Thursday marks the beginning of spring practice for Auburn, the first of 15 days which include two major scrimmages and the A-Day intrasquad scrimmage on April 7. The Tigers are fresh off a 10-4 season during which the team won the SEC’s West division for the first time since 2013.
Despite the recent success, there are several questions surrounding the 2018 team. Here are the five major storylines to watch out for this spring.
Who will be Auburn’s top running back?
Junior running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway declared for the NFL Draft, which means two players responsible for 24 rushing touchdowns last season are gone. Johnson’s loss hurts the most, as he was the go-to back who finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Kam Martin, who rushed for 453 yards as a sophomore, appears to be the top option, though they also return Malik Miller and Devan Barrett at the position. Early enrollee Asa Martin, who was named Alabama’s 2017 Mr. Football, could also get in the mix with a good spring showing.
Can Jarrett Stidham take the next step in his second year?
There were times in 2017 when Stidham looked destined to be Auburn’s next great quarterback; there were others when the sophomore seemed lost out on the field.
The former Baylor quarterback threw for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns, the best showing in both categories by a Tiger since Nick Marshall in 2014. He did, however, struggle with his pocket presence and was erratic in Auburn’s four losses.
Despite the down moments, Stidham showed he has a high ceiling in leading Auburn to 10 wins in his first year as starter. Stidham has 12-to-1 odds to win the 2018 Heisman Trophy according to Bovada, but in order to become the fourth Tiger to take home the honor, he has to make noticeable progress.
Can the offensive line fill in the blanks effectively?
Gone are starters Austin Golson, Casey Dunn, Braden Smith and Darius James as well as offensive line coach Herb Hand, who took the same position at Texas. With J.B. Grimes back as offensive line coach (he coached the Tigers from 2013-15), the Tigers are looking to solidify an offensive line fresh off a season in which it opened up holes for the 26th-best rushing offense but also allowed 36 sacks.
The good news for Auburn is despite losing so much talent, there are players returning who look ready to step in. Prince Tega Wanogho, Mike Horton and Marquell Harrell started at times in 2017, and their return should put them in line to start at tackle and the two guard positions, respectively. Calvin Ashley redshirted last year but could be the go-to guy at the other tackle spot, although sophomore Prince Sammons might have something to say about that. Kaleb Kim and Nick Brahms should be in the mix at center as well.
Of course, the spring offensive line setup could get thrown entirely out of whack at the end of March with the transfer decision of Rice offensive tackle Calvin Anderson, who is considering Auburn, among other schools.
Who steps into the Tigers’ depleted defensive secondary?
Auburn finished 18th in the nation with 182 passing yards allowed per game last year, but the Tigers have lost Carlton Davis, Tray Matthews, Stephen Roberts, Jason Smith and Nick Ruffin from that secondary. Luckily, there is production coming back in the form of Jeremiah Dinson, Jamel Dean, Javaris Davis, and Daniel Thomas.
Spring practice is the ideal time for position battles to play out, and Auburn could have any number of defensive backs stand out. Along with the four experienced players mentioned, Traivon Leonard, Jordyn Peters as well as early enrollees Jamien Sherwood, Quindarious Monday and Christian Tutt could factor in as well.
Which early enrollees have the best chance of proving themselves?
The Tigers have eight early enrollees as part of their Class 2018, which means Thursday will be their first taste of practicing at the collegiate level.
High school standouts like quarterback Joey Gatewood might show off why they were considered important additions to the roster, but their chances of impacting the depth chart this spring look unlikely considering the names above them. There are, however, other new additions who could factor into the Tigers’ plans for 2018.
Along with Martin at running back and the trio of defensive backs, defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk and wide receiver Shedrick Jackson could do wonders for themselves with strong debuts.