Gus Malzahn offers a simple explanation for Auburn’s struggles last season.
“We were a young team,” Malzahn said.
It’s a phrase the coach has returned to over and over again in describing his team’s inconsistency.
The excuse won’t be quite as effective if the Tigers struggle in the fall.
Auburn has experience up and down its depth chart going into spring camp next week with at least eight returning starters on each side of the ball.
Last year, Malzahn had to replace 11 starters — who accounted for 122 starts — including the entire group of starting linebackers (Justin Garrett, Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy) and top two running backs (Jovon Robinson and Peyton Barber), which was an unexpected development.
The Tigers have far less uncertainty this spring.
Auburn has six starters to replace — Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson, Josh Holsey, Alex Kozan, Robert Leff and Rudy Ford — but is well equipped to handle the loss of talent with starters (plural) coming back at positions where multiple players are leaving.
While wide receiver is Auburn’s least experienced position group going into spring camp, the team isn’t exactly starting from scratch.
The Tigers used a variety of starting combinations last year with true freshman like Eli Stove taking on a more prominent role as the season went on.
Ryan Davis might be the most experienced receiver of the bunch, but he won’t be a lock for a starting role given the number of talented underclassmen competing for playing time.
Auburn could also enter 2017 with an inexperienced quarterback leading the offense if Jarrett Stidham wins the job as expected. He only has three career starts (10 appearances), but Sean White would be valuable insurance in a backup role having started 16 games the past two years.
White would be the program’s most experienced backup during coach Malzahn’s five-year tenure.
Auburn’s wealth of experience shouldn’t impact the message coaches have delivered on the recruiting trail, either. The staff has told student-athletes they will get an opportunity to play right away if they come to the Plains.
While there won’t be as much pressure on Auburn’s coaching staff to speed up the development of incoming freshman this spring, Auburn isn’t inclined to redshirt players capable of making an impact, even in a reserve role.
Kam Martin is the perfect example.
The running back didn’t make a single start as a freshman but carried the ball 44 times for 320 yards with three touchdowns in 10 games.
There aren’t as many opportunities for members of Auburn’s 2017 class to earn starting roles, but that doesn’t mean fewer will see the field in the fall.