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Surprising names leading, failing Auburn through five games

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn running back Peyton Barber (25) runs the ball after attempting a stiff arm at San Jose State cornerback Jimmy Pruitt (8) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 35-21.
Auburn running back Peyton Barber (25) runs the ball after attempting a stiff arm at San Jose State cornerback Jimmy Pruitt (8) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 35-21. AP Photo

Auburn’s 2015 football season through five games has been a strange one.

The Tigers came out of the gate as a top five team in the country with Jeremy Johnson a potential Heisman candidate.

Johnson is currently on the bench while Auburn has fallen all the way out of the rankings for the first time since 2012, but the quarterback isn’t the only player having a surprising season for the Tigers.

Auburn’s top performers feature some unexpected names as does the list of players who aren’t playing so well.

Top Five (through week five)

1. Peyton Barber – The Auburn running back is hands down the team’s MVP at this point. He made key plays in all three of the Tigers wins, and was one of his team’s only reliable offensive options. His average yards per carry without a pair of long runs he had against San Jose State drops from 5.1 to 4.5 yards. It might be a pedestrian number, but that doesn’t take away from the positives he’s brought to the field.

2. Ricardo Louis – The wide receiver will be an even more important figure in Auburn’s offense following Duke Williams’ dismissal from the team. Louis is approaching career numbers, and the Tigers aren’t even halfway through the season. He leads the team with 19 catches for 193 yards and a touchdown. The coaching staff recently pointed to his lack of drops as a key reason behind his consistency. Louis played well despite dealing with minor undisclosed injuries. If he can heal during the bye week, he could be in for strong stretch run.

3. Blake Countess – Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has taken advantage of Countess’ versatility. Muschamp has moved the graduate transfer around the secondary to provide stability at various positions of need -- defensive back, safety and nickel. Countess also had the team’s longest kickoff return of the season against San Diego State. He has 23 tackles, 16 solo, with two for a loss and three pass breakups this season.

4. Jonathan Jones – Teams are picking on the more inexperienced part of Auburn’s secondary with Jones entrenched at one of the corner spots. He has 26 tackles, 15 solo, with four pass breakups and a forced fumble. He continues to be one of the few players to follow coach Muschamp’s fast, physical motto, and has made plays as a result.

5. Kevin Phillips – Hard to believe a punter makes the list, but for a team lacking breakout stars – his steady foot has been a bright spot. He’s averaging 44.3 yards per punt, fourth best in the SEC, and has dropped nine inside the 20-yard line. Daniel Carlson would have belonged on this list if it wasn’t for recent misses inside the 35-yard line.

Worth Mentioning – Roc Thomas hasn’t had the overall impact he would like in the ground game, but he’s been a reliable receiving target. He’s responsible for the longest pass play of the season, a 51-yard reception from Johnson against Jacksonville State, and is averaging a respectable 20.4 yards per catch. Kerryon Johnson has flashed his potential, but isn’t being used enough to make the list. Freshman defensive back Carlton Davis jumped into the starting lineup against Mississippi State. He had an interception against San Jose State, and is starting to look more comfortable. The first-year player is going to make mistakes, but is starting to show glimpses of why the coaches are so confident in him. Protection across the line hasn’t been strong enough to put Shon Coleman and Avery Young on the list. Auburn is only averaging 4.4 rushing yards a carry as a team, and has allowed seven sacks.

Bottom Five

1. Jeremy Johnson - It’s easy to pile on, but the lasting image of Johnson fumbling the ball backwards 20 yards against LSU is hard to shake. Auburn placed a tremendous amount of confidence in the junior, so it’s hard to reconcile the quarterback who went 43 of 72 for 473 yards for six touchdowns and five interceptions. During the bye week, coach Gus Malzahn said the time away from the starting lineup is helping Johnson rebuild his confidence. Could a second chance be around the corner?

2. Duke Williams – The now former Auburn player had discipline issues in the past, so the news of his dismissal wasn’t a shock. It was mildly surprising hearing players resigned to the idea Williams was gone. The ups-and- downs of his short tenure on the team could have negatively impacted team chemistry.

3. Rudy Ford – Ford was benched three games into the season with coach Muschamp defending the move saying Auburn wasn’t getting enough production at the spot. Ford had his best game of the season against San Jose State, but has a ways to go to make up for the comments he made before the LSU game that motivated Leonard Fournette. 

4. Austin Golson – There hasn’t been a game without at least one bad snap from Golson. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee admitted the sophomore struggled on the road against LSU, and those struggles continued against Mississippi State. While there is a high learning curve at the position for Golson, who is playing center for the first time, a struggling offense can’t afford any issues with the snap.

5. Jason Smith – The coaches talked Jason Smith up this summer as a big-time playmaker. The most notable play he’s made this season is dropping a sure touchdown pass from Sean White against San Jose State. The former high school quarterback also hasn’t been used in the team’s wildcat package despite his history under center. 

Worth Mentioning – None of the young guns up on the defensive line including the much-talked about defensive end Byron Cowart are making a case for increased playing time. The team has failed to come up with any kind of replacement for Carl Lawson.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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