Auburn football is in a fascinating place heading into 2017. It returns an enormous amount of its offensive production from last year, but the quarterback who has the most of that production might not play much. Its defense was one of the most improved of last season, but it’s unclear whether the gains are sustainable.
The Tigers are one of the great wild cards this year. Anything from 7-5 to 11-1 is plausible, and the head coach’s job could be riding on which end of that spectrum they land on. Here are the biggest issues to watch to see where the team might end up.
1. Plugging the defensive line holes
The Auburn defense made a tremendous leap forward in 2017, and I don’t think all of it can be attributed to the arrival of Kevin Steele. He’s had some good and some bad defenses over the years, and he’s not schematically different enough from his predecessor Will Muschamp to be the main ingredient.
The difference maker was a healthy Carl Lawson. He missed six games in 2015 due to injury wasn’t fully himself even after returning. In 2016, the Tigers had Lawson the whole year, and it made things much better on that side of the ball.
Lawson on the outside and Montravius Adams on the inside made for one of the best lineman duos in the country. They were by far the most productive linemen on the team, too. Lawson’s 13.5 and Adams’s 8.5 tackles for loss were the top totals for the Tigers, as were the former’s nine and the latter’s 4.5 sacks. Unfortunately for Auburn Lawson declared for the NFL Draft, and Adams has graduated.
It will be difficult for the Tigers to sustain their gains without finding suitable replacements along the line. A disruptive front makes everything else the defense does easier.
The good news is that Marlon Davidson has the potential to replace Lawson’s production. As a true freshman last year, he accumulated six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks from the other end of the line. Those figures are at least tied for the most among returning linemen. As for Lawson’s actual Buck position, Jeff Holland should get the first crack at it. He was a mainstay of the Tigers’ “Rabbits” defensive package, and Steele called him the fifth starter because of his place in that grouping.
Replacing Adams will involve getting younger at the expense of experience. Derrick Brown was the top reserve last year, and he came in as a 5-star signee in the 2016 class. Antwaun Jackson, a 4-star signee from the same class, will be in the mix after redshirting a year ago, but it’s Brown’s spot to lose. They have all the talent in the world, but they will bring years fewer reps to the position than Adams had.
If this new crop of linemen can gel as well as last year’s crew did, then the defensive production shouldn’t fall off too far. Auburn needs the new big men up front to continue the excellence that Lawson and Adams brought to it last year.
2. Solve the quarterback problem
The quarterback position on the Plains has been unsettled since Nick Marshall left. Jeremy Johnson ended up a bust, and Sean White’s injuries have prevented him from taking command of the position. John Franklin III was supposed to be a contender last year, but he ended up being a novelty running option—and an effective one at that—rather than a complete quarterback.
White did have an excellent four-game stretch in October of 2016. He completed 72 percent of his 68 passes for 767 yards (11.3 yards per throw) with five touchdowns and only one pick for a 188.1 passing efficiency. The games were also against UL-Monroe, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Ole Miss, none of which was throwing out a good defense against the Tigers. White’s body began breaking down again after the calendar flipped to November, leaving it an open question of whether the offense had found a new gear or was just feasting on bad defenses.
Jarrett Stidham is likely to win the starting role for this year. The JUCO transfer performed well as a true freshman at Baylor in 2015, and the coaches feel comfortable enough with him, White, and redshirt freshman Woody Barrett to apparently move Franklin to wide receiver full-time.
Stidham has plenty of talent, but he’s closer to being a better Sean White or Jeremy Johnson than to being another Marshall or Cam Newton. Gus Malzahn has struggled over the past two years to put together an offense that worked without a dynamic rushing threat from the quarterback spot, and though not immobile, Stidham won’t be that. Perhaps the arrival of new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey will solve that problem.
There also is a question of durability. Stidham only started three games at Baylor because he broke a bone in his ankle. White has been injury prone as well. If the bad injury luck continues for those guys, it could be a long season of interruptions at the most important position in the game.
The best case scenario is Stidham coming in, excelling, and starting the entire year. It might end up being a one-year rental since he can declare for the NFL Draft after this coming season, but that would be a welcome problem to have given what it would imply about his 2017 performance. Anything less than that, and there might be more frustratingly uneven offense out of Auburn again this year.
3. Stabilize the new-look offensive line
Malzahn’s offenses rely on outstanding offensive lines, and Auburn had one of those in 2016. The line paved the way for Kamryn Pettway to emerge as one of the best running backs in the conference. The passing game might’ve been touch-and-go, but the Tigers got back into to their power rushing groove behind that wall.
One reason it was so good is that all five starters were upperclassmen. Three of them have graduated though, with center Xavier Dampeer, right tackle Robert Left, and second team All-SEC left guard Alex Kozan exhausting their eligibility.
The two junior starters return, which helps a great deal. They won’t be back in the same spots, however. Braden Smith, also a 2016 second team All-SEC selection from the right guard position, is moving outside to right tackle. Austin Golson is moving in the opposite direction, sliding inside to center from his left tackle post of a year ago.
If the lineup from spring practice holds, there will be a third senior starter on the line. Darius James spent his junior season backing up Golson at left tackle, and he’s moving up to starter now. The guard posts will go to third-year players in Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton, both of whom were backup guards as redshirt freshmen last fall.
The fact that the starting roles are most likely going to guys in at least their third seasons helps a great deal. However, offensive lines are more about teamwork than any other position on the field. It can be especially disruptive to have a new center, as that position tends to be the leader who calls out protections and makes adjustments.
If the new-look line can reproduce last year’s results, Auburn will have a good chance to make real strides on offense this year. Everything starts up front, so getting that right is crucial to the 2017 campaign.