Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Studying QB Jarrett Stidham, he seems to be an athletic player who has hot and cold moments with his accuracy. True? He usually checks his primary read, then starts looking around the pocket and often rolls out to the right. Has there been any emphasis on going through more progressions before looking to scramble?
Jack: With a basic look at Auburn’s passing game last year, the average fan would probably note that there were a ton of screens to Ryan Davis, or deep shots to Darius Slayton. With the first year in a new system under Chip Lindsey, and in his first year on the team, it’s not much of a surprise that Stidham appeared stunted at times, especially early. By all accounts, Auburn’s been implementing more and more of the passing playbook this offseason, including intermediate routes (and slants!!) that we didn’t see too much of last season. Additionally, Stidham’s gotten rave reviews from the defense in scrimmages and fall practice, and he’s been putting in a ton of extra work on his own. I’d expect him to grow this season from a very efficient passer to the true focal point of the offense.
UWDP: Tell us about his weapons on the outside. There is a lot of returning talent at the WR position. Who can UW fans expect to see step up as primary receiving threats? How is each utilized in the passing game?
Jack: Auburn’s wide receivers really grew last year, and the same group is all back this season. Let’s run them down. The leading receiver is Ryan Davis, who caught most of the screens, and who can turn the quick pass into a long gainer. He shattered the Auburn single-season receptions record with 84 last season, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets 8-10 targets in the opener. Stidham’s also got Darius Slayton, who returns as the deep threat. He averaged over 22 yards per catch last year and has enough speed to get behind most defenses.
Then there’s a guy that we hope can be added into the offense more this season, as he’s too good not to be a factor, and that’s Nate Craig-Myers. A former top recruit, NCM has great size and fantastic hands. When Auburn went over the middle or to an intermediate route, he was likely going to be one of the main targets. Those three will see a ton of action in the opener.
As for other contributors, Will Hastings and Eli Stove both played a ton last year, but are nursing injuries that’ll have them out into the midseason. What we’ve heard all camp is that the group of freshman wideouts that Auburn signed have all been outstanding, and that they’ll likely get a good bit of playing time against Washington. Obviously, we only have high school film to go on for each of these guys, but Matthew Hill might get time at punt return, Anthony Schwartz is a record-holding track star who can blaze down the field, but Seth Williams might be the one that gets to play the most. He’s a big-bodied, go-and-get-it type of player that Auburn hasn’t had in a while. We’re just as curious about their effectiveness as you’ll be since we’ve heard nothing but glowing reports over the past few weeks.
UWDP: Lots of new faces at running back. Who is going to get the bulk of the carries in the running game? What are your thoughts on the Tigers’ offensive line?
Jack: It seems that the two guys who’ve separated themselves in the tailback battle are Kam Martin, who backed up Kerryon Johnson last year, and JaTarvius “Boobee” Whitlow. Martin ran for 453 yards (6.1 ypc) last year, but came off the bench to give Kerryon a breather. He’s quick and can burst through the line, but he’s not the biggest guy. He’s had trouble in the past going through contact, and while he’s bulked up this offseason, he might not be able to take on the pass blocking like other guys can. Whitlow has reportedly been better at that aspect, and was great in the spring game as well. He’s bigger than Martin at 216 pounds, and has a little more shake and bake than flat-out breakaway speed. I think most fans believe he’ll eventually become the headliner, but Martin’s experience likely gets him a few more reps toward the beginning of the year.
Up front, Auburn’s offensive line got a fairly large retooling from last year. We lost a few senior starters, and most of the right side will feature new faces. Auburn got a transfer from UMass in Jack Driscoll, who’s been impressive in camp and has all but won the right tackle job, while the center battle had to be put on hold with some injuries in the spring. The biggest thing is that Herb Hand is gone as O-line coach, and Gus Malzahn’s old assistant J.B. Grimes is back. We used to have Grimes on staff, and things were pretty solid with him in the fold because he brought that old school mean approach to coaching the line. He’s big on fundamentals too, and so I think we’ll have fewer breakdowns that lead to Stidham getting sacked like he did at times last season.
UWDP: Washington is without Tight End Hunter Bryant for most of the season. Besides that, Chris Petersen is mum on injuries. What kinds of injuries/suspensions is Auburn dealing with?
Jack: I mentioned the two receivers -- Will Hastings and Eli Stove -- but thankfully those are losses at one of Auburn’s strongest positions. We also got a couple of guys back at full strength this past week, including Nick Brahms, who may compete for center. There are rumors flying about one of Auburn’s starting corners breaking his hand, but I haven’t seen anything official about that yet. We honestly may not know until kickoff on Saturday if that’s a fact. Gus Malzahn is similar to Petersen. In 2015, Carl Lawson had a knee injury that kept him out nearly all year, but there was never any official confirmation on it. It’s maddening.
UWDP: Auburn has a loaded front seven, who are the stars there? We don’t hear as much about the secondary, but there are great athletes on the back end as well. Who stands out? How much rotation will we see with backups?
Jack: The front seven’s probably the strength of the team, and I would honestly say that everyone’s a star. Up front, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe will patrol the ends (Coe may win the job as Buck linebacker, which especially means quarterback eliminator), and in the middle Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell will hold down the tackle spots. Brown will have to really struggle this year to not be a top fifteen or twenty pick in the Draft, and Russell is one of the more quietly impressive guys that won’t give ground and won’t make mistakes.
Behind them, Deshaun Davis is the outspoken leader of the defense at middle linebacker. He led the team in tackles last year, and he’s back again for another year. He and Darrell Williams have been as solid as can be. Auburn will usually play only two linebackers, but Montavious Atkinson is the other senior linebacker that’ll see a ton of time this weekend.
In the secondary, Auburn lost a good few players, including Carlton Davis, who was one of the SEC’s top corners last year. We’ll likely see new starters everywhere, with Jamel Dean at one corner (physical freak), Noah Igbinoghene at the other (ig-bin-nog-in-knee), and Javaris Davis at nickel. Davis is speedy fast, Dean’s a big corner that can hang with anyone, and Iggy is a converted receiver who shot up the depth chart once he made the switch. At safety, Jeremiah Dinson returns after a horrible knee injury (thank you, Ricky Seals-Jones) in 2015 that kept him out for a long time. He’s a veteran now and should be able to hold down the back end, with Daniel Thomas and Jordyn Peters manning the other spot. There could be some rotation in the back end depending on how things are going, but if the defense is holding strong, I don’t know how much we’ll see.
UWDP: How many fans is Auburn expected to bring to Atlanta? Will there be any rehearsal time scheduled for the “ESS-EE-SEE” chant?
Jack: It’ll be a partisan Auburn crowd for sure. Atlanta’s got the largest concentration of Auburn grads in the country, and I would expect the disparity to be something like 75-25 at worst in the Benz. We had our last two games there (SEC Championship and Peach Bowl), and so we’re all hoping that the third time’s the charm.
As for the S-E-C chant, I would never participate in one. That would mean supporting teams we dislike in some small way, and I know that they would never like to support us.
UWDP: What is your prediction for the game?
Jack: I’m nervous as hell about this simply because Auburn has started slow under Gus Malzahn. Usually it takes us a few weeks to find a rhythm with the running game and the offense in general, and with all year to prep, I know Petersen’s going to have some crazy stuff for us. My hope is that the front seven can neutralize Gaskin and the running game, and knock Browning down a few times. If that part of the game is going Auburn’s way and it results in some turnovers or short fields, I think we can score 30+. If the offense isn’t clicking, it’ll be another nailbiter that we’re used to.
Gun to my head, Auburn 26 - Washington 21.
Thanks Jack. Be sure to check out College and Magnolia for more on the game from the Auburn perspective.