After a tumultuous offseason, Auburn can finally turn its attention to the on-field action and the 2022 season. Coach Bryan Harsin’s future was in doubt after an investigation into the program in early February, but the former Boise State quarterback is back for a second season on the Plains. Harsin’s first season with the Tigers featured plenty of ups and downs. The Tigers started 6-2 but finished on a five-game losing streak with a 6-7 overall mark. The disappointing end to the season wasn’t just limited to the on-field product. A less-than-stellar recruiting class, combined with the program losing around 20 players to the transfer portal, has brought plenty of doubts as to whether or not Harsin is the right coach to take Auburn to the top of the SEC.
Spring practice is Harsin’s first chance to get the program back on track, and there are plenty of roster concerns on the Plains. Auburn returns 11 starters from last season but features a major question mark at quarterback and with playmakers at receiver. The strength of the team is at running back with the return of standout Tank Bigsby and rising star backup Jarquez Hunter. Depth on both sides of the ball could be an issue after an offseason of attrition.
5 Storylines to Watch During Auburn's Spring Practices
1. Quarterback Battle on Tap
The spring is the first opportunity for Harsin to get an extended look at his new quarterback room for ’22. Bo Nix transferred to Oregon, leaving T.J. Finley, transfers Zach Calzada (Texas A&M) and Robby Ashford (Oregon), and freshmen Holden Geriner (true) and Dematrius Davis (redshirt) to battle for the job. Finley started the final three games of ’21 with Nix out due to injury and finished the year with 827 passing yards and six scores. Calzada started 10 games at Texas A&M last season and threw for 2,185 yards and 17 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Geriner and Davis were both four-star recruits out of high school by the 247Sports Composite. Will a clear leader emerge out of spring practice?
2. Restock the Receiving Corps
For the second year in a row, Auburn enters the spring looking to find new playmakers at receiver. Kobe Hudson (44 catches last year), Demetris Robertson (37) and Ja’Varrius Johnson (19) are no longer on the roster. With those players departing, receiver Shedrick Jackson (40) and tight end John Samuel Shenker (33) are the top returning option in the passing game. However, no other returning wide receivers caught more than six passes last year. Jackson and Shenker are a good place to start the rebuilding effort, and this spring is all about getting young players like Jay Fair and Tar’Varish Dawson and experienced options in Ze’Vian Capers and Malcolm Johnson Jr. more opportunities to sort out the new-look corps for ’22.
3. Developing Better Play Up Front
This unit has been a source of inconsistency in recent years and enters the spring as a question mark. However, on a positive note for Harsin and coordinator Eric Kiesau, four starters are back. Center Nick Brahms anchors the group in the middle, with Keiondre Jones and Brandon Council back as the starters at guard. Right tackle Brodarious Hamm departs, but left tackle Austin Troxell is set to return. Kilian Zierer started in place of Hamm at right tackle in the Birmingham Bowl and should be in the mix to claim the job on a full-time basis for ’22. In SEC matchups last year, the Tigers averaged only 3.5 yards per carry and allowed 19 sacks. With four of the five projected starters as seniors, Auburn doesn’t lack in returning experience up front. Will that translate into better play?
Related: SEC Spring Power Rankings for 2022
4. Fortifying the Front
Change is in the air this spring for Auburn’s defense. Derek Mason left for Oklahoma State after one successful year calling the plays, prompting Harsin to promote Jeff Schmedding to coordinator. The Washington native tutored linebackers on the Plains last season and returns five starters off a unit that held teams to 21.8 points a game in ’21. The spring is Schmedding’s first chance to put his stamp on this defense, but the front line might be the least of his concerns. Derick Hall and Colby Wooden combined for 21 tackles for a loss last season and anchor the end/edges spots once again. There’s also quality depth with Eku Leota and Zykeivious Walker returning. Marcus Harris returns as a starter at tackle, with Marquis Burks, Oregon transfer Jayson Jones and incoming touted JUCO prospect Jeffrey M’ba also vying for snaps in the middle.
Zakoby McClain and Chandler Wooten are gone at linebacker, but Owen Pappoe returns to lead the way at the second level. Also, North Carolina transfer Eugene Asante was brought in to push for another starting job or provide depth behind Wesley Steiner and Desmond Tisdol.
Will Schmedding make any tweaks to the scheme or personnel from last season? On paper, the starting group could be among the best in the SEC. However, transfers and attrition have depleted the depth.
5. Reload in the Secondary
The Tigers finished 2021 ranked ninth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and improvement on that number won’t be easy. Cornerback Roger McCreary – a first-team All-SEC selection – and safety Smoke Monday headline a list of departures that also includes Bydarrius Knighten (46 tackles) and Ladarius Tennison (22). The cupboard isn’t completely bare, however. Cornerback Nehemiah Pritchett returns after starting nine games last year, and Zion Puckett is penciled in at one of the safety spots. Jaylin Simpson and Oregon transfer DJ James are likely to battle for the other corner spot, while Ro Torrence or Donovan Kaufman could fill in at nickel. Keionte Scott – the No. 3 JUCO recruit by the 247Sports Composite – is another name to watch at cornerback. Monday’s spot could be filled by another JUCO transfer (Marquise Gilbert).
The Tigers don’t lack for talent on the back end of the defense. However, McCreary’s lockdown ability at corner will be missed and it may take a few games for Schmedding to find the right mix or sort out how exactly this unit jells with new pieces before hitting SEC play.
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