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Observations & Questions: Auburn Personnel Breakdown

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Notes from watching all 13 Auburn games

Auburn v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Offense

This is a single-back, read-option based offense with a heavy reliance on both screen and downfield run-pass options. In 2018 there was a more extensive pocket passing game with a lot more intermediate and deep routes than in other iterations of this offense over the years.

Quarterback - #8 QB Stidham has departed for the NFL, and leaves a somewhat puzzling legacy. His 2017 season was excellent, but there was a remarkable drop in his passing accuracy in 2018. Part of the issue were some problems at the offensive line and with the wideouts, but even taking those into account I saw him widely overthrow receivers or miss open targets far more than I was expecting from his previous numbers in situations where there’s no one else to blame, and I don’t have a good explanation why.

On the other hand, in an offense in which there’s some sort of option read on most plays, I thought his command of the playbook and ability to make the right reads (on many plays, the right series of multiple reads) were excellent. He wasn’t a particularly fast runner, but he had enough speed to accomplish the main purpose of the offense: force the defense to respect his threat to run enough so as to commit a defender to covering that possibility and therefore be taken out of the play.

HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: JAN 03 Under Armour All-America Game Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I can’t comment on the new, true freshman starter #10 QB Nix since I haven’t seen any live college film of him (nor #1 QB Gatewood, a redshirt freshman, who I expect to take some snaps in specially designed plays, similarly to last year’s use of #14 QB Willis, also departed). On the question of whether he’ll be an improvement on Stidham’s play, I would break it down in three ways: first, if the passing accuracy problems in 2018 really were on Stidham, then there’s room for significant improvement from a talented young passer. Second, while it’s likely that Nix (or Gatewood) are faster runners, I’m not sure there’s much additional gain to be had there, as defenses were already dedicating the defender to take that QB run away in 2018. Third, the playbook seems fairly complex to me in terms of making multiple reads, and it’s hard to believe there’s much improvement to be had from Stidham there … and if it goes the other way then mistakes are potentially catastrophic turnovers due to the nature of an option offense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Music City Bowl - Purdue v Auburn Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Running backs - I liked this group a lot, and they’re all coming back. The initial starter was #9 RB Martin, but he was quickly eclipsed by #28 RB Whitlow who got most (about 40%) of the carries … he’s a hard runner, almost always hits the right hole, and gets significant yards after contact on about one-sixth of his touches. They also return #25 RB Shivers, a remarkably fast change-of-pace back but who needs to work on picking the right hole, and #32 RB M. Miller, a short-yardage bruiser who could use some extra push to get through tackles. Auburn has also listed two freshmen “OR” backs on their depth chart, #3 RB D.J. Williams and #22 RB Joiner; I didn’t see either at all.

The most notable deficiency I saw were some problems in the passing game. Whitlow had a lot of drops and positioning errors when catching out of the backfield, and Martin, who’s pretty slightly built, was quite poor at blocking in pass-pro.

Wide receivers - Auburn is losing its top two receivers, #23 WR R. Davis and #81 WR Slayton, who combined for about two-thirds of targets. Davis’s yards-per-catch numbers are deceptively low -- he was the main target of screen passes and Auburn’s success rate at those was fairly poor, so it came out of his production -- but when he was used as a downfield receiver he was as effective as anyone else in the corps.

The issue was that overall effectiveness was worse than I was expecting - quite a few drops, route running issues, and difficulties getting separation. Fortunately, I think the most promising receiver, #18 WR S. Williams, is returning and I expect him to be the primary receiver: he’s long-limbed and fast, and while I noted some rough edges as a true freshman, I think he’ll polish them quickly. The biggest issue I noted was a tendency to get knocked off his perimeter blocks fairly easily.

What I found baffling was how little the rest of the corps was used, though it’s all coming back. #5 WR Schwartz is a track star, literally the fastest man on Earth in his age group, but he was deployed almost exclusively as a sweep man and I got the sense the staff didn’t trust him as a traditional receiver (he’s had a hand injury in Fall camp, it remains to be seen if he’ll play in the opener). #80 TE Cannella, who’s effectively a wideout, was a pretty useful receiver because of his size, but he’d disappear for weeks at a time. #11 WR Jackson was used almost exclusively as a blocker, replacing the larger #3 WR Craig-Myers in the same role who transferred out midseason. I didn’t see #12 WR Stove or #33 WR Hastings at all due to injuries, #14 WR Farrar is a transfer from FCS Youngstown St whom I haven’t seen play, and #19 WR Hill redshirted last season.

Tight ends - Perhaps the most significant single loss on the offense is the longtime H-back #27 FB Cox, who was used as a blocker on nearly every snap. I really liked watching him play, he was an aggressive and vital blocker. I’ve been told that his replacement is a transfer from Arizona St, #42 FB Wilson. I wish I had some idea of him from watching ASU recently, but he didn’t see the field much - he was recruited as a tight end, converted to a linebacker, and transferred out. Auburn is also losing #86 TE T. Brown, the heavy in-line end used extensively in power-running 12-personnel sets.

I didn’t see much of the returning senior #99 FB Nigh or sophomore #47 TE Shenker, they mostly played as tertiary blockers and were behind Cox and Brown for a reason. I’m not sure what to think of the new group, but I think this has been an underreported storyline since the TEs and fullbacks weren’t really used as pass-catchers and so don’t have a stat line for journalists to pick up on - if there’s a significant drop off here that could seriously harm the run game and pass protection.

Offensive line - In my opinion, problems in this unit were the source of most of the offense’s troubles. For one thing, they lost their starting center, #54 C Kim, for five games due to injury, and his replacement, #52 C Brahms, was a significant step down. But even taking that into account and examining Kim and the other guards’ -- #77 LG Harrell and #64 RG Horton -- play, I was surprised at how much the interior of the line would collapse badly in pass protection.

Auburn v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

I thought the tackles, #76 LT Wanogho and #71 RT Driscoll, were pretty solid in pass protection on the edges, although I noted some communication errors with their respective guards (both arrived at Auburn in unusual ways: Wanogho is a recent immigrant from Nigeria and Driscoll is a former 2-star transfer from Umass). However, across the board I thought this o-line had real troubles in run-blocking, particularly those plays requiring more complex footwork such as pins and pulls.

There’s some improvement in the overall line play in the second half of the season, although most of that is simply getting Kim back from injury, and the improvement of Harrell in run-blocking and Horton in pass-blocking from outright liabilities to merely below average (curiously, my tally sheet shows Wanogho getting worse at run-blocking over the same timeframe, I don’t know what that’s about). All five starters are returning, and I expect the standard incremental improvement from experience and gelling, though it remains to be seen if they’ll take a big step forward.

Although it probably won’t affect the opener, I would be concerned about depth here in case of an injury. The most promising prospect, #70 OL Ashley, transferred out of the program, and what we saw of Brahms, #66 OL Sharp, and #68 OL Troxell in relief last season was not inspiring. There are three second-year players listed on the depth chart, #56 LG Manning, #50 RG Irvin, and #59 RT Hamm, none of whom I saw last year.


Defense

This is a 3-3-5, though a somewhat unusual variant with a STAR safety, and two tackles and a defensive end plus a BUCK backer on the line, with two inside backers behind them. Although since the BUCK is frequently playing with his fist in the dirt, it might be more helpful to think of it as a 4-2 front with two different kinds of ends. Coverage is typically in zone except for 3rd & medium or longer, when they almost always switch to cover-1 and blitz everybody else on the field, including safeties if available (more breakdown of these blitz patterns in tomorrow’s film study article).

Defensive line - The strength of the defense, which in turn is the strength of the team. The top three returning linemen -- #5 DT D. Brown, #3 DE Davidson, and #91 DE Coe -- are phenomenal, some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Alabama State v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

The end position is in great shape, it was pretty much a two-man rotation last year and they’re both back. In fact, given how liberally Coe appears on the depth chart at different positions and some apparent weight changes, it may be that Davidson is slimming into more of a pass rusher and Coe bulking into a hybrid tackle.

While Brown is, in my mind, the best player on this team, I think depth at tackle around him may be an issue. It was basically a four-man rotation last year, and they’ve lost half of it - the equally excellent starter #95 DT Russell and the solid backup #79 DT A. Williams. They’re returning #79 DT Truesdell, though in my opinion he’s a step down in ability. Last year I saw very little of the two deep relief men, #8 DT C. Miller and #44 DT Newkirk, and I’ve read that both had significant injuries in camp and I’m uncertain of their status, while I saw virtually nothing of the last guy on the depth chart, #97 DT Walker.

Linebackers - This unit returns both BUCKs, #1 OLB Bryant and #55 OLB Moultry. Curiously, their order on the depth chart is flipped from how they played in 2018. These guys were used almost exclusively as pass rushers instead of covering outside plays, though I was a little disappointed in their frequency getting home.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Music City Bowl - Purdue v Auburn Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In my opinion, the biggest trouble this defense is likely to face is that it’s replacing its entire inside linebacking corps: #57 ILB D. Davis, #49 ILB D. Williams, #48 ILB Atkinson. This was a three-man rotation at two spots, though really that was Williams and Atkinson swapping back and forth while Davis played nearly every snap. I thought Davis was an incredible backer and perfect for this system, and would compare his intelligence and tackling to LSU’s Devin White.

I know very little about their replacements. I didn’t see either of the underclassmen listed at one LB spot, #10 ILB Pappoe and #35 ILB McClain, at all during 2018. I saw very little backup play from the other two, #33 ILB Britt and #31 ILB Wooten, and I should note that while it was a limited sample size, they both graded out the poorest of any defender on my tally sheet.

Louisiana Monroe v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Secondary - This unit, on the other hand, is bringing back just about everybody from a 10-man rotation. I think they’re strongest at the safety positions, with returning seniors #20 S Dinson & #24 S Thomas. They’re used extensively in blitzing and rush support, though I saw a few problems in tackling and in particular getting their feet right to bring down the ballcarrier on first contact. It appears that #6 S Tutt is taking over the STAR role, he was a backup last year and quite young, and while he didn’t grade out wonderfully on my tally sheet I’ve read some glowing camp reports.

The corners are more of a concern. The one man the secondary is losing is #12 CB Dean, and I thought he was the best of the DBs and the closest Auburn had to a lockdown corner. His departure means losing the tallest of the starters, and while I liked the speed of returning starter #13 CB J. Davis (who’ll be taking Dean’s position, it appears), he’s notably shorter and I think there could be some matchup issues. I also saw some problems in the coverage of #4 CB Igbinoghene, a converted WR who was making the expected number of mistakes. Overall, the Achilles’ heel of this defense was in explosive plays (top 20 in almost all defensive categories in S&P+, but #78 in IsoPPP+), and I thought that was mostly on the secondary giving up some big plays.