1. Auburn had a fantastic 2017 season, but things ended on a bit of a sour note with the two late losses in Atlanta. What’s been the attitude and the approach this spring moving forward?
I think with the way 2017 ended, most Auburn fans’ feelings fall somewhere among the following:
First, if we were fully healthy (Kerryon Johnson, Carlton Davis) in both the SEC Championship and Peach Bowl, then most Auburn fans would probably lean toward us having made the Playoff. Even though we lost 28-7 to Georgia in the SEC Championship, it was a 13-7 game heading into the fourth quarter, and we were tied with UCF heading into the fourth quarter. If we beat Georgia, then who knows what happens in the Playoff. Bama probably doesn’t get in and so it’s a completely different story altogether. I think the health of our players marred the end of an otherwise really great 2017 season.
Now, coming into spring practice, we’re facing another daunting schedule (Washington, Georgia, Bama, all away from Jordan-Hare), and some uncertainty at key positions. What’s more, we didn’t really learn a ton during the spring.
Our battle at center was put on hold because the top two guys suffered injuries. Our running back situation isn’t settled at all, and Jarrett Stidham was hurt for some of spring ball, only playing in a seven-on-seven drill in the A-Day game. Obviously, we can hang with (and dominate) the best teams in the country when we play at our best, but it’s going to take more consistency in Gus Malzahn’s sixth (already??) season at the helm. We have to learn to play away from one of the best home atmospheres in the country.
2. Does it feel like Jarrett Stidham will be more of the engine of the offense this season, now that Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway are gone?
I really don’t see how Jarrett Stidham won’t be the focal point of the offense to start the season. For one, we return the top five receivers, who combined to grab 184 passes for over 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns. A couple of them are coming off of injury, but should be relatively ready to go for the opener in Atlanta. Stidham has a year under his belt and a year in Chip Lindsey’s system to make the springboard for 2018 even easier. Furthermore, the running back rotation is so fluid right now that we don’t know who will be the starter against Washington. Add in the fact that it usually takes Gus Malzahn a few games to identify his workhorse in the backfield, and we’ll have to depend on Stidham. Thankfully, after the opener in Atlanta, the next four games are at home (including a week three date with LSU).
3. Any newcomers or surprises this spring that could make an impact in the coming year?
I think in terms of newcomers, you have to look at the positions where we lost some studs — running back and “Buck” defensive end. Kerryon Johnson and Jeff Holland departed for the NFL, and in Holland’s absence, there are a couple guys that should absolutely shine. Big Kat Bryant (official roster name, I kid you not) and T.D. Moultry both showed flashes last year, and with some time in the college weight room, should be ready to help dominate. It doesn’t hurt that the rest of the defensive line with Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe, Dontavius Russell, and Derrick Brown should be able to take plenty of attention away, making it easy for the Buck guys to make plays.
At tailback, Kam Martin is the unofficial starter after spring ball, but that’s likely only because he played last year. The guy that most people are talking about is JaTarvious Whitlow, affectionately nicknamed “Boobee”. He ran hard in the spring game and has evidently dazzled in practices. This is the first year in quite some time that we’re not really sure who’s going to be the guy in the backfield for the Tigers.
4. Auburn returns the guts of a very good defense, but lost some big-time playmakers in Jeff Holland and Carlton Davis. Any concern on that front?
Above, I talked about Holland’s replacement at the Buck position, and the talent around Big Kat Bryant an T.D. Moultry on the defensive line. I’m not really worried about that spot as much, since the Tigers ought to have one of the top defensive lines in the country. Since we have three senior linebackers behind them as well, the front seven should be tough. At cornerback, Carlton Davis had morphed into a true shutdown guy, and quarterbacks avoided him like the plague. His replacement will have much less experience and will likely be tested early on. Our secondary should look something similar to Javaris Davis/Jamel Dean at the corners, and Jeremiah Dinson/Daniel Thomas at the safeties. All of those guys played last year, and Davis/Dean were listed as co-starters on the depth chart opposite Carlton. They’re both capable, but I’m sure we’ll see a bit of a rocky start once they’re tested more and more. I’m less confident about that part of the defense, and that’s why it’s important for the front seven to get pressure on the quarterbacks.
5. Any feeling on how 2018 stacks up? Another chance to win the West, or a bit of a step back after losing a few studs?
Looking at the schedule, it’s tough for sure, and we could be in a great position before having to go to Athens/Tuscaloosa, but I believe Auburn has as good a shot as anyone else to win the West. Opening against Washington is nice because short of getting blown out, Auburn either builds on a top ten victory, or has plenty of time to regroup after a loss. After that, it’s four straight home games where Auburn will likely be favored, and the only true road games before November are at MSU/Ole Miss.
November will be a killer, with Texas A&M at home (where we’ve never beaten them), then road trips to Georgia and Alabama. To win the West, Auburn needs to split those last two and have at most one other loss. The last few years, we’ve gotten unlucky with a backfield injury (quarterback in 2015-16, Kerryon last year) hampering our chances down the stretch, so if we stay healthy, the ceiling is pretty high. Most people will say 9-3 (loss to Washington, someone, and UGA/Bama), and that sounds about right to me. Get a good break and we’re looking at another trip to the Benz in early December.