5 offseason priorities for Auburn in 2021
Goodbye Gus Malzahn, and hello Bryan Harsin.
With Auburn’s Citrus Bowl loss to Northwestern in the books, the new head coach can commence his re-brand (not rebuild) of the Tigers program. While Harsin may be behind in terms of incoming freshmen in 2021, the Tigers bring back plenty of talent for a better year than their 6-5 record would indicate.
A new coach’s first offseason is always hectic. But these are the 5 biggest priorities Harsin and Auburn must address this offseason if the Tigers are to quickly return to SEC West contention:
1. Hire someone who can develop a QB
Year 1 of the Chad Morris experiment was a bust, and it came as no surprise that Harsin would clean house at Auburn and bring in his own staff. We’ve already seen him poach a few SEC coaches, including Mike Bobo from South Carolina. Harsin himself is a former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with a history of developing QBs, something he’ll hope to replicate at Auburn if he intends to keep Bo Nix as the starter.
While Bobo rose to prominence at Georgia for grooming quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray, recent years at Colorado State and South Carolina have failed to copy that same magic at the position. Would Harsin be interested in doing something akin to LSU’s recent hires of Jake Peetz and DJ Mangas and bring in another coordinator to assist Bobo and focus on the passing game? He should.
A logical hire would be to bring his OC from Boise State, Eric Kiesau. But if he wanted something different, I would target Arizona State OC Zak Hill or Bush Hamdan from Missouri.
Hill served as Harsin’s OC and QB coach at Boise State from 2016-19 before heading to Tempe this past season. The Sun Devils increased their average yards per game by more than 86 yards this year and slightly increased their scoring average without playing any cupcake nonconference teams.
Hamdan is the current QB and receivers coach at Mizzou, and he was Harsin’s co-OC at Arkansas State when he took over for Malzahn there in 2013. Connor Bazelak was one of the better quarterback surprises of the year in the SEC. Could Hamdan develop Nix in the same way?
2. Upgrade the trenches
Even with the expected departure of Anthony Schwartz, Auburn brings back a fair amount of talent at the skill positions. The effectiveness of a player like Tank Bigsby, however, is greatly diminished when he’s trying to operate behind a below-average offensive line.
All 8 of the players who started on Auburn’s offensive line are set to return, but how much will they develop from this lackluster season? Not that stars are everything, but only 3 of the 8 were 4-star recruits. Brodarious Hamm was a 3-star, and the 4 remaining players are converted defenders or transfers.
With only 1 incoming freshman and 1 transfer, Auburn needs to use the transfer portal to gain another lineman. UAB’s Jayme Simmons is a potential target who is a local product and would still have 4 years of eligibility remaining. Arkansas’ Chibueze Nwanna is another option. He was signed by Morris out of Lackawanna Community College and was the No. 5 JUCO offensive lineman.
Auburn has more heralded talents on the defensive line, but they failed to break through in the most important games of the season. Defensive linemen contributed 17 of the Tigers’ 26 sacks this season, but only 2 were made in Auburn’s 4 games against ranked opponents. Auburn already has 3 incoming freshmen on the defensive line, but there may be little returning talent on the line from this past season.
3. Re-recruit the existing roster
What the transfer portal gives, it also takes away.
Auburn is no exception to the latter, as most recently All-SEC defensive end Big Kat Bryant and Daquan Newkirk became the latest (former) Auburn players to (tentatively) abandon ship. It’s not a huge surprise given that the defensive line coach is one of the few assistant positions Harsin has yet to hire. Returning starter Tyrone Truesdell is yet to announce his decision about 2021. There’s no guarantee that once a player enters the portal that he must transfer, so maybe there’s some additional persuasion to be done.
Away from the defensive line, Auburn’s running back room recently took a hit with D.J. Williams announcing his transfer to Florida State, and safety Jordyn Peters announced his NFL intentions.
It hasn’t been all bad news, however, in the past week as Roger McCreary’s return will be hugely beneficial for Derek Mason’s defense. With Peters’ and Christian Tutt’s departures, Jamien Sherwood’s decision looms large for the future of the secondary.
4. Connect with the returning talent
Speaking during the television broadcast of the Citrus Bowl, Harsin said that one of his biggest January missions is to “connect with our current players.” Harsin had only limited communication with the team leading up to the bowl. But now that the season is officially over, it’s time for him to evaluate and connect with the talent that he does have.
The good news of the loss to Northwestern was that 13 freshmen played, with 2 making starts, and that fails to include freshman running back Bigsby, who missed the game with an injury. Wide receiver Elijah Canion was the biggest surprise on offense, making the first 3 catches of his career, including a 57-yard touchdown.
Defensively, freshmen Ladarius Tennison recorded 4 tackles and Zykeivous Walker 3.
All this is to say that 2021 is not some sort of total rebuild for Harsin and Auburn. Auburn is tied at No. 9 nationally in 247Sports’ blue-chip ratio (59 percent), trailing Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida in the SEC. The Tigers certainly have room to improve off a 6-5 season, but it’s not as bad as some Auburn fans would lead you to believe.
5. Recruit, recruit, recruit
Big Kat Bryant said it best after the Citrus Bowl:
“I ain’t gonna lie. The only thing you’ve got to do around here is recruit,” Bryant said when asked about Harsin.
Auburn currently sits 48th in the nation for the Class of 2021 and 12th in the SEC, above only Vanderbilt and South Carolina. In terms of average player rating, Auburn fares a little better and ranks 7th in the league. But there’s no excuse for the Tigers being that low, although firing a head coach days before National Signing Day is a pretty valid reason.
Since Harsin became the head coach at Boise State in 2014, the Broncos have had the No. 1 recruiting class in the Mountain West every season except 2021, in which the Broncos are currently 2nd. If he could recruit 4-star prospects to play football on blue turf in the state of Idaho, one can imagine that success will be replicable in the state of Alabama for an SEC program.