Auburn Football 2022 Outlook


By Wil Crews


Regarding football, things have been rather quiet on The Plains recently.

Following a drama-filled offseason for head coach Bryan Harsin, the Tigers’ skipper is heading into year two with purpose and optimism. Despite some early offseason roster movement, not one player has entered the transfer portal since the program’s April 9 spring game, signaling that the Tigers are together in their chase for improving last season’s 6-7 finish.

Athlon Sports predicts Auburn to finish seventh in the SEC West, with an overall record of 6-6 and a 2-6 conference record. That’s a low win-total for hopeful fans, but the honest truth is that the Tigers have more questions than answers entering the 2022 season.

The end of the 2021 season resulted in the departure of both offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and defensive coordinator Derrick Mason, both of whom spent only one season on The Plains.

Harsin has, in turn, traded in much of his year-one coaching staff for new coaches at the O.C., D.C., wide receivers, defensive line, linebackers and special teams positions.

Harsin internally promoted Eric Kiesau (last year’s wide receivers coach who followed him from Boise State when Harsin was hired in December of 2020) to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, Jeff Schmedding (who also followed Harsin from Boise State) to defensive coordinator and Roc Bellantoni (who was an analyst in 2021) to special teams coordinator. Both Kiesau and Schmedding bring prior experience at these positions from their time at Boise State. Bellantoni brings coordinator experience with him from his time at Utah State and Washington State.

Externally, Harsin poached two coaches from other power-5 conference teams, assigning Florida’s Christian Robinson to be the linebackers coach/run game coordinator, and Oregon’s Jimmy Brumbaugh (an Auburn alum) to coach the defensive line. Robinson was previously with Florida for four years under former head coach Dan Mullin, and Brumbaugh spent 2021 as an analyst for the Ducks.

Harsin also went to the next level to find replacements on his coaching staff, convincing Ike Hilliard, former Florida and NFL-receiver who spent the last two seasons  as wide receivers coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL, to become Auburn’s coach at the same position.

Harsin was able to keep the knowledge and recruiting prowess of running backs coach Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and secondary coach Zac Etheridge on the staff, fending off interest from Georgia as it pertains to Etheridge. Rounding out the staff is the returning Brad Bedell (tight ends coach) and Will Friend (offensive line coach).

It can be presumed that these new additions and internal promotions will further strengthen the staff’s commitment to Harsin’s vision for the program. That sounds like a good thing, but the greatest concern comes from replacing the recruiting connections that the likes of Bobo and Mason — both recognizable and respected faces in the ever-revolving SEC coaching carousel — had.

But, on to the roster. Auburn enters 2022 needing to replace significant production at the wide receiver, quarterback and secondary positions. The offensive line appears to still be middle of the pack, and the bleeding out of players from the Gus Malzahn era has reshapen the roster this offseason.

Auburn faces the usual tough slate of games in the SEC West this year, and welcomes the Big-Ten’s Penn State to Jordan-Hare for an early-season clash in week three. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Tigers to improve on their 2021 campaign. It starts with returning players like running back Tank Bigsby, linebacker Owen Pappoe and edge Derrick Hall setting the standard, and from there, hopefully newly-recruited talent or transfer portal players can fill in the gaps.

For most teams in general, and particularly for Auburn this season, however, the buck stops — or starts — with the quarterback.

Auburn saw three-year starter Bo Nix transfer from the program and land at Oregon, leading to an open offseason competition between LSU transfer T.J. Finley, who arrived in 2021 and started multiple games for the Tigers down the stretch of the schedule, sophomore Texas A&M transfer Zac Calzada, freshman Oregon transfer Robby Ashford and true freshman Holden Geriner — Harsin’s first hand-pick recruit at the position.

Calzada is the odds-on early favorite to secure the starting spot, but each player has their own leverage for becoming the long-term solution at quarterback. Finley has more experience than anyone, and the presumed best level knowledge of the playbook; Ashford looks like the most athletic; Geriner possesses the youth and upside of a multi-year starter in the offense; Calzada is the most well-rounded. All this results in a quarterback room that has a relatively high floor, low ceiling.

None of these guys have a chance to succeed, however, if Auburn’s supporting cast of pass catchers does not make a significant jump in 2022.

The Tigers lost their top two most prolific pass catchers from last season, with Georgia transfer Demetris Robertson exercising the last of his eligibility, and junior Kobe Hudson shockingly exiting the program to join Malzahn at UCF. If Shedrick Jackson hadn’t elected to return for his extra year of eligibility, the Tigers would have been left with a combined 487 career receiving yards to its returning roster in 2022.

Jackson’s return is certainly a plus, but the likes of LSU transfer Koy Moore and Miami transfer Dazalin Worsham will be expected to make up some lost production given their previous experience at power-5 conference teams. Juniors Ze’Vian Capers, Malcolm Johnson Jr. and Tar’Varish Dawson could make the leap to key contributors, and incoming freshman Camden Brown, Jay Fair and Omari Kelly enter the program with a great chance to make an impact in year one.

Going from weakness to strength, Auburn boast a talented tight end room in 2022. John Samuel Shenker, the team’s fourth most prolific pass catcher in terms of receptions in 2021, cashed in on his extra year of eligibility to return to the program; sophomore Landen King is an exciting name that looks poised to break out in year two; juniors Luke Deal and Tyler Fromm should be solid contributors; and Micah Riley-Ducker was a nice three-star addition to the roster.

The remainder of the offensive positions are more solidified. Bigsby is returning for his junior campaign as a pre-season favorite for All-SEC first team and the undeniable engine of the Auburn offense. Sophomore Jarquez Hunter hopes to recover from an offseason ACL injury to build on an impressive first season as Bigsby’s primary backup.

The offensive line returns four super seniors (those who are using their extra year of eligibility due to the 2020 season COVID rule) to its ranks — Austin Troxell, Alec Jackson, Brandon Council and Nick Brahms. Four more are first-time seniors. Kilian Zierer, Brendan Coffee, Kameron Stutts and Jalil Irving are all competing for playing time this offseason. The 2022 juniors include Keiondre Jones, Tate Johnson and Jerimiah Wright. Avery Jernigan is the lone sophomore and three freshmen, Colby Smith, Garner Langlo and E.J. Harris provide depth.

The Auburn offensive line was average at best in 2021, and struggled particularly in the area of run blocking. This will be one of the most experienced groups in the nation come this season, but significant improvement will need to happen for Bigsby and the unproven quarterback room to have the type of year Harsin wants.

Defensively, the Tigers have one of the best front sevens in the SEC. Despite the departure of some depth pieces, Auburn returns the majority of its key players from a defense that finished with 36 sacks in 2021, the programs’ most since 2018. Hall and Eku Leota provide a deadly edge rushing combo; Colby Wooden anchors the interior of the line with Oregon transfer Jayson Jones figuring to come into the mix; and other names like juniors Marcus Harris and Zykeivous Walker, senior Marquis Burks and junior college (JUCO) transfer Jeffrey M’Ba should be notable contributors.

Owen Pappoe is the lone returning starter from the linebacker group, with Zakoby McClain and Chandler Wooter gone after stellar careers on The Plains. Juniors Cam Riley and Wesley Steiner and North Carolina transfer Eugene Asante are each predicted to get significant playtime alongside Pappoe.

The biggest weakness in the 2022 Auburn defense is in the secondary. The departure of All-American cornerback Roger McCreary and three-year starter Smoke Monday hurt the unit, but the upside of the remaining cornerbacks Jaylin Simpson, Nehemiah Pritchett and others lend to the idea that improvement in this position is not impossible. At the safety position, in-house returners Donovan Kaufman, Zion Puckett and Cayden Bridges will have opportunities to earn significant play time, and, if not, Iowa State transfer Craig Morgan and/or the highly-rated JUCO transfer Marquis Gilbert, will take their places.

Lastly, there is special teams. Senior Anders Carlson has been Auburn’s kicker ever since his big brother Daniel Carlson left the program after a distinguished career and became a premiere kicker in the NFL. He will need to improve on his 14-for-21 showing from 2021 to fend off competition from incoming freshman Alex McPherson (brother of another NFL kicker, Evan McPherson), the No. 1-rated kicker in his class.

The punter position is locked up barring any injury, as junior Oscar Champan performed well enough in 2021 to secure a 2022 pre-season All-SEC Second Team nomination.

Altogether, it would be easy to be cynical about the outlook for Auburn in 2022, but the truth is, the Tigers return a solid team. With a full year of implementing his culture under his belt, Harsin will carry heavier expectations from an often-unforgiving fan base.

The Observer will go into further detail on each position group, and Auburn’s schedule, as the season approaches. The Tigers open their season on Sept. 3 against Mercer in Jordan-Hare Stadium at 6 p.m., with the broadcast on ESPN+. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here