarious Hamm, sophomore
- Keiondre Jones, freshman
Horton serves as the shakiest starter on the offensive line heading into the summer. He severely struggled at times last season. If things go south for him, Hamm and Troxell, who is listed at tackle but succeeded as a backup guard last year, are prepared to step in. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound Jones, a true freshman, could also turn heads if given playing time with the backups against lesser opponents.
- Jack Driscoll, senior
- Austin Troxell, redshirt freshman
- Prince Michael Sammons, junior
As Driscoll’s swan song on The Plains plays out next season, Troxell will patiently wait for his opportunity.
- John Samuel Shenker, sophomore
- Tyler Fromm, freshman
- Harold Joiner, redshirt freshman
Shenker quietly snared a trio of passes out of the tight end and H-back slots at A-Day. He also had a touchdown from Nix erased by a penalty at the goal-line. After a pair of touchdown receptions last season for Shenker, it appears Malzahn may finally be more inclined to use the tight ends and H-backs in his up-tempo system.
Coaches are high on Fromm’s potential, so he’ll likely get snaps in mop-up duty. The same can be said for fellow true freshman Luke Deal, but coaches will be cautious as he recovers from a knee injury.
Look for Joiner to line up everywhere on offense, including tight end, H-back, receiver and running back. As Malzahn has put it, there’s not much wrong you can do with a quick and physical athlete who’s 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds.
- Harold Joiner, redshirt freshman OR Spencer Nigh, senior
Auburn hopes Joiner most succeeds out of this slot. But players and coaches have reiterated that Nigh has been a great blocker this spring. Malzahn will look to balance the two in an effort to replace the multi-faceted Chandler Cox.
- JaTarvious Whitlow, redshirt sophomore
- Kam Martin, senior
- Shaun Shivers, sophomore
- D.J. Williams, freshman
- Harold Joiner, redshirt freshman
- Mark Antony-Richards, freshman OR Malik Miller, redshirt junior
In a multitude of ways, “Boobee” Whitlow has improved this spring from his SEC All-Freshman campaign in 2018.
He continues to be the Tigers’ energetic leader off the field. On it, he looks shiftier and more powerful. The senior Martin will be relied on after steadily improving last season, but it’s Whitlow who is expected to carry the torch and give Auburn a 1,000-yard rusher in 2019 after the nine-year streak was snapped last season.
Williams has had one of the best camps for an Auburn freshman in recent years, but fans are forgetting the impact Shivers had one this offense a year ago. Williams will get his touches and will likely skip a redshirt season in 2019, but Shivers should remain the potent third option behind Whitlow and Martin.
Again — Joiner should get some work in the backfield. Malzahn unveiled some two-back sets this spring, with Joiner involved in most of them as a weapon in the receiving game out of the backfield. Those dual-back formations are reason to believe true freshman blue-chip Mark-Antony Richards could get playing time in mop-up duty.
It also can’t be overlooked that redshirt junior Malik Miller had four touchdowns last season and was a real threat in certain packages. He’ll have his opportunities next season as a veteran.
Big slot (Y) receiver
- Seth Williams, sophomore
- Marquis McClain, junior OR Sal Cannella, senior
- Harold Joiner, redshirt freshman OR Shedrick Jackson, sophomore
If a receiver can block, he’ll play in Malzahn’s offense. That’s why Jackson and McClain are listed here.
Williams’ physicality was an issue at the beginning of the spring according to coaches and players, but the standout sophomore showed why he was tops in the SEC in yards per catch last year with a 100-yard, two-touchdown performance at A-Day that earned him Offensive MVP. His catch radius is elite, evident in a touchdown snag over two defenders and a big gainer along the sideline, the latter caught as he climbed a defensive back.
We keep hearing about Cannella’s improvement, and while the senior did take a step forward last season, this position should be dominated by Williams.
Split end (X) receiver
- Marquis McClain, senior
- Anthony Schwartz, sophomore OR Matthew Hill, redshirt freshman
- Sal Cannella, senior OR Seth Williams, sophomore
Overall, Auburn boasts great versatility in its receivers room for 2019, so it will be difficult to predict where each wideout will find their respective niche. That complicates further when Schwartz, who missed all of spring ball with track and field duties, is tossed back into the mix.
The X spot is Darius Slayton’s old position. Auburn doesn’t have anyone on the roster with the NFL-caliber blend of speed and size of Slayton, so Malzahn, Dillingham and position coach Kodi Burns will likely try a multitude of lineups. Theoretically, McClain is the top candidate. He worked with the first team at the position for most of spring, but he also went catchless last season, so the jury remains out.
Hill burst onto the scene at A-Day with over 100 yards and two touchdowns, flashing the long arms and deep-ball awareness we’d been hearing about since he arrived as Auburn’s top-rated receiver in the 2018 class. Look for he and Schwartz to be options to stretch the defense with speed, while Cannella and Williams can be subbed in here in back-shoulder and goal-line situations.
Small slot receiver
- Anthony Schwartz, sophomore
- Eli Stove, junior OR Will Hastings, senior
Hastings dominated over the middle of the field at this position in 2017, but after two knee injuries in the last year, don’t expect Auburn to rush him back into things.
Besides, Malzahn can rely on Schwartz’s explosiveness and Stove’s experience here. Now free of the knee brace on his right leg, Stove has returned to form this spring and is fired up about the opportunity to start next season. Meanwhile, the small slot presents another opportunity for the speedy Schwartz to get the ball in his hands down the field.
In all, Auburn will likely be comfortable with all three options come midseason. The depth of the receiving corps just can’t be overstated.
Flanker (Z) receiver
- Eli Stove, junior OR Anthony Schwartz, sophomore
- Matthew Hill, redshirt freshman OR Harold Joiner, redshirt freshman
Like Hastings in the slot two seasons ago, Stove thrived as the speed sweep flanker in 2017. Schwartz filled in masterfully last season, tallying 211 yards and five scores on the ground for an average of 7.8 yards per carry. That’s compared to 292 yards and 10.8 yards per touch at the position for Stove in 2017. And, obviously, both possess great hands in the short to intermediate routes that come with the flanker role.
The offensive staff is determined to work both Hill and Joiner into the offense next year, and considering players have been calling Hill “savvy” and Joiner “untackleable” for the past year, this seems like good of a spot as any to get them involved going side to side.
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