AUBURN, Ala. — At the end of Auburn's spring practice last year, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee couldn't have been more pleased with those playing up front. The way Lashlee saw it, he had a good problem on his hands: he had six players he was confident slotting in to fill the five spots.
He leaves this spring feeling much the same way. Four spots seem to be set in stone: left tackle (Shon Coleman), left guard (Alex Kozan, returning from a back injury that forced him to miss all of last season), right guard (Braden Smith) and right tackle (Avery Young). And though Austin Golson started the A-Day game at center, coach Gus Malzahn said Xavier Dampeer was still in the running for the job.
Six last year. Six this year.
"I feel good about where everybody's repping. I feel like we know what everybody's capable of," Lashlee said April 21, one day after the Tigers' final practice of the spring. "I don't think there's a lot of unknowns for us. ... I feel good about what we would do if certain situations happened and that's going to help us in the summer — it helped us in the spring and it'll help us in the summer and the fall — to hopefully just continue to develop continuity, because continuity and chemistry with an O-line is huge."
Lashlee then went down the line — pardon the pun — and giving his take on each player who started at A-Day, plus a few more. He began with the only lineman returning to man the same spot as last season: Coleman.
Knowing what he was capable of, Lashlee kept his analysis succinct.
"Just kind of thinking of guys that stand out, Shon Coleman had a really good spring," he said.
He used the exact same verbiage to describe Young, another returning starter, saying the rising fourth-year junior didn't get complacent and improved over the course of the 15 spring sessions.
He had a bit more to say about Kozan, a freshman All-American in 2013 who hadn't practiced with the team in nearly a year.
"Really glad he was in spring. He could have done whatever we wanted him to do," Lashlee said. "We just felt good about the work he got in practices, and at this point, let's just get to the season. We're really going to be glad we have him back in the fold this year."
And what of Smith, the rising sophomore, he of the many nicknames and the position change, moving inside to guard after getting reps at right tackle in 2014?
"He developed playing a new position," Lashlee said. "Probably the first week and a half was a little rocky, but boy, he's got the ability and he just felt more and more comfortable the last week and a half or so of spring ball."
Not surprisingly, Lashlee saved his most detailed breakdown to the only spot that's still unsettled: center.
"You look at a guy like Austin Golson, the development he made from Day 1 to 15, I mean, he's only had 15 practices in his whole life playing center and he's doing it here at Auburn," the coach said. "So someone that's played tackle his whole life, to be able to move down and snap the football, make all the calls, do all the things we ask him to do — thought him and Xavier Dampeer both handled that very well. So that's a situation we feel better about after spring than before, knowing that you got two guys in Xavier and Austin that can snap the ball, can run your offense at center when you lose the Rimington Award winner."
But Lashlee didn't forget about the backups, either. He praised the improvements he saw from Devonte Danzey this spring, and praised the contributions of Robert Leff and Will Adams, which Lashlee believes gives the Tigers quality depth. And there are other able bodies available Lashlee didn't specifically name: early enrollees Tyler Carr and Bailey Sharp along with the talented-but-oft-injured Jordan Diamond.
It's a luxury, Lashlee said, to have so many linemen you can count on to step in and see little to no dropoff.
"We're going to need more guys, as we saw last year. The first year, we were fortunate: nobody went down," Lashlee said. "Last year, we had to mix and match. So really pleased with development and the overall depth that we have with the guys that are here right now."