AU Camp Confidential: An Inside Look – Offense

August 18, 2018 By Skye Underwood

Pre-season All-American quarterback Jarrett Stidham (#8) looks for an open man while Big Kat Bryant (#1) tries to break containment in a recent practice during 2018 fall camp | Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

‘An Inside Look’ is a three-part series focused on Auburn’s three main units – special teams, offense, and defense. Skye Underwood will pull back the curtain and unveil the details and players that you need to know as Auburn’s primetime non-conference top-ten matchup with Washington in Atlanta for the CFA Kickoff Game on Labor Day weekend draws near.

’An Inside Look’ – Offense

Auburn’s 2018 fall camp has definitely been different from years past.

For starters, the 10th-ranked Tigers return the 1st quarterback in program history who passed for over 3,000-yards the previous season.

Dameyune Craig is the only other Auburn quarterback to throw for over three dimes when in 1997 he broke the Auburn single-season passing record that still stands today with 3,277 yards through the air.

With an injury-free year, don’t be surprised if Stidham shatters a few Auburn passing records himself after the Texan passed for 3,158 yards in 2017, the 2nd highest single-season passing total behind Craig’s ‘97 season.

Jarrett Stidham is the face of Auburn Football for good reason. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder proved to be the best quarterback in the SEC last year when facing conference foes. When you take a closer look at the intraconference numbers, Stidham ranked 1st in the league in completion percentage with 64.7%, 2nd in passing yards with 1,964, 1st in touchdown to interception ratio at 13/1, and 1st in the SEC with a 159.12 passer rating.

Quite the debut. However, that certainly doesn’t mean Stidham is without flaws. He took way too many sacks last season after holding onto the ball for too long on far too many plays. Stidham is bound to improve the quickness of his decision making ability going into his third year as a power-five quarterback.

Do keep in mind that Stidham had been away from big-time college football for at least a year and a half before coming to Auburn, so his rust was apparent early in his Tiger debut season of 2017, especially in the 2nd game against Clemson when he took 11 sacks.

Damn, that still hurts to type by the way.

This offseason Stidham went out on a limb in predicting that he would never be sacked eleven times in a single game again. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jarrett and if you’re reading this, you’re probably calling me a “smart ass” right now, but deservedly so.

The redshirt junior also gave up some costly fumbles in 2017, so ball protection will be another point of emphasis for him to improve upon.

But what Stidham did last year should not be glanced over like it was no big thing, because it was, it most definitely was. The former Baylor-transfer helped lead Auburn to monumental wins over its two biggest rivals – Georgia and Alabama by a combined margin of 35 points (!), while each were ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. The feat had never been accomplished before by any college football team – defeating two No. 1 teams in a span of just fourteen days.

However, the gritty effort the Tigers displayed in the regular season did not carry over to the postseason as the Plainsmen lost their final two matchups to Georgia and UCF, both in Atlanta’s newly constructed Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Unfortunately for Auburn, the Tigers sport an 0-2 record in the stadium before the damn paint has even had time to dry.

But, the Tigers do get an opportunity to avenge itself in the now one-year-old stadium as the 2018 Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game features the No. 10 ranked Auburn Tigers versus the No. 6 Washington Huskies in what appears to be the only top-10 non-conference matchup of the entire college football season.

This battle of blue bloods in Atlanta has fans of each team and college football purists alike excited about the first ever matchup between the two storied programs. Both teams feature uber-talented rosters that are good enough to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Mercedes Benz Stadium has not been kind to Auburn in its last two games, but you know what they say, “the third time’s a charm.”

Against Georgia, the Tigers were down by just 6 points in the 4th quarter before the Bulldogs won the SEC Championship, 28-7. Auburn followed that loss up with a swift kick in the nurtz when UCF tamed the Tigers, 34-27 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Those two ‘Ls’ left a dadgum bad taste in everyones mouth on the Plains, especially the coaches and players. No one has to be reminded that as awesome as the two regular season wins were against our rivals, the heartbreak of seeing them both advance to the national championship game in what would be one of the greatest games ever, still stings. That’s the motivation that carries these boys during the grueling hot summer days of camp, a camp that’s most assuredly been different from years past.

Not only do the Tigers return one of the best quarterbacks in America, Auburn’s new freshmen class are in some rarified air. You and I both know that Gus is never one to prop up freshmen, but he let it be known early in fall camp that the players in the 2018 class are “rare” and early indications were that many of those freshmen were gonna make Auburn a better football team, immediately.

As many as 18-20 freshmen could see the field this season, some as early as the Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game vs. Washington.

But our focus is on the offensive side of the ball today and there’s plenty of young, talented playmakers on offense to discuss.

The three freshmen that have been talked about the most on offense are runningback Shaun Shivers and receivers Matthew Hill and Seth Williams, respectively.

Shivers is one of the biggest surprises of fall camp and likely one of the fastest players in college football. But what’s been most surprising is the willingness of the 5-foot-7, 175-pounder to run between the tackles. Teammates say the little guy runs hard as hell and is hard to tackle because of his low center of gravity, not to mention his track-star speed.

Shivers reminded me of Darren Sproles from day 1 when he first committed to Auburn when I took the opportunity to study some of his film. The former four-star from Hollywood, Florida’s Chamidade-Madonna prep school will definitely have a role in the 2018 Auburn offense and will likely be one of the most entertaining players to watch.

If there’s one name in camp that’s been talked about the most among the star freshmen it’s former four-star wide receiver Matthew Hill.

The Snellville, Georgia native has impressed his coaches and teammates alike with his route-running ability and the smoothness he displays out of his breaks. Hill has made big-time play after big-time play throughout camp likely earning himself a role in the slot.

What makes Hill so special is his ability to get separation even though he might not be the fastest guy on the field, but he’s cat-quick with soft hands that attack the football. Like Shivers, Hill will be another new weapon for Jarrett Stidham and the 2018 Auburn offense.

At 6-foot-3, 215-pounds, wide receiver Seth Williams isn’t your typical freshman. He’s big, strong, fast, a talented all-around athlete who can catch and run. He’s already taken one catch he made going across the middle for 70-yards to the house for a score in a recent fall scrimmage. Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey describes the big receiver as “long and athletic.” He thinks Williams’ size and athleticism can give Stidham a big-time redzone target, where the Tigers are looking to improve on last year’s numbers.

We wouldn’t be able to write an article about the offense without mentioning arguably the fastest player in college football, freshman Anthony Schwartz. The former four-star wide receiver has impressed in camp, maybe not to the level of the aforementioned three, but he’s impressed nonetheless. Again, Schwartz will be yet another weapon for Stidham and the 2018 Auburn offense. Of course you’ll likely see Lindsey and Stidham taking advantage of Schwartz’s world-record speed by taking the top off of defenses with deep bombs, but there will also be a mixture of plays underneath such as tunnel screens for Schwartz. Not to mention, Schwartz will be used in a variety of different ways including running the ball on end-arounds and speed sweeps.

Last, but certainly not least is Bo Jackson’s nephew, freshman receiver Shedrick Jackson from Hoover, Alabama. The early enrollee got a head start on the competition by competing in the spring, carving out a backup role for the season ahead. He’s another guy who has stepped up to soften the blow of Will Hastings and Eli Stove being sidelined after the pair each tore their ACL’s in spring, but are making phenomenal recoveries.

The usual suspects return at wide receiver in program record-holder, senior Ryan Davis, who had more receptions last season (84) than any Auburn receiver ever. It goes without saying that Davis is one of Auburn’s top playmakers and will be one of the main chess pieces of Lindsey’s offense this year. He’s proven to be Stidham’s favorite target, but the Tigers are gonna try and spread the ball around more this season. There’s just too many playmakers, so Lindsey wants Stidham to spread the wealth.

Speaking of someone who could use more targets…

When Nate Craig-Myers was a junior in high school, recruiting experts talked about the possibilities of the wide receiver from Tampa-Catholic being the No. 1 overall recruit in the country the following year. Minor injuries derailed that notion, but I offer up that little nugget as if you need to be reminded of the hype that “Nitro Nate” carried with him coming out of high school.

He’s been a good player for Auburn, yeah, but he hasn’t been the star we were all expecting, through no fault of his own might I add. He just hasn’t received that many targets in his first two seasons, but according to Lindsey, that’ll change this year, especially with Hastings and Stove’s both temporarily sidelined.

At 6-foot-2, 215-pounds, Craig-Myers is another big, athletic target for Stidham and yet another weapon for the Auburn offense. Look for Chip to take advantage of Craig-Myers’ size and athleticism to help evolve Auburn’s intermediate passing game this season. We think the junior will have the breakout season that we’ve all been impatiently waiting for.

Not to be outdone, redshirt junior Darius Slayton proved to be one of the SEC’s best deep-threats last year, averaging a ridiculous 22.17 yards per catch.

Slayton’s focus this fall camp has been working on his innermediate routes to become a more polished and well-rounded receiver instead of being tabbed solely a ‘deep-threat.’ Auburn would like to use Slayton to attack defenses from all over the field in 2018, so I’m expecting a big year outta “Young Slay.”

Marquis McClain is a wide receiver trapped in a linebacker’s body. At 6-foot-2, 217-pounds, the chiseled Crestview, Florida redshirt sophomore has patiently waited his time at Auburn and 2018 could be the year that he makes a big statement. He certainly had one of the most amazing circus catches I’ve ever seen, albeit during A-Day, but still. Hopefully he can do something similar this fall.

Another former Tampa-Catholic star Devan Barrett who moved from runningback to wide receiver in the spring has continued his ascension among the wide receiver corps. Barrett is fleet of foot and could excel at some of the plays that Stove was featured in last season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Barrett carve out a nice little role for himself.

Auburn University is fortunate to have a student-athlete like Chandler Cox. The four-year starter at h-back has been an upstanding representative of the university and one of the hardest working guys on the team during his career on the Plains. Cox has the kind of positive attitude and spirit that reverberates throughout a locker room, a snazzy, new locker room might I add. Cox will again smash defenders into oblivion and may occasionally catch some passes or get some carries on short yardage situations.

6-foot-4, 254-pound senior Jalen Harris will again start at the traditional tightend. He’s Auburn’s best blocking tightend on the roster, but we’d love to see Auburn actually get Harris involved in the passing game if he’s out on the field for a lot of offensive snaps, because it keeps the defenses honest.

Sal Canella is the Tigers’ other tightend that should see plenty of playing time this year, but the 6-foot-5, 232-pounder is more of an oversized receiver lining up in the big slot for Auburn. Again, his size gives Stidham a big target, especially around the redzone.

Apparently Auburn got a hell of a football player in starting right tackle Jack Driscoll, who transferred to the Plains after piling up 20 starts for UMass with 5 of those coming against SEC teams where Driscoll performed well.

Driscoll has certainly impressed his coaches, especially offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, who returns to Auburn for his second stint coaching the big-uglies in the Malzahn era.

Grimes, known as a stern teacher of the fundamentals was beside himself when referring to the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Driscoll.

“For us to be able to get that kid with the kind of work ethic that he has, the kind of professional attitude he has, the kind of intelligence that he has — on top of an excellent football IQ — is amazing. We’re really, in my opinion, fortunate to have that young man on our football team right now.”

Yes, Auburn lost four senior starting offensive linemen off the 2017 squad, but quite honestly, most Auburn fans thought the line underperformed under Herb Hand last season considering all the experience they were returning entering the year.

The offensive line doesn’t look as bleak as one might think after being told they’re replacing four senior starters. Why, because four positions will be manned by players with starting experience.

At left tackle, 6-foot-7, 307-pound redshirt junior Prince Tega-Wanogho has what it takes to be an ALL-SEC caliber offensive tackle if he can show the consistency that the coaches want out of him. The massive left tackle started four games for the Tigers in 2017.

The strength of Auburn’s offensive line might be the two guards, where the Tigers return some absolute units in two redshirt juniors – Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton, who combined to start thirteen games for Auburn last season.

At 6-foot-3, 310-pounds, Harrell will start at left guard for Grimes while the 6-foot-4, 325-pound Horton will man the right guard spot. These two are a couple mean, nasty bad-asses who could help elliviate some of the inexperience on the offensive line, specifically at center.

The senior-laden interior combo of Harrell and Horton will hopefully help in preventing any glaring weakness that may come with having a brand new center in 2018.

Going into the season, redshirt junior Caleb Kim appears to be the starter at center, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Nick Brahms, who was making strides in the spring to become the starter before breaking his fibula. He’s working his way back into the fold and the trainers could finally remove the orange non-contact jersey that Brahms has worn since day 1 of fall camp. Despite being cleared for camp, coaches have been cautious, taking their time in bringing Brahms back after the Navarre, Florida native has battled injuries in high school and college.

Grimes seems to be leaving the door open for Brahms’ return for a competition that might go down to the wire. “He’s got a chance to join the competition. Again, we’re hoping to get a battle — somebody’s got to step up.”

The veteran offense line coach seems to want a little more out of center, so he sounds like he’s really challenging Kim to take that next step from being average to good then the next thing you know you’re going from good to great.

Kim is intelligent and a tactician, capable of pointing out the linemen assignments when first steps over the ball, but an area that he needs to improve upon is his sheer toughness. Kim needs to develop a mean-streak that matches his guards, Harrel and Horton, who actually we’re in the same 2015 recruiting class as Kim, and all three redshirted together in their first season on the Plains. However, both Harrel and Horton have received significant playing time and starting experience during their first two years of eligibility while Kim has been relegated to mop-up duty.

Kim was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school – the industry generated 247Sports Composite ranked the Hoschton, Georgia native as a four-star and the 5th best center in the country coming out of Mill Creek High School. It’s now or never for Kim to become the center of Auburn’s offensive line, both figuratively and literally.

Although Horton has taken snaps throughout camp, it appears that it was more of a backup plan, so that’s good news for Kim’s prospects of starting.

Early in camp, there was a possibility of shifting Horton to the middle at center and a guy like former five-star, 6-foot-6, 322-pound Calvin Ashley starting in what would have been Horton’s vacant right guard spot, but that doesn’t appear to be in the works for now.

However, there’s always movers and shakers when injuries occur. Auburn’s top backup options on the offensive line are redshirt junior left tackle Bailey Sharp (6-5, 307), and five redshirt freshmen (!) in right tackle Austin Troxell (6-6, 305), guards Brodarious Hamm (6-5, 325), Calvin Ashley (6-6, 322), and Tashawn Manning (6-3, 323), and the previously mentioned center Nick Brahms (6-3, 304). Senior Tucker Brown (6-3, 289) has primarily worked at 2nd team center before Brahms’ return, but the Trussville, Alabama native played in every game for Auburn last season as an extra utility offensive lineman, so don’t be surprised if you see a lot of No. 65 in 2018.

Perhaps no race on the entire Auburn football team is more closely viewed and scrutinized than that of the runningback position. After all, Auburn prides itself on being ”Runningback U.” Heck, just yesterday Auburn Football’s twitter tweeted out a graphic showing Auburn’s rushing dominance. It’s been said a million times and it’s worth saying a million more, Auburn has produced 11 runners who have went over 1,000-yards rushing for an SEC active record of 9 consecutive seasons.

(Auburn Football Rushing Graphic | @AuburnFootball Twitter)

College football analysts have voiced concern about Auburn replacing the SEC’s 2017 Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson, but the word out of camp is that Auburn may have something very, very special on their hands at the runningback position.

The presumed favorite is 5-foot-10, 193-pound junior Kam Martin, whose added muscle to his frame to help take on a bigger load for the Tigers in the rigors of the SEC in 2018. Martin’s had a solid fall camp and has improved his pass blocking. He’s also been a reliable pass-catching threat out of the backfield this camp.

The State of Alabama’s high school Mr. Football last season was Auburn freshman runningback Asa Martin, who chose the Tigers over the Tide in a big recruiting win for Malzahn. Like Kam Martin, Asa Martin has also added weight and is up to 209-pounds. Auburn defenders have complemented the freshman’s hard running style during camp and it appears he’ll be runningback coach Tim Horton’s RB3.

I wanna be careful what I say about this kid because I don’t wanna put any crazy expectations and pressure on the dude, but coaches believe that Auburn may have found something really special in Boobee Whitlow.

I recently listened to a group of Auburn beat writers discuss Whitlow. They brought up stories of his magnificent high school career at small town Lafayette, not far from Auburn where JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow became the stuff of legend.

He hardly came off the field for the small 2-A school. Not only that, but smaller schools almost always start their best player at quarterback, and Boobee Whitlow was no different.

The charismatic redshirt freshman put up 4,500 offensive yards and 59 touchdowns his senior year at Lafayette High School. One of the guys on the beat said that Whitlow was the most exciting high school football player he had ever seen. Yes, you have to consider the competition Whitlow squared off against, but the things he done in high school made all four of these beat writers feel like Auburn was getting a special talent when the staff offered him a scholarship in the last minute of the 2017 class.

The 6-foot, 217-pound redshirt freshman runningback said he had never pass-blocked before in his life, but according to his position coach Tim Horton, he’s been Auburn’s best pass-protector among the runningbacks in camp.

Whitlow may very well be Auburn’s next stallion at runningback, but that doesn’t mean Kam Martin’s role will subside. The junior Texan and Whitlow will complement each other for a solid one-two punch for the Tigers in ‘18, while freshmen Asa Martin and Shaun Shivers will likely get the rest of the carries in the Tigers run game.

Auburn fans have a lot to be fired-up about when considering all the potential playmakers on offense, but this is talking season, so if you’re anything like me, you’re ready for the doing season. College football can’t get here soon enough my friends.

 

3-Part Series AU Camp Confidential: ‘An Inside Look

Special Teams:
http://www.powerofdixieland.com/2018/08/15/au-camp-confidential-an-inside-look/

Offense:
http://www.powerofdixieland.com/2018/08/18/au-camp-confidential-an-inside-look-offense/

Defense:

http://www.powerofdixieland.com/2018/08/26/au-camp-confidential-an-inside-look-defense/