By Wil Crews
With the new Auburn football season less than four weeks away, and with practices and press conferences happening daily, the excitement for Bryan Harsin’s first season in charge of the Tigers is nearing its peak.
Still, however, there are many questions. Outside of maybe the best running back in the country, Tank Bigsby, and loaded linebacker and secondary units on the defense, the unknown is much greater than the know when it comes to the 2021 Tigers.
Irrevocably, a new beginning is on the horizon. The following are five areas of the team that should be carefully observed during the remainder of Auburn’s fall camp.
The addition of wide receiver’s coach Cornelius Williams, and the departure of top pass catchers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove, make this position by far the biggest question mark on Auburn’s roster this season. The late addition of Georgia transfer Demetris Robertson (50 catches for 767 yards and 7 touchdowns at Cal in 2016) adds some hierarchical clarity to the position, but a litany of unproven names stand in line behind him. Following his impressive A-day performance, Elijah Canion figures to further build upon his chemistry with quarterback Bo Nix. Furthermore, first-year Auburn offensive coordinator will hope to see production out of the likes of Kobe Hudson, Ze’Vian Capers and Shedrick Jackson. Tight end usage will factor into how many of these guys see significant play time, too, but a significant amount of improvement must be seen in the receivers to prevent the Tigers from becoming too reliant on the run game.
Offensive line coach Will Friend came over from Tennessee in the offseason and inherits an Auburn offensive line that has been much maligned over the past couple of years. His goal: to keep Bo Nix (or whoever is under center) from scrambling for his life. The center position of Friend’s unit is all but locked up, with senior Nick Brahms owning 21 career starts. There is going to be a battle between seniors Austin Troxell and Alec Jackson at the left tackle spot, however, with both splitting time there in 2020. The right side of the line has questions marks too – with Brandon Council (who started four of five games in 2020) recovering from an ACL injury and redshirt sophomore Keiondre Jones battling starting positions. Other players to watch include Brodarious Hamm, Kilian Zierer and Tashawn Manning. Friend and his offensive line will have two “warm up” games against lesser opponents to start the season. The real test comes in week three when the Tigers travel to face a Penn State defense that recorded 21 sacks in just nine games last season.
It just hasn’t been the same since Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson left The Plains. Last year, the defensive line unit saw a significant drop-off in production, but also saw an invaluable amount of experience given to young talent. Now, that young talent should morph into experienced leadership. The addition of UAB transfer and seventh-year defensive tackle Tony Fair amplifies that fact. If there was a standout to last year’s underwhelming defensive line, it was Colby Wooden. The rising sophomore recorded 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in his freshman season, earning himself lofty expectations in 2021 from the coaching staff and fan base alike. Juniors Dereck Hall and Dre Butler, senior T.D. Moultry (who returns to edge after spending much of the previous two season at linebacker) and sophomore Zykevious Walker are all significant names looking to cement themselves into the Tigers’ regular pass-rushing rotation this year.
Having started every game for the Tigers since stepping on campus, junior Bo Nix is the betting favorite to win the starting quarterback job for Auburn this season. But he does have competition. LSU transfer, the 6-foot-7-inch TJ Finley, came to the Tigers in the spring and looks the part. There are major questions about his accuracy and decision making – having thrown for five touchdowns and five interceptions with a 57.1% pass completion rate – but similar concerns apply to Nix. Regardless of Finley’s potential ability to usurp his predecessor, this is the first time Nix will have legit competition for the starting role. This should force Nix to elevate his game and take a commanding presence of the locker room. If he doesn’t, at any time, there will be a competent player behind him that can be given the reins.
As stated earlier, Auburn’s secondary is probably the most well-rounded unit on the team. That doesn’t mean there are a lack of questions regarding the group. Defensive stalwarts like Smoke Monday and Roger McCreary return to spearhead the unit, but the battle for second starting safety and cornerback is up for grabs. Cornerback Nehmeniah Pritchett impressed last year, as well did rising sophomore Jaylin Simpson, and West Virginia transfer Dreshun Miller is rated highly as he was a part of a Mountaineer unit that was ranked No. 5 overall by PFF through week 14 of last season. At the nickel safety position, Ledarius Tennison generated buzz in limited play time last year, and Zion Puckett looks prepared to challenge for significant snaps.