A new era in Auburn begins on the gridiron this spring when former Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin takes over for Gus Malzahn after eight seasons of service. Malzahn won the SEC in 20213, taking the Tigers to the 2014 BCS Championship Game, but was never able to come close to recapturing the glory. Harsin brings his own formidable resume with three conference championships (1 Sun Belt, 3 Mountain West) and one appearance in a New Year's Six bowl, a 38-30 win over Arizona in 2014. Harsin's tasks are clear: beat Alabama every year and make a march to Atlanta. Taking those big steps forward all begin with spring ball.
Aiding Harsin against college football's toughest conference are offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and defensive coordinator Derek Mason. Both Mason and Bobo bring SEC veteran coaching experience to the sidelines. Bobo spent the 2020 season with South Carolina as coordinator, and Mason was with Vanderbilt as the Commodores' head coach. All that knowledge will be put to the test early on both sides of the ball with a rebuilding project at key positions.
5 Storylines to Watch During Auburn's Spring Practices
1. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason
A true SEC fan has to love and respect Mason after the effort put forth at Vanderbilt (2014-20). Mason came up through the collegiate coaching ranks as an offensive-minded guy but rose to prominence at Stanford on the other side of the ball. After one season as a defensive backs coach with the Cardinal, Mason was promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2011, then spent two seasons holding the title to himself before leaving for Nashville.
After seven seasons as the head coach for the Commodores and three as a defensive coordinator (2011-13), can Mason again become an effective stopper of offenses? Under former DC Kevin Steele, Auburn's defenses were among the best in the SEC. Auburn took some big losses on defense in the transfer portal, seeing tackles Daquan Newkirk and Coynis Miller, end Big Kat Bryant, and linebacker Octavius Brothers leave. Keeping corner Roger McCreary helps.
2. Get Bo Nix back on track and develop QB depth
After two seasons of starting at quarterback for the Tigers, one might be surprised to see Bo Nix with competition spring, but all bets are off with a new coaching staff on The Plains. There is nothing with Nix's game that has screamed elite under Malzahn's guidance after a five-star high school career. Leaving the pocket too soon, throwing off balance, throwing off his back foot, and passing into double coverage led to a 59.9 percent completion rate in 2020 with a 12:7 touchdown/interception ratio. Can the new staff fix some basic yet important flaws to Nix's game this spring?
Where the heat could come from is Class of 2021 four-star talent Dematrius Davis. Davis was that true dual-threat talent for Houston powerhouse North Shore High School. Helping Davis this spring, all quarterbacks on Auburn's roster are learning a new offense. Hindering him, Davis is listed at 5-10.5, 200-pounds. Shorter quarterbacks can succeed in the college ranks, but there is a learning curve throwing over offensive and defensive lines that are at least 6-foot 4-inches across the board.
3. Receiving threats
One could argue that Auburn's receiving threats were good but not at an elite SEC level the last two seasons. Regardless, the loss of the team's top three targets (Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, and Eli Stove) makes this group as green as it gets and very inexperienced. After a six-reception, 84-yard, season in 2020, junior Shedrick Jackson is the veteran leader of this unit. This spring, freshmen Kobe Hudson and Ze'Vian Capers will be forced to step up.
The field is wide open for true freshman Hal Presley (6-3, 190) to make an impact when he enrolls this summer. Slated to play offense, the same might happen for Tar'varish Dawson Jr. (5-10, 175), unless the coaching staff uses his elite speed at corner. Be it in the spring or in fall practices, who will step up to replace Williams as a go-to target in passing situations?
4. Offensive line – focus at left tackle
At a glance, Auburn's offensive line should be a positive. There is returning talent and depth across the board. Even without a vertical passing attack a year ago, this group, which was beset with injuries, did a solid job on the ground averaging 162.5 yards per game. The Tigers' pass protection lagged at times watching Nix take 21 sacks. Not adding confidence, Bobo's QB at South Carolina took 22.
Alec Jackson and Austin Troxell battled it out at left tackle in 2020, with Jackson claiming the starting spot. There is not a sure-fire incoming talent that will challenge for the starting left tackle spot. A big emphasis this spring is making Nix, or whoever wins the starting job, comfortable with their blind spot.
5. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo
After seeing what Bobo did last season with South Carolina, this could be a rough transition year for Auburn on offense. On the positive, Bobo will have the benefit of a full spring to install his offense and will not have an anchor at quarterback in Collin Hill weighing down the team. The promise in what Hill brought to the field when he followed Bobo from Colorado State to the Gamecocks last season was knowing the offense. That translated to 1,411 passing yards and a 6:6 TD/INT ratio.
If there is one positive for Bobo, it is that leading rusher Tank Bigsby decided not to enter the transfer portal after rumors abounded in December. Still, the talent in the backfield was depleted, with transfers seeing former four-stars D.J. Williams head to Florida State and Harold Joiner to Michigan State. Bobo will have a lot of heat early from faithful Auburn fans wanting a group that can put up points to compete with Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M in the West.
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— 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.