Spring Outlook: Auburn looking to fill holes, improve

Matt Lowe

March 02, 2018 at 1:10 pm.

Kam Martin is a candidate to be Auburn's starting running back Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Kam Martin is a candidate to be Auburn’s starting running back Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports


That’s the number one thing Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn talked about prior to the start of spring practice Thursday.

“I’m excited about the competition,” Malzahn said. “I told our coaches I want each player to improve in one area. Especially the older guys, the veteran guys that played and all that – we want to try and get that much better.”

Auburn won 10 games and claimed the SEC West title a year ago, but it fell one game short of the College Football Playoff after it lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. The Tigers followed that up with a tough loss to UCF in the Peach Bowl.

But despite the disappointing close to the 2017 campaign, there is a lot of optimism for the Tigers entering the 2018 season.

Auburn returns its starting quarterback (Jarrett Stidham) for the first time since 2014. It also returns its entire receiving corps, stud H-back (Chandler Cox), two starting offensive linemen and seven starters off a defensive unit that limited opponents to 18.5 points per game, which ranked 12th nationally.

Stidham will be limited in the spring following shoulder surgery, which opens the door for two dual-threat quarterbacks, sophomore Malik Willis and true freshman Joey Gatewood, to show what they can do.

Willis, an electrifying athlete with really good wheels, flashed as a runner last year in spot duty after winning the backup job. Gatewood, who has drawn comparisons from Malzahn to former Heisman winner Cam Newton due to his size (6-5, 235) and skill set, is another signal-caller with a lot of ability.

“He (Gatewood) is going to get reps and Chip (Lindsey) will get time to focus just on him,” Malzahn said. “I think that will be a very good thing for him. Chip’s strength is quarterback development. He’s already got some things that he’s planning on doing with him and the thing about Joey is he’s very coachable. He’s got a great attitude. Those are the things that he’s going to focus on, as a matter of fact, starting today.”

Malzahn and his staff will especially eye development at running back, offensive line, safety and kicker.

The Tigers lost SEC Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson, the league’s leading rusher, and all-conference first-team performers Jeff Holland, the team leader in sacks, and Carlton Davis, the team’s best cornerback, early to the NFL. But they also have to replace All-American guard Braden Smith, versatile tackle/center Austin Gholson, center Casey Dunn, kicker Daniel Carlson, the conference’s all-time leading scorer, linebacker Tre’ Williams and starting safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts, who were all big-time contributors in their final seasons on the Plains.

Junior Kam Martin is the team’s leading returning rusher (453 yards in 2017) and will compete with junior Malik Miller, sophomore Devan Barrett, redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow and true freshman Asa Martin — Alabama’s 2017 Mr. Football and an early enrollee — for the starting running back position. All have ability, but, as always, pass-blocking will be critical to winning the starting tailback spot.

“We talked about the running backs playing without the ball,” Malzahn said. “All of these guys are very talented when they’ve got the ball in their hand and they can run, but there’s more to playing the position than just running the football. That’s going to be a big key to see who can separate themselves.”

Juniors Prince Tega Wanogho and Marquel Harrell are candidates to anchor the left side of the Tigers’ O-line. Wanogho only played one season of high school football, but he has the size (6-7, 310) and athleticism to be a future pro if he continues to improve. Harrell really came on toward the end of last season and has the skills to develop into an all-conference player.

Junior Mike Horton, who started seven games at guard last year, could replace Dunn as the starting center. Junior Kaleb Kim will also get a look there.

Juniors Tyler Carr and Baily Sharp and freshman Brodarious Hamm, who turned heads during bowl practices, could be candidates to start at guard. Hamm is huge (6-5, 344) and could be a big-time road grader in the Tigers vaunted rushing attack.

Calvin Ashley and Austin Troxell, two highly-touted signees, will likely compete for the right tackle position after redshirting a year ago. Prince Sammons is another one to keep an eye on.

Juniors Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson and sophomore Jordyn Peters are the leading candidates to emerge at safety. Dinson can play corner and safety. Peters has good size (6-1, 185) and really started to blossom late last season.

Sophomore Jayvaughn Myers and true freshmen Jamien Sherwood and Smoke Monday, talented early enrollees, will also get a long look in the back-half of the defense.

Looking to infuse some depth into the secondary, Auburn will try out wide receiver/return man Noah Igbinoghene at cornerback. Igbinoghene, who doubles as a track star, is one of the fastest players on the team and could be a candidate to play both ways.

“He’s going to play some corner and he’s going to play the wide receiver,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It’s just kind of one of those things, we really feel like he’s got a special talent. We were very impressed with him last year in special teams and just want to make sure that he has the best chance of being on the field.”

No player has bigger shoes to fill than redshirt freshman Anders Carlson, who is expected to replace his brother, Daniel, arguably the greatest player at the position in school history, as the team’s kicker. Anders was ranked as the No. 1 prep kicker nationally by several recruiting services a year ago.

Other news of note…

*Larry Porter, who served as the team’s recruiting coordinator a year ago, will be the team’s new special teams coordinator. He served as the special teams coordinator at North Carolina from 2014-16. Porter will also coach the team’s H-backs and tight ends.

*Running backs coach Tim Horton will replace Porter as the team’s recruiting coordinator. He served in the same capacity in 2015-16.

*J.B. Grimes is Auburn’s new offensive line coach. He was with Malzahn at Auburn from 2013-15 before coaching at Cincinnati (2016) and UConn (2017) the past two seasons. The Tigers became the first SEC team in history to lead the nation in rushing with Grimes as the team’s O-line coach in 2013.

*Secondary coach Marcus Woodson will focus on the cornerbacks. Greg Brown will coach the safeties. Woodson, who played collegiately at Ole Miss 1999-2003, coached the secondary at Memphis the last two years.

*Junior college transfer Daquan Newkirk tore his Achilles heel on Wednesday and is out for the spring. The defensive lineman is expected to return in the fall.

*Defensive end Paul James III is no longer on the team.