New Auburn coach Bryan Harsin inherits a program that has won at least six games every year since 2013. The former Boise State coach isn’t stepping into a complete rebuilding project, but there are question marks on both sides of the ball to address if the Tigers want to finish in the top 25 in 2021. Offensively, Harsin has to get more consistency out of quarterback Bo Nix and generate improvement up front. Auburn’s defense took a step back in 2020 after ranking as one of the best in college football in ’19. Harsin went 69-19 at Boise State and his background on offense should be a good fit on the Plains. He’s an outsider from the SEC, and the toughest conference in college football won’t give any breaks in his first trip through the league in 2021.
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at five personnel question marks for Harsin to address in 2021:
5 Priorities for New Auburn Coach Bryan Harsin in 2021
1. Bo Nix’s Development
Nix rated as a five-star prospect coming out of high school and has started all 24 of Auburn’s games over the last two years. During that span, Nix has completed 59 percent of his throws for 4,957 yards and 28 touchdowns to 13 picks and added 701 yards and 14 more scores on the ground. However, Nix ranked near the bottom of the SEC by averaging 6.7 and 6.8 yards per attempt in his two seasons at the helm. Additionally, his quarterback rating dropped from 125.03 in 2019 to 123.9 in ’20. Nix completed just 57.2 percent of his throws in six road games and passed for less than 200 yards in four games this fall. Can Nix take the next step in his development under Harsin?
2. Restock the Receiving Corps
Auburn doesn’t lack for talent here, but Harsin and his staff need to quickly break in new targets within a brand-new scheme to push for a top-25 finish. Seth Williams (47 catches), Anthony Schwartz (54), and Eli Stove (44) are all taking their talents to the next level. Those three players accounted for 67 percent of Auburn’s receptions in 2020. Three four-star recruits from last year’s signing haul – Kobe Hudson, Ze’Vian Capers and J.J. Evans – could factor into the mix, and Elijah Canion is a name to watch after a strong performance in the Citrus Bowl. Look for Ze’Vian Capers and Shedrick Jackson to also push for snaps at receiver. The tight end position should be in good shape with Oklahoma transfer Grant Calcaterra and John Samuel Shenker. There’s talent in the mix, but Harsin and staff have to quickly mold this group to help Nix take the next step.
3. Fix the Offensive Line
Under Harsin’s watch, Boise State usually had a solid and physical offensive line. He will need to lean on that experience to get Auburn back on track in this department. The Tigers averaged only 4.6 yards per carry and surrendered 20 sacks in 11 games in 2020. The good news for Harsin: All five starters from the Citrus Bowl are currently slated to return, guard Brandon Council should return from a torn ACL, and 2020 JUCO recruit Killian Zierer can contribute after recovering this fall from a knee injury. Can Harsin and the new staff turn experience into production?
4. Get the Rush Defense Back on Track
After limiting teams to 3.5 yards per carry in 2019, it was no surprise Auburn’s defense took a small step back in ’20. In 11 SEC games, the Tigers gave up 4.2 yards per carry and surrendered five runs of 30-plus yards after allowing just three in 13 games in ’19. Also, tackles for a loss slipped to 62 this fall from 94 last season. Losing Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson up front contributed to the drop in production, and the new staff has plenty to build around in ’20. Big Kat Bryant, Daquan Newkirk and Tyrone Truesdell could pass on another year of eligibility, but tackle Colby Wooden returns after tying for the team lead in sacks (four), with Jaren Handy, Zykeivous Walker and Derick Hall also back in the mix. Hall is a name to watch after recording 21 quarterback hurries on 358 snaps. Four-star prospect Lee Hunter ranked as the top signee in the 2021 signing haul. Similar to the offensive side, there’s talent and experience. How quickly can Harsin and his defensive staff get this unit playing at a high level?
5. Third-Down Defense
Auburn has several position holes to plug and areas to address this offseason, but there’s a glaring need in situational defense. The Tigers ranked last in the SEC in third-down defense, allowing 50.3 percent of attempts to be converted. The inability to find ways to get off the field was a factor in the rise of the defense’s per-play average allowed (4.84 in 2019 to 5.62 in ’20).