Auburn’s focus building its offensive line this spring goes beyond filling the vacancies left by Shon Coleman and Avery Young declaring early for the NFL draft.
The Tigers’ coaching staff wants to establish depth across the line while ensuring a large group of inexperienced linemen are placed at their best position. Coach Gus Malzahn and new offensive line coach Herb Hand built a blueprint for the spring aimed at accomplishing all three goals.
“We will be moving some guys around, especially the first five days,” Malzahn said. “Coach Hand has a good plan to give guys different opportunities.”
It’s a departure from how Malzahn’s typically conducted spring practice.
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“We'll probably move around this spring up front more than we have the previous three years,” Malzahn said.
The core of Auburn’s offensive line this season will be its three returning starters —left guard Alex Kozan, right guard Braden Smith and center Austin Golson.
It’s a group that started 11 of the team’s 13 games together. Kozan missed a pair of games at the end of the season, but is healthy this spring.
The early frontrunners to join them in the starting lineup are Robert Leff and Darius James.
Leff played well in two starts at left tackle last season and declared himself ready to inherent the mantle at a position that’s produced two NFL talents (Shon Coleman, Greg Robinson) during Gus Malzahn’s tenure.
“He's a guy we have a lot of confidence in,” Malzahn said. “He did a very good job last year. He played a tight end role, but he also started a couple of games and did a very good job when he got in. He's a veteran guy. He's a guy you can count on. His teammates have a lot of respect for him. He's a tough guy, too. We're pleased at where he's at.”
Leff credited both Coleman and Robinson for playing important roles in his development. The pressure to replace the high-profile alums isn’t fazing the senior who is excited to step into a major contributing role.
“I’ve worked for a long time, gotten a lot better,” Leff said.
James is another player that’s patiently waited his turn. The Texas transfer played in six games during the 2014 season for the Longhorns. The 6-foot-4, 332-pounder was on Auburn’s scout team last year while sitting out.
“He's a talented young man,” Malzahn said. “He sat out last year. He was with the scout team. That's always a tough job, especially for an older guy, but he handled it well. He did a solid job with that. He did a good job in our bowl prep. We had him playing up front. He's in a spot, and we'll see how he does once pads get on Saturday. We like where he's at, and he's a talented young man.”
Leff’s praise of James went further than that.
“I think you’ll see some great improvement and you’ll be able to see him dominate some people,” Leff said. “I’ve certainly seen it at practice at times and I hope he can do that consistently.”
Malzahn will get a better idea of how Leff and James are fitting in with the starters when Auburn puts on pads for the first time Saturday. It will also give the coaches a more accurate feel for how the younger linemen are developing.
“It won't be a scrimmage, but it will be a physical practice,” Malzahn said. “We'll do a lot of stuff up front.”