By Wil Crews
Just over one week before Auburn participates in its annual spring football game, A Day, the dominos affecting the fall 2022 Auburn roster have begun to fall.
In his 10th season as a college football head coach, Bryan Harsin begins his second year on The Plains after a rather tumultuous offseason that has presented more questions than answers when it comes to the program’s future.
Since the beginning of spring practice, Auburn has seen some notable players depart the program, some presumed key players pick up injuries and some fresh faces make an early impact. Here is what to watch for through the remainder of spring practice and leading up to A Day.
Who will gain an edge in the quarterback battle? One of the top prizes of the 2020 recruiting class for Auburn was 4-star quarterback Dematrius Davis. The versatile athlete committed to Gus Malzahn, remained signed through that weird Kevin Steele interim head coach singing period and battled through practices with limited reps last season under Harsin. Those circumstances and perhaps more behind the scenes resulted in Davis entering the transfer portal earlier this month. While it may hurt to lose out on the promise of Davis before ever getting a chance to see him work, the Auburn quarterback room now has more clarity. T.J. Finley looks to be in pole position for the starting job after starting multiple games last season; however, despite a strong early spring, the LSU transfer showed some of his flaws last season and picked up plenty of doubters. On the other hand, Texas A&M transfer Zac Calzada is battling through injury and will not participate in any spring practices, putting him behind the 8-ball despite the favor he may already have with the offensive coaching staff which convinced him to transfer to The Plains. Freshman Holden Geriner, Harsin’s first hand-picked Auburn recruit at QB, will be the long-shot candidate until a starter is named, but surprisingly, the biggest riser of spring practice has been another newcomer — Oregon transfer QB Robby Ashford. Originally from Hoover, Alabama, the long, muscular talent with a big arm has plenty of room to grow and has flashed his potential while receiving the majority of the second-team reps in practice. The safe bet would be Finley, but if Harsin and company want to go a different direction with more potential, any of the three aforementioned names have a legitimate shot at taking the starting job come fall.
How will players respond to revamped coaching staff? The departure of Mike Bobo after just one season at Auburn resulted in last year’s wide receivers coach — noted Harsin’s “guy” — Eric Kiesau taking control of the offensive coordinator mantle. Jeff Schmedding — who followed Harsin from Boise State — received a promotion from assistant/linebackers coach to defensive coordinator after Derrick Mason left for Oklahoma State in the offseason. The changing of the guard signals a greater commitment to Harsin’s vision, something that didn’t seem likely amidst the February drama that engulfed Auburn and its head coach’s offseason. How the players respond to losing Mason — a generally well-liked coach who was renowned as a top defensive mind — and Bobo — an experienced, respected and longtime SEC offensive play-caller — is yet to be fully uncovered. However, defensive players have lauded the “smooth” transition that has taken place from Mason to Schmedding, and Kiesau has already made it clear what some of his top objectives are — namely making junior running back Tank Bigsby a focal point on his offense in 2022. Kiesau, and to a greater extent Schmedding, are relatively unproven at the Power 5 level; it may take a while to win over some of the faces that have gone through multiple coordinators during their tenure on The Plains.
What new faces are making the biggest early impact? In terms of positional groups for 2022, Auburn has significant needs to replace production at the receiver, defensive line and linebacker, amongst other things. Four-star freshman Omari Kelly — the gem of the 2021 receivers class — could make a name for himself in the depleted pass-catching corp. Tight end Micah Riley-Ducker could also factor into the pass game, given he can separate from a crowded tight end room. Defensively, early-enrollee J.D. Rhym looks like a name that can help fill the void left by last season’s No. 1 corner Roger McCreary, and safety Colby Wooden is taking after his brother already by turning heads, picking up two turnovers on the opening day of practice and only building on his performances since then. Non-freshman like Ashford and fellow Oregon transfer, defensive lineman Jason Jones, also have the opportunity to be a key cog in the Auburn machine. Also, edge rusher and Auburn’s top get of the 2021 class, Dylan Brooks, is taking leadership from the likes of Derrick Hall and Eku Leota to hopefully progress quickly enough to contribute this fall.
How will the pass catchers shape up? This offseason, Auburn lost its No. 1, 3 and 5 receivers in terms of production from 2021. Kobe Hudson — who looked poised to be a stud — and Javarius Johnson hit the portal. And fifth-year senior Demetrius Robertson ran out of eligibility after just one semi-impactful season on The Plains. It’s still anyone’s guess as to who leads the receiver room, although senior Shedrick Jackson has the early odds. Sophomores Malcom Johnson Jr. and Tar’Varish Dawson — who exploded on the scene with an impressive Birmingham Bowl performance to end last season — also figure to factor in. Aside from a freshman like Kelly or Jay Fair stepping up as first-year impact players, Auburn figures to rely heavily on its experienced tight-end group led by John Samuel Shenker, Landen King and others.
Who will provide the defense with depth? The thinnest group on Auburn heading into 2022 appears to be the defensive line — specifically edge. Despite hallmark names Derrick Hall, Eku Leota and Colby Wooden returning to anchor the pass rush, the names behind those two guys are question marks. Linebacker is also a worry. Losing leading tackler Zakoby McClain and veteran presence Chandler Wooten leaves Owen Pappoe as the experience in the center of the defense. The secondary should be fine with the likes of Jaylin Simpson, Nehemiah Pritchett and Donovan Kaufman all receiving significant playing time throughout their tenure on The Plains. Look for North Carolina transfer Eugene Asante, and program players Cam Riley and Wesley Steiner to provide assistance to Pappoe at the linebacker spot; newcomers Jeffrey M’Ba and Jones should bolster the defensive front.