AUBURN, Ala. — After transferring to Auburn from Ole Miss last year, Austin Golson knew he would never see the field. It had nothing to do with his ability, of course. That's just the way the NCAA transfer rules go — sit out a year before being eligible again the following season — unless you're somehow able to convince college sports' ruling body for a hardship waiver.
Golson never let the prospect of spending the entire 2014 campaign on the sideline get him down, though.
Instead, he threw everything he had into becoming the best scout team player he could be.
"The way I looked at it is, I went out there to give my teammates the best look I could give them (last year). My fun was Monday through Thursday, because I didn’t get to play on Saturday," Golson said earlier this spring. "So I tried to take advantage of that and just get better as a football player. Just because you’re not on the field on Saturdays, it don’t mean you can’t get better as a football player. So I tried to learn some things ... I think I got a lot out of it."
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What he learned last season was in lieu of actual playing time. Had he not left Ole Miss, Golson likely would have been a key part of the Rebels' offense. At the conclusion of last spring, he was at the top of the depth chart at right tackle. But familial commitment beckoned back in Alabama. A Prattville, Ala., native, Golson found out last year that his grandfather — who he's particularly close to — was sick.
So he transferred to Auburn and enrolled last May. Once the NCAA turned down his hardship waiver, he knew last year wouldn't be easy. He would never see meaningful action. And he would not be part of the team's travel roster when they went on the road.
But he has no regrets.
"It was completely worth it," he said. "The good thing about sitting out a year is that I had that shoulder surgery and I got to get back healthy. I feel great right now. I feel better than I've felt since 10th grade, when I started playing football."
More importantly, his grandfather's condition has improved in the past year, with Golson going home whenever he can to check in
On the field, things have gotten better for him as well — even if he's repping at a spot he never expected. He saw time at guard during his freshman season at Ole Miss before making the aforementioned move to right tackle the following spring. But Golson is in line to start at another position with the Tigers: center. It was a change that came about as the team was practicing for the Outback Bowl last December.
"I think they came up to me and asked me just to try center, and of course I was willing to do that because I'm here to help the team," he said. "I did it and I guess they liked what they saw maybe and kind of went from there. I haven’t looked back yet."
What did the coaching staff see in Golson that made them think he could shift to center?
"We saw, in our bowl prep, that he's athletic enough to do that, so we gave him a few reps there. He looked pretty good, so from a center's standpoint, it's very important to what we do," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "It's almost like another quarterback as far as everything we ask him to do with our no-huddle scheme and the pace that we play, to ID and all that. We're going to give him an opportunity."
The biggest difference between tackle and center, as one would expect, is that Golson is now responsible for knowing and making every call on the line, making sure to shift them in the right direction depending on the defensive alignment.
"You've got to be able to talk and get everybody on the same page," he said. "You've got to be able to lead or you're not going to be what you want to be."
He's also had to adjust to the type of defender he takes on after the snap.
"(When) I was playing tackle at Ole Miss, (I) got 250-pound ends that run 4.5s (40-yard dashes)," he said, "and then you move down and you've got 310-pound defensive linemen coming off the ball as fast as they can a lot closer."
While there were many things he believed still needed work, just before the A-Day game in April, Golson admitted he was surprised how far he had come.
"I feel like I’m probably ahead of where I thought I would be," Golson said. “I don’t know if I’m ahead of where the coaches thought I would be as far as communication. I’m where I thought I would be physically, but as far as the mental part of it, I think I’m a little more ahead of where I thought I would be.”
He already has the support of the offense's most important player: quarterback Jeremy Johnson. The two knew each other well before they became teammates at Auburn, as they shared a friendly rivalry in high school, with Golson at Prattville and Johnson at Carver-Montgomery.
"I love all my linemen, but that's one of my closest linemen because he's the center," Johnson said. "I've been knowing him for a while and he's going to be great at center."
After losing a four-year starter at center (Reese Dismukes) and a two-year starter at quarterback (Nick Marshall), Auburn is starting from scratch at both spots. Getting them to work as one quickly is integral to the success of the offense this fall.
"A center, they have tendencies just like everybody else. If they step right the ball could be left," Malzahn said. "You just kind of get used to where the ball is going to be. It’s not always perfect. Even though you’re in the shotgun, it takes a little bit of time to get used to a certain speed, because not every center is going to have the same speed. They’re not all going to have the same accuracy. There is a little bit of getting used to.”
Despite the chemistry the Golson and Johnson have already developed, Malzahn said there wouldn't be any scenario in which the coaching staff would approach the rising junior signal-caller and ask which center — be it Golson or Xavier Dampeer, who also received reps with the first-team this spring — he had better cohesion with.
"We can tell by evaluating what he’s comfortable with and all that," Malzahn said. "We just try our best to get our centers consistent with the (snap) speeds and get it in that square area. It doesn’t always happen that way, but that’s what we try to do. It usually works itself out as far as that goes.”
J.B Grimes had no complaints.
"Austin had never snapped before and he can get that ball back there with consistency. That's impressive," Auburn's offensive line coach said. "The snaps have been good. We're able to focus as an offense. That's really big."
Golson earned Grimes' trust to the point that he started at center with the first-team offense at the spring game. Even so, when asked point-blank whether Golson had nailed down the job heading into the fall, Malzahn refused to say such a thing.
"He's had a good spring," the coach said of Golson. "He's still learning to play the position, but Xavier has raised his level, too."
It doesn't bother Golson one bit. A team player through and through, he ceded to the wisdom of the coaching staff.
"I just try to go out there and do the best I can," Golson said. "I trust my coaches to make the best decision and put the best player on the field."