An Offensive Look Ahead
Who will be slinging it for the Tigers in 2019?
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle, everybody! College football has mercifully drawn to a close, and all we can do now is look to the future. However, basketball has really geared up the past week, with Auburn pulling away from Georgia in Auburn Arena last weekend and then bombing Texas A&M by 19 points in its own gym a couple of days ago. The Big Blue of Kentucky come visiting Saturday afternoon at 3:00 PM. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN.
Offensive questions have become the norm in recent years as Auburn has seen its share of shaky quarterbacking and a revolving door of running backs. Several major pieces of the offense from the past couple of seasons have departed, and there are some holes to fill. Leaving early for the NFL draft are quarterback Jarrett Stidham and receiver Darius Slayton. That pair hooked up for some dynamite plays the past couple of years. A 4-year starter at H-back, Chandler Cox, has exhausted his eligibility as well.
The past couple of years, Auburn’s offensive success has mirrored the play of the offensive line. When the line misses assignments or gets whipped, Auburn’s offense goes nowhere. When the line gels, records can be set such as Auburn’s 63-point outburst in the Music City Bowl a few weeks ago. On the line, the only departing seniors are Tucker Brown and Ryan Meneely. All the guys that started games last season return, and frankly, this unit really came together late in the season. I am eager to see what another year of conditioning and work does for them. Auburn isn’t as deep on the line as it has been in the past decade, but I expect some major position battles this spring and summer.
Center Kaleb Kim will be a returning senior, and Nick Brahms will be a sophomore. I expect a battle there as Brahms was thrown into the fire last year a little too early. Senior guards Mike Horton and Marquell Harrell return, but there are some good sophomores behind them, looking to take away a starting spot. Calvin Ashley and Austin Troxell can both play inside or out. At left tackle, senior Prince Tega Wanagho passed on an NFL opportunity to return. On the right side, Jack Driscoll should be back. I had mistakenly pegged him as a departing senior in 2018, but I was wrong. I’m glad I fact-checked with the official Auburn roster! Again, Ashley and Troxell are the biggest threats behind Wanagho and Driscoll.
Despite the loss of Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis, Auburn returns a lot of talent at the receiver spots. I figure that sophomore Seth Williams will lock down one starting spot. He took over about midseason last year, was Auburn’s most consistent set of hands, and has great size and speed. Auburn gets veterans Eli Stove and Will Hastings back from injury, and they’ll be pressed by younger talent, including Anthony Schwartz, Shedrick Jackson, Marquis McClain, and Matthew Hill. There is a lot of speed on display, in this unit.
As is the case in most years, I’m very concerned about the tight end and H-back spots. The only listed tight ends on Auburn’s roster that will return are senior Sal Cannella and sophomore John Samuel Schenker. Cannella was really used more as a big receiver than a tight end in 2018. Schenker played a good bit and is a bigger body. Senior Spencer Nigh is the only returning H-back on the current roster. I’m reading where Auburn may be able to sign Arizona State grad-transfer Jay Jay Wilson and that he might be able to start immediately. I’m not sure about that guess. Wilson missed last season with an injury and some off-the-field troubles and played linebacker in 2017. I see Schenker and Nigh starting because that’s really all the bodies Auburn has at this point.
The running back group is good sized and looks dangerous heading into 2019. It’s mainly just a matter of finding lead blockers to open up the running game. I figure senior Kam Martin and sophomore JaTarvious Whitlow will battle for the starting job and may end up co-starting. Both are very dangerous when healthy. Sophomore Shaun Shivers and junior Malik Miller had their moments last season, as well. Shivers is a speedy guy who plays bigger than he really is. Miller fits the role of a big bruiser back with surprisingly good receiving skills. Redshirt freshman Harold Joiner will likely get a good look this spring.
The biggest question mark headed into spring is at quarterback. An offense is usually dictated by the abilities of its quarterback, and we do not know who that will be. Junior Malik Willis returns with the most experience and playing time, but he’s really not been allowed to pass much. We know he has great speed. We got a chance to see redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood in the bowl game. He also is a speedy runner with good size. Transfer Cord Sandberg is another veteran presence we saw a bit of against Alabama State. Finally, some folks think that incoming freshman Bo Nix will win the starting job. He is enrolling early and will go through spring drills. Nix is the top-rated dual threat quarterback coming out of high school, this year.