The Auburn Tigers football program took a couple of steps back in 2018 after capturing an SEC West title the prior season. The high-octane offense previously seen was more middle of the road after struggling to replace four senior offensive linemen. The ripple effect hampered both the run game and passing attack and led to a worn-out defense in an 8-5 (3-5 SEC) 2018 campaign. But there are reasons for optimism this spring, including the return of all five starting offensive linemen and a bevy of talent on defense opting to come back to the Plains instead of declaring early for the NFL draft.
In 2018, the Tigers were not far off from replicating their 10-win season in 2017, losing two games by a total of seven points; but the 30-24 home loss to Tennessee and the 52-21 defeat to rival Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium was a bitter pill for fans to swallow. Head coach Gus Malzahn enters the offseason on the proverbial hot seat and could be on a short leash depending on how the 2019 season starts. Paramount for Malzahn is getting the offense back to a break-neck level, putting pressure on opposing offenses to keep up while helping their defense make teams one-dimensional. Talent returns to the roster but there are big issues to address this spring if the Tigers are going to lay the groundwork for a possible SEC West title run.
The War Eagles begin their NCAA allotted time for spring practices on March 18 culminating in the A-Day spring game scheduled for April 13 in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
5 Storylines to Watch During Auburn's Spring Practices
1. Starting quarterback
Kenny Dillingham has been brought onto the staff to try to revive the play in the pocket for the Tigers. As co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Dillingham is faced with an uphill challenge trying to replace starter Jarrett Stidham. Stidham was a mainstay on the field in 2018 with Malik Willis getting the second-most reps, completing 5-of-7 passes for 24 yards. This position is nothing new to Auburn fans. Over the last 10 seasons, eight times a new quarterback was sought-after in the spring. Unlike previous seasons, there is zero qualified college experience on the two-deep.
Willis will enter the spring as the first-team quarterback but will be challenged by redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood. Both have an understanding of the offense and each brings different skills to the table as a passing quarterback and dual-threat. The most intriguing storyline will be the play of five-star early enrollee Bo Nix. With no clear-cut leader on the board to guide the offense in 2019, Nix could come in and steal the job come A-Day.
2. Linebacking corps
Last season the Tigers had to replace their offensive line, this season it is the linebacking corps. Three senior linebackers — Deshaun Davis, Montavious Atkinson and Darrell Williams — have departed taking two of the team's most active tacklers (Davis and Williams) away. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has recruited well and does a great job of developing the talent on the roster. Still, this is an area of high concern going into the 2019 campaign.
K.J. Britt will be tasked with filling the void Davis (116 tackles, 15 TFL) leaves in the middle. After appearing in nine games compiling 10 stops, Chandler Wooten is set to take over as the strong-side linebacker in place of Williams. Opposite him, five-star early enrollee Owen Pappoe could leapfrog Zakoby McClain and Josh Marsh for a starting position. Across the board, Auburn has options to fill the different spots, but very little experience, which makes spring reps valuable for all.
3. Replacing Dontavius Russell
Auburn lucked out with the return of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, and Nick Coe, who all decided to forego the NFL for one more year, but still must find a replacement for Russell. A four-year starter at tackle, Russell was credited with 36 stops and six tackles for a loss, but he routinely occupied blockers so the linebackers could make plays. The Tigers are deep up front, allowing Steele the ability to rotate as many as 10 guys up front during games.
Tyrone Truesdell was Russell’s backup last season but may get challenged by Coynis Miller, Daquan Newkirk, and Caleb Johnson during spring practices.
4. Reviving the ground game
Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes enters this year's spring practices with a different approach as he has the luxury of all five starting offensive linemen returning. Left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho and left guard Marquel Harrell decided to come back for the senior seasons instead of declaring for the draft, and their return gives Auburn what could be one of the SEC's best offensive lines. All five starters are projected to be seniors with center Kaleb Kim, right guard Mike Horton, and right tackle Jack Driscoll joining Wanogho and Harrell. This unit had its struggles last season, as the rushing attack went from 218 yards per game in 2017 to 168 last season. That resulted in a significant drop on the national leaderboard, going from 26th to 68th. The poor play up front ended a streak of nine consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher.
JaTarvious "Boobee" Whitlow, if he stays healthy, has a chance to be an All-SEC-caliber back in 2019. After toting the rock 150 times for 787 yards with six scores during his freshman season, he has heavy expectations to take his game to the next level. Kam Martin returns in a complementary role (458 yds., TD) with Malik Miller earning snaps last season on passing downs. Fans will want to watch the progression of early enrollee D.J. Williams throughout the spring. The four-star recruit could challenge for a starting spot under new running back coach Cadillac Williams.
5. New starting receivers
Dillingham and fellow co-offensive coordinator Kodi Burns have several projects on their hands this spring, and one of them is to replace two key receivers in Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton. Davis pulled in 69 passes for 546 yards with a score and while Slayton led the way with 670 yards and tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches. Adding to the pressure, Davis departed Auburn as the program’s all-time receiving leader.
Anthony Schwartz is back and is expected to lead the revamped receiving corps. He will miss spring ball running for the track team, which gives Eli Stove and Jashawn Sheffield a chance to prove themselves. On the outside, Seth Williams was one of the leading playmakers a year ago with 534 yards and five touchdowns on just 26 receptions (20.5 ypc). The big slot appears to be Sal Cannella’s to take while the role of slot receiver is up for grabs. A healthy Will Hastings (coming back from a torn ACL) will compete for the spot this fall, but look for Marquis McClain, Matthew Hill, and Ja’Varrius Johnson to make some noise this spring in his absence.
— 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.