Tigers Establishing QB Starter, Two-Deep Roster
BY WIL CREWS
The Auburn Tigers are in the final stages of preparation for their 2022 season-opening matchup at home against Mercer on Sept. 2.
Much progress has been made on The Plains this month, and the true colors of the orange-and-blue this season are beginning to show through. There is still time for deliberation, however.
By the time this hits print, Auburn may have named a starting quarterback. Following the Tigers’ second fall scrimmage last Friday, where all three quarterbacks — returner T.J. Finley, Texas A&M transfer Zac Calzada and Oregon transfer Robby Ashford — split first-team reps, the picture surrounding the quarterback became a little bit clearer. Head coach Bryan Harsin awarded the most notable praise to returning QB T.J. Finley.
“I’ll say this — T.J. has got a coach’s mentality,” Harsin said. “He sees things out there, and that’s just — not everybody conceptually picks things up very quickly. It takes a little bit of time and he’s got that mentality.
“A couple of examples in the scrimmage — he sees that we get to play in late. The clock is winding down. It’s going to be a timeout situation. Well, he’s getting everybody to the line and getting the snap count to what it needs to be so we can get the play off and then execute the play. So it’s not a panic, he’s just doing it with urgency. And he gets everybody to the line and then — bang — we convert a third down-and-nine.“
The experience that the 6-foot-7-inch Finley possesses returning for his second season in the system has seemingly given him the upper hand in the position battle, and Harsin isn’t the only one to notice. Offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau gave his “gut” reaction to the scrimmage performance to reporters on Saturday.
“My feel, my gut — just without watching it, just from calling the game — was just T.J. had a really good command,” Kiesau said. “He had a lot of precision. He checked some plays for us and got us in the right play, which is good.”
As for Finley’s competition, Ashford has posed problems for the Auburn defense all fall due to his dual-threat capabilities. Kiesau noted Ashford’s biggest improvement to be his accuracy. A two-sport athlete at Oregon, where he also played baseball, Ashford developed a reputation as a gunslinger; according to Auburn’s staff, the redshirt freshman is learning to control his ambitions.
“Robby is flashy,” Kiesau said. “He can run around. He is really — and I’m speaking for all of camp, but obviously today, it materialized a little bit — he’s doing a better job of maturing in the position. He’s really athletic. He can really run, but he’s starting to play the quarterback position, which is important.
“You’ve got to throw a catchable ball,” Kiesau said. “You’ve got to make sure it’s easy for them, and I think he’s gotten a lot better over the last two or three weeks through camp, and he’s really understanding that. I think it’s going to help him with his accuracy, as well.”
For Calzada, the reactions to last weekend’s practices was not as positive. “We’ve got to keep bringing him along,” Kiesau said. “He’s kind of been, like I said, intertwined with all these groups — first, second and third groups, and first, second and third teams. He has good days and bad days. We’ve got to kind of keep him consistent as we go through.”
Regardless of what is announced about the starting QB, the competition will likely run through the early portion of the Tigers’ season, as Auburn plays two “cupcake” teams — Mercer and San Jose State — before welcoming Penn State to Jordan-Hare Stadium for week three, Sept. 17.
“Really, all the quarterbacks, it’s a work in progress,” Kiesau said. “That’s why, like, right now, we don’t know who the guy is.”
Other notable developments from the last week of practice have included: freshman receiver Camden Brown running with the first-team; Tate Johnson — a backup guard last season — taking reps at center instead of super-senior and four-year starter Nick Brahms (whose football future has been in question recently); and defensive players Jaiden Ausberry (cornerback), Eku Leota (edge), Cam Riley (linebacker) and Craig McDonald and Cayden Bridges (safeties) performing well according to defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding.
Attempting to replace lost production from 2021 at both the safety positions, linebacker, quarterback and wide receiver, Auburn’s two-deep roster finally appears to be taking shape. The true answers to who Harsin and company believe have the best ability to step up, should come soon.