A Year of Offensive Face-Turns.
A lot of skill returns!
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle everybody! A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at Auburn’s defensive year and what Auburn might expect on that side of the ball going forward to 2018. I’m taking a look at the offense, this week.
The 2017 Tigers finished averaging 33.9 points per game, up almost 3 points per game from 2016. However, those numbers are deceptive. Usually, Auburn finds it tough to score on SEC teams and feasts on the nonconference schedule. This year was the opposite. Auburn was held below 30 points by Clemson, Mercer and Central Florida. Meanwhile, the Tigers scored 40 or more points against SEC foes an unprecedented 6 times.
Auburn started slow on offense last season, as we should have expected, with a lot of new ideas blended into the typical Gus Malzahn offense. A transfer quarterback that had only started 3 games was seeing his first action at Auburn, and I think maybe expectations were a little too through the roof. Auburn beat Georgia Southern 41–7 in the opener, but there were warts such as a sack-fumble touchdown. It turned out that Georgia Southern was pretty bad in 2017 and fired its coach at midseason. Then Auburn gave up 11 sacks at Clemson and managed only a couple of field goals. Honk if you sacked Jarrett! Homecoming against Mercer was a turnover-fest, and Auburn had to eke out a 24–10 win.
After an uninspiring first quarter of the season, the Auburn offense turned it up in the next three games. The Tigers planted 51, 49 and 44 points on a trio of SEC opponents, and large portions of these games were spent emptying the bench in blowouts. Conservatism returned at LSU, and a horrific loss resulted as Auburn blew a 20–0 second-quarter lead. That did not stop the Tiger offense, though. Auburn rebounded by scoring 52 against Arkansas, 42 against Texas A&M, and 40 against Georgia. Auburn beat Alabama to close out a wildly successful Amen Corner and headed to Atlanta to take on Georgia again. Unfortunately, the running game was shot, and pressure came early and often as the Tigers asked the passing game to carry the team. Then, frankly, much of the team mailed in a consolation Peach Bowl loss against Central Florida.
Some folks will argue differently, but as I see it, no team averages 37 points per game in SEC contests without decent or better offensive line play. While a lot of fans want to vilify outgoing offensive line coach Herb Hand for the bad games against Clemson, Georgia and Central Florida, Hand’s lines paved the way for Kerryon Johnson to rush for over a thousand yards on the season, and Johnson managed that while spending most of the season nicked up. Jarrett Stidham was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the SEC, and that is not going to happen with a bad offensive line. Hand kept things together up front, despite constant shuffling due to injury.
That said, I do think Auburn upgraded when the Tigers got J. B. Grimes back to replace Hand. Auburn will be young on the offensive line in 2018, and Grimes has been really successful at taking underclassmen and turning them into NFL draft picks. Auburn loses 4 starters off the line in 2018, most likely all to the NFL. Those are Darius James, Casey Dunn, Austin Golson and All-American Braden Smith. Auburn does have starting experience returning, thanks to a lot of the blowout wins and personnel shuffling up front. I can’t wait to see what left tackle Prince Tega Wanagho does, under Grimes’ tutelage. Kaleb King is an able center replacement. Mike Horton has starting experience at guard as does Marquel Harrell. I would not be surprised to see Prince Micheal Sammons win out at right tackle. I have every confidence that J. B. Grimes will ultimately field a very capable unit in 2018 up front.
Barring suspensions, injury or plain bad luck, Auburn returns every significant receiver and tight end from the past season and will add more talent to the mix. At the top is Ryan Davis, who set an Auburn record with 84 catches last season. Darius Slayton, Eli Stove and Will Hastings all had 25 catches or more. Some folks would argue that Auburn had a lot of cheap completions on quick screens or, in Stove’s case shovel passes. Maybe those are cheap, but Auburn has taken a lot of damage over the years from teams that do that. It was nice to see last year’s Auburn offense take advantage of basically free yardage. And when a tackle was missed, those short passes turned into big plays.
Every time I do a position piece, I worry about the tight ends and H-backs. I was optimistic last season, but outside of Chandler Cox, the group did not develop as much as I had hoped. With Jalen Harris and Cox on the field, Auburn has a savvy, veteran group of blockers for the run game. Auburn threw 8 token passes towards Cox and only a single completion to Harris. Auburn did do a good job on heavy sets by bringing in extra linemen, but again there was no attempt to get them the ball. One of the things I most dislike about the Auburn/Gus Malzahn offense is the careful division of roles. Stove is in motion? Watch the speed sweep. Auburn has Cox or Harris split wide? They’ll never throw to him. Walk another defender down into the box. I don’t like the idea of a guy being either a deep receiver or a short-range receiver. Make the defender worry about getting burned, regardless of which receiver is being covered. Give your H-back a carry every now and then. Stop being predictable with personnel.
For the first January in a while, I see running back as a big question. Auburn loses its two big studs, Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, early to the NFL draft. Those guys were devastating at times, but also had a lot of injury woes. Top on the returning depth chart is Kam Martin, who is wickedly fast and elusive. Martin had 453 rushing yards last season, a 6.1 yards per carry clip. He also has had a tendency to get banged up. Devan Barrett was a designated shovel pass/sweep guy, and we knew those plays were going to be run as soon as he entered a game. Malik Miller quietly amassed 135 yards on 34 carries, mostly with the games out of hand late. Beyond those 3 guys, Auburn has just C. J. Tolbert and Cedric Chambers on the official roster at this time. We saw a bit of Tolbert last A-Day. He’s tough, but he’s also only 5′ 7” and 180 pounds. I’m told that the real worry with playing the above guys in live combat situations was pass protection. Last season, Auburn coaches would rather put a veteran back with a foot injury or a torn up shoulder out there, rather than risk the quarterback’s health with a younger player. This coming year, the running back corps is one big injury or defection from disaster.
I am very high on Auburn’s quarterback situation, despite serious attrition on the bench last season. I very much enjoyed watching Jarrett Stidham start every game and have a banner year. I worried for him in the Clemson game, and those two games in the Georgia Dome where his line could not get any traction. Count me a bit worried that Stidham has just had a bit of surgery on his left shoulder, but I suppose that sort of wear and tear happens when the hits pile up. Beyond Stidham, I loved seeing Malik Willis get into games and make plays. He has a live arm and is a very dangerous running. And Auburn adds all-world recruit Joey Gatewood to the mix in the coming year. Last year, Auburn had some trouble getting the passing game going early with Stidham shaking off the rust. I think this season, Stidham and receivers are familiar with one another and should be able to execute at a high level right out of the gate. It’s also a plus that Auburn isn’t installing a brand new offense, this year.