What we’ve learned through 2 weeks of Auburn’s spring football practice
Auburn is two weeks into its first spring under new head coach Bryan Harsin, with this week serving as an unofficial midway point of the spring season.
The Tigers have had six practices to date, including one scrimmage inside Jordan-Hare Stadium last Thursday, and now enter an off-week of sorts. Normally, this would be the week off players get for spring break, but with Auburn not having a traditional spring break this year due to the pandemic—instead giving students wellness days throughout the semester—this year’s built-in break will be somewhat different.
Players will remain on campus and still have a chance to train in the weight room and use the down time for recovery and film study before returning to the practice field next week. It will also provide a chance for further evaluations from the new staff heading into the second half of spring practices.
“We wanted to build that in,” Harsin said. “It also gives our strength coaches a chance to see a few practices, to see these guys go out there and play the game and reevaluate where are we at just from a strength standpoint? Where are we at from a conditioning standpoint? And really use that week to evaluate players. Get them in there, get a little work in and then use that to move forward in the second half of spring to better ourselves so we can finish strong.”
With Auburn using this week for some introspection to set up the second half of spring, AL.com will also kick the week off by recapping everything we’ve learned through the first two weeks of spring:
Finding an identity on offense: Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have been collaborating to build a new-look offense for Auburn this offseason. The two coaches have known each other for a decade and have studied each other’s offenses—and how they operate behind the scenes—but this is their first joint venture together. This spring, so far, has been about implementing the DNA and base-levels of their creation while also experimenting with it to find out what could work down the line and what they should leave out.
So far, we’ve seen a lot of shotgun mixed in with some “old school” under-center and I-formation sets. We’ve seen Auburn line up with two tight ends at times. We’ve seen fullbacks. We’ve seen running backs split out wide and then motion into the backfield. As Bobo put it, the Tigers want their offense to “be able to do everything.”
“Somebody told me one time, you’ve got to let them know you’re at the ballpark and sometimes there’s not a better way to do that than to get under center and run power,” Bobo said. “That’s what we want to be. We want to have a physical run game, and I think you can be a lot more physical sometimes when you’re under center. We’ll have elements of spread. We’ll have elements of under center, elements of two tight ends, elements of fullback. We want to be able to do everything. We don’t want to be just under center. We don’t want to be just spread. We want to be a wide open, pro-style offense.”
Derek Mason’s candy shop: Auburn’s new defensive coordinator has had a childlike wonderment while toying with his defensive scheme and how to adapt it to the Tigers’ personnel, especially in the front seven. Mason has been best known for his 3-4 system that propelled him up the coaching ranks during his time as a coordinator at Stanford, but the former Vanderbilt head coach likes to be multiple in what he does defensively.
So far, we have seen that from the Tigers this spring during the portions of practice open to the media and through interviews with players and Mason himself. Auburn has worked on a 3-4 base defensive front, with two edge defenders serving as the outside linebackers, and we’ve also seen a 2-4-5 nickel package that has had the edge defenders closer to the line of scrimmage.
There have been ample opportunities for Mason to mix-and-match up front too, given the versatility of Auburn’s front-seven personnel, which has allowed Mason to move guys around and experiment with personnel groupings as he installs his system.
“I think it’s great when you can have an opportunity to step into a place like Auburn and look and see exactly what they have available to you,” Mason said. “I think it’s always about players, right? So, when we talk about football, how do you put guys in the best possible position to, you know, permeate some success? Coming in, we’ve got all different types. We’ve got big guys; we’ve got long guys. So, like for me, it’s a nice smorgasbord of players, man, who have different skillsets…. For me right now, I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”
Offensive line situation: Harsin said at the outset of the spring that Auburn isn’t at its best five along the offensive line yet, but the goal is to get there. So far this spring, though, it appears as though Auburn is largely sticking with the same starting five it closed last season with, as the open windows of practice have seen Alec Jackson at left tackle, Tashawn Manning at left guard, Nick Brahms at center, Keiondre Jones at right guard and Brodarious Hamm at right tackle with the first-team offense.
That’s not to say that will be the starting five by the time the season rolls around or even by the end of spring. Remember, Brandon Council—who started every game when healthy last season and was arguably Auburn’s most consistent lineman in 2020—has been sidelined by a shoulder injury this spring. Bobo also left open the possibility for things to get shaken up at the tackle spots during the second half of spring.
“Ultimately, we’re going to create some competition and have some competition at that tackle position,” Bobo said. “But they’ve got to be able to protect at the tackle position, first and foremost. And that’s something we’ll be working on hard this spring.”
The new-look receiver room: Auburn’s wide receiver room has experienced a makeover this offseason following the departures of the team’s top-three wideouts from each of the last two seasons. Gone are Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove, and now Auburn must replace them in a revamped offense. Making matters even more challenging this spring is that the Tigers have dealt with various injuries to the group through the first two weeks of practice. The team’s two most experienced returning receivers, Shedrick Jackson and Ze’Vian Capers, have both been extremely limited in practices; Jackson is dealing with an undisclosed injury, while Caper is recovering from January foot surgery. J.J. Evans also appeared to sustain a leg injury during the team’s third practice and was limited prior to last week’s scrimmage.
That has left the door open for some other receivers to step up this spring, and perhaps no wideout has seized the opportunity more than Ja’Varrius Johnson. The former four-star prospect out of Hewitt-Trussville barely saw the field in his first two seasons at Auburn but has emerged as a consistent playmaker for Auburn this spring. He has worked with the first- and second-team offenses, was the “playmaker of the day” during the team’s second and third practices, and he has been lauded as one of the more consistent players on either side of the ball this spring.
Along with Johnson, Kobe Hudson, Elijah Canion and Malcolm Johnson Jr. have gotten their share of first-team reps at wide receiver.
Tight ends galore: Auburn’s tight ends may have been underused in recent years under the former coaching staff, but that doesn’t look like it will be the case under the new regime. As mentioned earlier, Auburn has employed a fair amount of two-tight end sets early on this spring, including during its install period of practices, but that’s not the only difference for the position group.
Auburn has been versatile in how it has lined its tight ends up through two weeks — from having them attached to the line with their hand in the dirt, to split out wide or in the slot, to even lining them up in a more traditional fullback role — and what the position has been asked to do, whether it’s being more involved in the passing game or grading the road for the team’s more downhill style of running. We’ve seen various routes run by the tight ends as well, including drags, posts, digs, outs and corner routes, but we’ve also seen some pad-rattling blocks.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the tight end position so far is how the new staff plans to use J.J. Pegues, the 6-foot-3, 308-pound unicorn on the roster. Pegues has lined up at fullback, split out and attached to the line. He has worked on special teams, and Harsin even hinted at finding a way to use him on defense, saying that the sophomore is a “physical presence” who can be used in “any of the three phases” of the game.
“Where we go with him, moving forward, we’ll decide from today’s scrimmage what that looks like, how do we utilize him and how do we use his ability and then start to mess around with a few things that he can do probably a little differently moving forward,” Harsin said.
Shuffling the secondary: Entering the spring, Auburn appeared to have a wealth of depth at corner but a shortage of experience at safety alongside senior Smoke Monday. So, how did Mason — who has been overseeing the safeties — and cornerbacks coach Zac Etheridge tackle that dilemma? By moving one of its talented corners to safety, allowing the defense to optimize its talent in the secondary.
Ladarius Tennison, who many expected to take over as the starter at nickel entering this offseason, has moved to safety and received the bulk of the first-team reps next to Monday. That has not only provided a strong option at safety, but it opened up another personnel move in the secondary that has helped solve the traffic jam at cornerback. With Tennison at safety, Nehemiah Pritchett has taken over the starting role at nickel, while Roger McCreary and Jaylin Simpson have held down the starting cornerback spots.
Injury notes: Auburn hasn’t been immune to injury this spring, as seven players began practice either out or limited due to injury, while others have sustained injuries during the first two weeks. Among those sidelined from Day 1 were Council (shoulder) the aforementioned receivers, Jackson and Capers (foot), as well as defensive backs Ahmari Harvey (yellow non-contact jersey), Zion Puckett and Marco Domio, and linebacker Desmond Tisdol (yellow non-contact jersey). Evans (knee/leg) and backup quarterback Grant Loy (apparent hamstring) have also dealt with some injuries through the first two weeks, but no injury has been as major as the one sustained by defensive tackle Jeremiah Wright during the team’ scrimmage last week.
Wright tore the ACL in his left knee during the scrimmage, dealing a difficult blow to Auburn’s defensive line. The sophomore out of Selma had been an early breakout star of the spring, making a rise up the depth chart pecking order while seeing time with the first-team defense in both the 3-4 base and the nickel package at tackle. It’s unclear how long Wright will be out, but it was an unfortunate setback for a player on the rise.
Still “got a ways to go”: It’s spring—and Harsin’s first spring at Auburn, at that—so things are going to take time. It’s a process, for all sides involved, and it’s going to take time to install new schemes on both sides of the ball, for players to adapt to the demands of the new staff, and for everyone to get on the same page. Harsin couldn’t say last week whether the team was ahead of or behind schedule, per se, this spring — only acknowledging that the Tigers still “got a ways to go” to get to where he believes they need to be entering the summer.
“We’ve got things we know we need to work on, and that’s OK,” Harsin said. “As long as we take that mindset into what we have to do moving forward, then we’ll have a chance to continue to get better. If it becomes an issue, then we’ll pull back, and we’re going to end up really going backwards if we can’t take what we learned today and apply it and then our next practice, we come back on Monday a week later, and be able to execute some of the things we made mistakes on and had a week to go back and review those things.
“That’s really going to be a gauge for us on how are we going to take this information and apply it to that second half of spring and where do we go from there? And then we’ll have enough information to go back and evaluate, alright, what do we get done? How far do we go through spring? Now what do we have to do moving forward into summer? And just process, it’s not just about spring. It’s about summer. It’s about carrying over into fall camp and ultimately the season.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.