The Auburn Tigers improbable run to a SEC West title in 2017 has been put in the rearview mirror with the start of spring practices on The Plains. The success from last year will be motivation going forward, but the task for every college football program across the nation over the next couple of months is to improve the current roster in the NCAA-allowed 15 on-the-field spring practices. With big holes along the offensive line, in the backfield and in the secondary, Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn has several puzzle pieces to fit if another trip to the SEC Championship Game is on the docket in 2018.
If all goes to plan, by the time A-Day comes around on April 7, the Tigers’ depth chart will take significant shape before the summer break. As War Eagle Nation watches, here are some things worth keeping an eye on.
5 Storylines to Watch During Auburn’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback battle behind Jarett Stidham
Stidham’s sophomore season with the Tigers was perhaps better than advertised. His growth on the field within Gus Malzahn’s offense showed game by game. At the end of the year, Stidham had passed for 3,158 yards with 18 touchdowns. Surgery on his non-throwing shoulder in January leaves time for underclassmen to make their move this spring.
Malik Willis earned snaps during his freshman season appearing in seven games completing six of seven passes for 45 yards with a score, but challengers for the spot behind Stidham are lining up. Watch out for early enrollee true freshman Joey Gatewood. Gatewood is raw but full of athleticism that could open the offense back up to the days of Cam Newton and Nick Marshall.
2. Battle for starting tailback
Auburn suffered the loss of two key tailbacks when Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway declared early for the NFL. The big question now, does Auburn have a 1,000-yard rusher on the roster to pick up the slack?
Kam Martin (above, right) had a surprise sophomore season seeing more action due to injuries to both Johnson and Pettway, finishing as the team’s second-leading rusher with 460 yards. Martin is more of an all-purpose back, not an every-down option you would give 25-30 carries per game. This leaves an opportunity for guys like Malik Miller and Devan Barrett to capitalize on their talents and the opportunity available. If early enrollee Asa Martin can grasp the playbook and concepts of Malzahn’s offense this spring, expect a heated backfield battle all the way through the spring game.
3. Replacing Carlton Davis
The thought of having to replace a cornerback like Davis on any team would be daunting. Davis was one of Auburn’s best defenders against the pass in 2017, credited with a team-high 11 breakups and one interception. The short list to replace Davis consists of two names — Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean.
Davis had a team-high two picks and six pass breakups as a sophomore last season. Dean had two more breakups and recorded 43 tackles. The two will battle for starting spots between field and boundary corner.
4. Battles for strong and free safety
Trey Matthews and Stephen Roberts were a terrific senior duo as Auburn’s last line of defense in 2017. Matthews was second on the team with 59 tackles with Roberts close behind at 50. Look for Jeremiah Dinson to solidify the move from corner to field safety and Daniel Thomas to push for the boundary safety opening. Dinson also could see time at nickel again if Traivon Leonard makes big strides with his game this spring.
5. Replacing three starting offensive linemen
The highly anticipated return of offensive line coach J.B. Grimes comes at a time of great need for Auburn. Four starting senior offensive linemen must be replaced, along with key senior backups. Of the linemen on Auburn’s roster, just three — Prince Tega Wanogho, Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton — have notched starts on their resumes.
The battle at center will be intense. Horton could make the move from right guard to center. Harrell started the last five games of the 2017 season at left guard and Wanogho got early-season starts at left tackle. Much is expected of former five-star prospect Calvin Ashley, a contender at right tackle. Other underclassmen to watch for this spring include Nick Brahms, Phelps Gambill, Brodarious Hamm and Austin Troxell. A push in the trenches from Bailey Sharp, Kaleb Kim, Prince Michael Sammons and Tyler Carr should help raise the overall level of play up front over the next 15 practices.
— 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.