Auburn assistant coach Rhett Lashlee chuckled when asked about his timeline for a depth chart on the offensive line.
“Before the first play, we have to pick,” Lashlee said, laughing.
Finalizing a depth chart to coincide with the opening snap of the Tigers’ season-opener Sept. 5 against Louisville at the Georgia Dome might seem far-fetched, but there might be some truth to it.
Lashlee didn’t shed much light on how the positional battles going on across the offense are shaking out, and believes he has multiple options to fill holes at running back, wide receiver and two spots on the interior of the offensive line.
“We've got three true returning starters back, probably five guys on the offense that have played a considerable amount of reps,” Lashlee said. “After that, we've got a lot of guys who have played here or there, or not played at all, that we think are really talented.”
Auburn’s offensive coordinator said the level of competition during practice is similar to what it was prior in the offseason leading up to the 2013 season.
The coaching staff is hesitant to cut those battles off as players continue to show improvement.
“They're just out there working,” Lashlee said. “They're responding to the coaching. They're trying to do everything we ask them to do. There seems to be that sense of hunger a little bit, which there should be after the way we finished.”
At running back, Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson continue to fight it out.
While Thomas’ and Barber’s experience might give them a slight advantage, Lashlee issued what turned into a common refrain -- it was still to close to call in terms of naming a starter.
“We’re going to need all four of them,” Lashlee said. “We’re going to plan on playing them all and kind of see how that works itself out. We think they all do a lot of things well, some different than others. We feel good about them all.”
Thomas, who ran for 228 yards on 43 carries with two touchdowns last season, added 10 pounds to his 5-foot-10 frame at the direction of the coaching staff this offseason.
“Some guys that run hard and violent and with a lot of cutting like him sometimes you’re more concerned about them with durability,” Lashlee said. “I think that’s the number one thing we’re most excited about. We hope that will help keep him healthy. And two, it has probably given him confidence to be tougher. He’s been tough all fall camp.”
Coming out of the spring, Thomas has excelled in pass protection, and short yardage situations.
The combination of players upfront blocking for Auburn’s backs is also in flux.
Lashlee likes 6-foot-6 junior tackles Shon Coleman, and Avery Young as the anchor of the group. Both players started all 13 games last season, and Young has experience going back to when he was a true freshman.
Braden Smith, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, is set to slide in at the right guard spot. He played in 12 games last season, and started in the Outback Bowl.
No decisions have been made at left guard, or who replace Remington Trophy winner Reese Dismukes at center.
Devonte Danzey and Alex Kozan are in the mix at guard while Xavier Dampeer and Austin Golson are working at center.
The group will have to come together quickly as it faces a talented Louisville front seven in week one.
“They have a bunch of guys with experience, a bunch of guys with productivity,” Lashlee said. “They were about as good as anybody last year in turning you over and getting after the passer. And they were really good against the run. We have our hands full. You hope that our guys are ready to play, and you hope as the game goes on you can wear on them a little bit.”
During Lashlee press conference, he touched on a long list of receivers he could see contributing on Saturday’s this fall.
D'haquille Williams, Jason Smith, Marcus Davis, Tony Stevens, Melvin Ray, Stanton Truitt, Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis were all mentioned.
“The last two days, we’ve thrown and caught the ball as well as we have in a while, which has been encouraging,” Lashlee said, of the group.
Williams was Auburn’s leading receiver last year with 730 yards with five touchdowns in 10 games. The senior continues to practice with the second team after a discipline issue earlier in training camp.
Lashlee isn’t even ruling out a true freshman like Slayton or Davis earning a key spot in the rotation.
“We’re still going into it with the assumption that we’re preparing them to play,” Lashlee said. “It’s probably too early to make that call, but we have not decided they’re not going to play. Both of them have the talent to, and they’re getting better, and as long as they’re progressing like that it’s our belief and I just think you keep bringing them along because one, they may get to where they’re ready to play and two, you never know when you’re going to need them.”