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COLUMN | How Harsin can right the ship for Auburn this season

Birmingham Bowl presser with Auburn coach Bryan Harsin and Houston coach Dane Holgorsen  on Thursday,  Dec. 16, 2021 in Birmingham, Ala.
Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics
Birmingham Bowl presser with Auburn coach Bryan Harsin and Houston coach Dane Holgorsen on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 in Birmingham, Ala. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

After a 6-7 debut season and a whole lot of offseason speculation, Tiger fans are left wondering what head coach Bryan Harsin needs to do in year two to salvage his career at Auburn.

Taking some risks will be key in turning the momentum on his tenure on the Plains. Going back to what he did last year won't cut it, and that is why I think it is crucial how he and his staff play out the quarterback situation.

On Sunday, it was announced that T.J. Finley, the LSU transfer who started Auburn's final three games last season, will be the starter to begin the new season, but I think it is important to keep the other quarterbacks engaged -- namely redshirt freshman Robby Ashford.

If the goal is to win six games, maybe even seven, then sure, let Finley and his experience stay under center all season. Coaches have praised him all offseason for being in command and getting the offense lined up well. He might be the safest option to start the season off, but I think Harsin needs a boost if he wants to secure his job.

There's a reason there was hesitancy to name a starting QB for Auburn, and I think it boils down to Ashford. The Oregon transfer adds an element to Auburn's offense that the other guys don't: the ability to create plays by taking off and running.

That is something that drives defensive coordinators crazy: covering a play beautifully, just to see the QB escape for a first-down run. That is a play that is tough to game plan for -- just ask Nick Saban about trying to game plan for Johnny Manziel, or coaches in the Atlantic Coastal Conference about trying to contain Lamar Jackson.

I'm not implying that Ashford is going to win the Heisman or rush for 1,000 yards this season, especially since he isn't starting from week one, but he might just be a risk that saves Harsin's job and gives Auburn the ability to play at a higher level.

Ashford is definitely a risk. He hasn't taken a snap in a live college football game. I'm not saying hand the keys to Ashford right away and expect him to take the Tigers to the promised land, but ease him in and get him comfortable. If Auburn doesn't give him a chance early on, it might never be the right time. 

Auburn has two non-power five opponents at home in the first two weeks. It doesn't have much to lose. Utilizing both the leadership from Finley and the playmaking of Ashford sets the team up for success and gives Ashford the confidence he needs to take over from there if that is the right decision after seeing him play.

Besides the quarterbacks, improving the red zone and short-yardage situations is key in improving offensive output. Auburn needs to be able to go for key fourth downs with confidence, and that means having a variety of plays ready to be drawn out on command.

There were quite a few of those short-yardage situations last year where Auburn looked unsure -- such as fourth-and-goal from the two yard line in the fourth quarter against Penn State or fourth-and-one at the end of the second quarter against South Carolina. The Tigers ended up losing those tightly contested games as a result. 

Yes, Auburn can turn to a veteran, 1,000-yard rusher in Tank Bigsby, but that's the obvious option. Defenses will be keying in on Bigsby until you force them not to. 

That is another instance where Ashford's mobility will come in handy and bring the RPO into account. That is the best way to keep the defense guessing on short to-go, late-down sets.

Also, Auburn has a plethora of tight ends at its disposal, including a fifth-year senior in John Samuel Shenker. He holds the program record for most receptions (33) and yards (413) by a tight end in a single season, a record set in the Birmingham Bowl last year. 

He has a sure set of hands-- the Tigers need to utilize them more in short-yardage situations as well as in the red zone. Not one of Shenker's 33 catches went for a touchdown in 2021.

In fact, Shenker didn't score a touchdown in 2020 or 2021, and he hasn't grabbed a touchdown since his 2019 campaign, when he only caught three passes under Gus Malzahn's offense. His usage rocketed under Harsin's offense last season, but he didn't get the ball in crucial situations. 

One thing is certain, though: the defense will hold it down for the Tigers. Derrick Hall is a one-man wrecking crew off the edge, with nine sacks last year, but defenses can't leave Eku Leota unaccounted for on the other side. 6-foot-6, 328-pound Jayson Jones will anchor down the middle of the defensive line, and the secondary has plenty of young talent.

Where the question mark comes in is on the offense. Can Harsin play his cards right and get the most out of his guys on that side of the ball? He can't without taking some risks, that's for sure. 

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The opinions expressed in columns and letters represent the views and opinions of their individual authors. 

These opinions do not necessarily reflect the Auburn University student body, faculty, administration or Board of Trustees. 

Noah Griffith | Assistant Sports Editor

Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.

Twitter: @NoahGG01

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