By Wil Crews
In 2018, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence set the standard for freshman excellence. He led the Tigers to a 15-0 record, embarrassing Alabama in the National Championship Game 44-16. Gus Malzahn may not have anyone with the shampoo endorsement-worthy locks of Lawrence, but he does have a history of entrusting freshman with big responsibilities. Quarterback Bo Nix was 2019 SEC Freshman of the Year and Owen Pappoe played in every game as a first-year linebacker last season.
According to Rivals, Auburn had the No. 10 recruiting class of 2020. Here are three freshmen who could not only play, but become key contributors for Auburn this season.
Zykeivous Walker – Defensive End:
At 6-foot-4, 266 pounds, Walker is a ferocious pass rusher who arrived at Auburn in January. Unfortunately, the early enrollment meant nothing as the Tigers missed spring practice due to COVID-19. The No. 7 prospect at his position according to 247, Walker was also a letterman in basketball and track and field in high school. The athletic Walker terrorized high school offenses, finishing with 85 tackles, 29 for loss and 11 sacks. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele lost three contributors from his 2019 defensive line. Walker’s pass rushing ability gives him a special opportunity to step up for the Tigers this season.
Freshmen Running Backs:
True Freshman Tank Bigsby and redshirt freshman Mark-Antony Richards are both highly touted runners. Richards is coming off a leg injury he suffered in 2019, but he should be at full health by now. Bigsby is the highest rated recruit at running back for the Tigers since Roc Thomas in 2014. Thomas failed to fulfill his potential and ended his career at Jacksonville State. Hopefully, these two young backs will play out their time at Auburn and become a dynamic duo similar to Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway in 2016. Perhaps even better – dare I say it – a combination akin to Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown in 2004.
J.J. Pegues – Tight End/Athlete:
This man is a beast. A versatile threat in high school, Pegues projects as a tight end because of his 6-foot-2, 300-pound frame. However, even though the top-6 rated recruit from Mississippi looks like a defensive end, he can do just about anything. Pegues has the strength to pass block, the hands to catch the ball and the speed to carry it. He could even line up as quarterback to take snaps in the wildcat formation. The possibilities are enticing for first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris. He loves to use his tight ends and Pegues’ unique skillset provides a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. During his time as head coach at Arkansas, Morris’s tight ends brought in 23.5% of the receptions, 23.6% of the receiving yards and 41.2% of the touchdowns. Regardless of where he lines up, Pegues is a weapon that should be used in 2020.
1. Wesley Steiner – Linebacker: Starting linebacker Chandler Wooten is sitting out the 2020 season. That mean’s K.J. Britt, Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain will be looking for a fourth linebacker to contribute. Pappoe made a big impact as a highly rated freshman last season. What’s stopping Steiner from doing the same?
2. Jay Handy – Defensive End: Rated as the top recruit in Tennessee by Rivals, the 6-foot-4, 299-pound pass rusher is versatile, athletic and strong. It’s typically difficult for freshmen to make an impact at physically demanding positions such as defensive line, but Handy already has the stature to compete. Like Walker, Handy will have the chance to impress Steele and get meaningful snaps in his first year on the plains.
3. Luke Deal & Tyler Fromm – Tight Ends: As I alluded to earlier, Morris loves to use tight ends. Deal and Fromm were both redshirted last season and their experience might give them a leg up on the new recruit Pegues. Serving as more traditional tight ends in terms of pass blocking ability, size and speed, Deal and Fromm should have a valuable role in the Auburn offense this season.
4. Wide Receivers: Bo Nix must be thrilled when he thinks about the wide receiver options at his disposal. Four-star recruits Kobe Hudson, Ze’Vian Capers, J.J. Evans and Malcolm Johnson Jr., have all come to play with the young charismatic quarterback in 2020. Auburn’s wide receiver group is now loaded with experience at the top and potential at the bottom – any of these guys could emerge as contributors in 2020