By Wil Crews
Photos by Robert Noles / for the Opelika Observer
The pundits would say there’s little to learn about a football team in 32 minutes of pseudo-competition in April.
Partially, they are right. But when the Tigers lined up to play the Tigers in what was Bryan Harsin’s first game in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, more than a few performances gave a look in to how Auburn will shape up in the fall.
Of course, much can change from now until then. But here is what stood out as encouraging or discouraging from Auburn’s A-Day, and what lingering question remain as the Tigers charge toward the season.
- The Bryan Harsin/Mike Bobo offense looks very different from Gus Malzahn’s – and that’s a good thing. Creative field spacing and motions, more tight end-heavy sets and even an under-the-center play action pass that was a calculated break up away from being a touchdown – Eureka! “I think the offense we’re in now allows to be multiple and gets me to do different things with the football,” said Bo Nix. He added that the new scheme made it “easier to go through progressions and put guys in great positions.” Overall, the offense was the breath of fresh air and creativity that Auburn fans wanted and needed to see.
- As predicted, the defense appeared to be the stronger unit of this team, with youth and depth at almost every position. To no one’s surprise, Zakoby McClain led the first-team in tackles; Colby Wooden and Derrick Hall were locked in as the starting edge rushers, both registering a sack; and the secondary was largely untested. Four underclassmen, Wooden, sophomore safety Chris Thompson Jr., sophomore edge Romello Height and redshirt freshman defensive tackle/edge Nick Curtis, finished with double digit tackles. The one glaring question mark was defensive tackle (more on that later). Lastly, another standout who has to be mentioned is senior cornerback Trey Elston. Elston was by far the most impactful of those on the second-team, making a game-high six tackles and crucially disrupting the would-have-been touchdown pass from Nix to Elijah Cannion. Elston, who played at the University of West Alabama in 2018 and 2019, missing all of 2020, could be a nice depth piece in the Tigers’ secondary in 2021.
- A couple of wide receivers seemed to stand out from the rest. Elijah Cannion caught all six of his targets for 51 yards and one touchdown and Kobe Hudson had two catches for 22 yards, despite being targeted five times. The 6-foot-4-inch Cannion separated himself from the pack Saturday, proving he can be formidable as both a deep route and red-zone threat. His back-of-the-end-zone 4-yard touchdown catch, which was from a throw that Bo Nix fit into a ridiculous window, showed off his tough hands and field awareness. Hudson, on the other hand, didn’t have the same tangible affect as Cannion did. However, his high number of targets was encouraging as he looked like the clear No. 2, establishing himself, at least for now, as the team’s go-to screen pass receiver. “We need to get more consistent,” Harsin said of the receivers. “We’re not where we want to be.”
- Tank Bigsby is still very good at football and a bulked up Shaun Shivers looks poised to thrive in Harsin’s scheme. Bigsby had seven carries for 64 yards and one put-your-foot-in-the-ground, fast-enough-to-juke-a-cheetah-cut that led to his lone touchdown. Shivers had 12 carries for 55 yards and is presumably buddying up with the tight ends, as the heavy sets allowed him to dive through the first hole he saw and pummel the second and third level of defenders. If these two can stay healthy, Auburn is looking at one hell of a one-two punch at running back.
- Freshman QB Dematarius Davis completed the only deep throw of the day and showed flashes of his mobility. At worst, he appeared capable of pushing Nix to the next level, something that had surely been missing ever since Joey Gatewood transferred at the beginning of last season.
- Auburn escaped the game with no major injuries – ‘nough said.
- The passing offense struggled to hit big plays. Bo Nix was good, going 12-20 for 112 yards and one TD. The junior QB looked more confident in the pocket, yet just as adept at escaping it. Still, however, his deep ball leaves much to be desired and he exhibited shaky footwork at times, resulting in a few errant passes on what should have been easy completions. “I thought coach Bobo did a really good job of challenging him and making him operate,” Harsin said of Nix postgame. “That’s what you want to see from your quarterback, you just want to see him operate all the different things.”
- The depth of quality offensive playmakers looks limited. Auburn’s first play of the game was a completion from Nix to tight end Tyler Fromm. Not a single completion was made to tight end on the first-team offense for the rest of the game. This team has too many tight ends and Harsin/Bobo appear to still be searching for a way to incorporate all their skills. Furthermore, the Tigers will need a couple more of their young receivers to be reliable for Nix, and currently third string running back Devan Barrett, who has changed positions more than he’s scored touchdowns, will have a lot of pressure on him if anything happens to Bigsby or Shivers.
- How good is the offensive line, really? Auburn center Nick Brahms said the offensive line “had a pretty solid day,” in his post-game interview. He’s not wrong. But that is nothing the unit can hang their heads on given they were blocking backups. Still, Brahms elaborated and said “I think we made a huge stride forward this spring,” and that offensive line coach Will Friend has done a good job bolstering the unit’s football IQ. Auburn has had some shaky offensive lines in recent years, so the jury will be out on this one probably until the Tigers play at Penn State on Sept. 18.
- Who steps up at defensive tackle? When Derrick Brown left after the 2019 season, a mammoth-sized hole was opened in the middle of the Auburn defense. The Tigers have yet to fill it. Auburntigers.com has nine defensive tackles listed on the roster, and all of them have a chance to grab the starting job. Senior Marquis Burks made the best case Saturday.
- What happens if Bigsby and/or Shivers struggle with injury? Auburn is going to run to open up the pass this season. They should, given that Bigsby is arguably the best returning running back in college football. However, after losing two running backs to transfer this offseason, the Tigers are thin at the position. And Bigsby missed time in the 2020 season due to injury, too. If he or Shivers go down, the workload landing on just one of them would increase their chances for injury, too. There’s not much more to be said as Tiger fans will just have to cross their fingers on this one all season long.
Traditionally, the A-Day football game signals the close of spring football practice for Auburn. However, due to missing a practice earlier in the spring because of COVID-19, the Tigers will wrap practice on Monday. Harsin seems to have made the Auburn Family buy in. Will his players? Will that even be enough for a “successful” season? Auburn will begin to find out in their first game of the season on Sept. 4 at home against the Akron Zips.