Gus Malzahn is counting on some younger players to emerge as key contributors
After a 10-4 (7-1 SEC) season in 2017 that included regular season wins over Georgia and bitter in-state rival Alabama, hopes were high that Auburn would make another run at an SEC West title in '18 with quarterback Jarrett Stidham returning to guide the team. Last season, the Tigers may have fallen short of the high expectations with an 8-5 (3-5) showing, but some big wins were had against Washington, Texas A&M, and a 63-14 Music City Bowl thumping of Purdue. As a result, a young team gained a lot of experience, setting the stage for what could be a make-or-break 2019 campaign for head coach Gus Malzahn.
Few could have guessed the deep impact of losing graduating offensive linemen Darius James, Austin Golson, and Braden Smith from the 2017 squad. Adding salt to the wound, the early departures of running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway left a void that could not be immediately replaced. The result was a slip in 271 rushing yards per game to 168. This affected the passing game and gashed a very good defense that was on the field too much last season. The good news, young talent on the roster appears ready to step up to the challenge in 2019 after taking their hard-earned lumps against top SEC West competition.
Auburn fans seeking rays of light in the offseason before the Aug. 31 opener against the Oregon Ducks at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, have three good reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season.
1. Offensive line
The entire offensive line returns in 2019. This is a rarity for any college football team and should be a difference-maker on the field and with leadership in the locker room. If the line can return to form as seen in 2017, long sustained drives will help take time off the clock, help open up windows for the passing attack, and keep a tough defense fresh for four quarters and through 12 games. Look for incoming four-star recruit Keiondre Jones (6-4, 341) to push for time at guard in fall camp.
2. Opening up the offense
When Gus Malzahn’s offense is truly potent, he has a quarterback who can wing it good enough but also is an explosive runner. In 2013, the Tigers made it to the BCS National Championship Game with Nick Marshall serving as a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. Malzahn did not have that with Jarrett Stidham, and following his early departure to the NFL, the head coach should be able to open the offense back up in 2019, which should help keep defenses on their heels. Auburn does not have an experienced signal-caller returning, but there are intriguing options in redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and Class of 2019 early enrollee Bo Nix. Gatewood got some snaps on the field last season and now has a year under his belt learning and becoming acclimated to Malzahn's system. Nix is a five-star talent who guided Pinson Valley to a 6A Alabama state title during his senior year. The former Elite 11 gunner can sling it and should get plenty of opportunities in spring practice to show he's ready to play right away.
3. Young talent stepping up
The reliance on youth in the trenches hurt Auburn in 2018, but the experience gained should pay off this season. The Tigers finished with the 12th-ranked recruiting class per 247Sports, a group that consisted of 14 four-star prospects. The 2019 class currently sits in the same spot but may have even more talent with three five-stars and nine four-stars on board. Fans will be ready to see five-star talents like the aforementioned Nix as well as linebackers Owen Pappoe and Kameron Brown. There's also highly regarded four-star safety Zion Puckett, but the difference-maker could be four-star running back DJ Williams. The Sebring, Florida, product is big (5-11, 210), fast, and powerful. A fair comparison for Auburn fans may be Tre Mason. Williams could be the sorely missed playmaker out of the backfield who can provide a spark and help win tight games in 2019.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.