5 things I want to see in Auburn's spring game
Consider this a warning. What I’m about to say is very offensive.
I should explain what I mean by that.
The majority of the questions that I have about Gus Malzahn and Auburn in 2019 have to do with the offensive side of the ball.
OK, now that we can all move on from my horrible attempt at a pun, let’s look at the 5 things I want to see during A-Day this Saturday at 3 p.m. ET:
1. The Joey Gatewood improvement
Basically ever since Gatewood struggled in last year’s spring game, I feel like his improvement is all I’ve been hearing about. His improvement has been a popular topic of conversation on The Plains because he was likened to Cam Newton before he took a snap.
I actually wrote after last year’s spring game that until Gatewood can prove that he can even look like an average college passer, we should hold off on comparing him to the best 1-year wonder in college football history. That’s really what I want to see from Gatewood.
It won’t matter to me if he shows some impressive scrambling ability when the play breaks down. He already showed he could do that last year. But I’m interested to see if all this praise he’s been getting internally is going to show up when even more eyes are on him.
Can he complete intermediate throws? Will he hang in the pocket when his instincts tell him to bail and run when his first read isn’t open?
These are important questions for Gatewood to answer in Year 2 of Malzahn’s system, especially with all eyes on the highly-anticipated arrival of Bo Nix.
2. QB room separation
Speaking of Gatewood, it would be nice if we got to see someone really step up and take control of this starting job. Malzahn seemed to suggest that there was some quarterback separation after he made the atypical move to have his quarterbacks go live during a scrimmage last week.
But you can bet Malzahn would like it if 1 or 2 guys looked like clear-cut starters. The benefit of that is that Malzahn can then adjust his schedule accordingly. The front-runners need reps with the first-teamers, and that’s limited when 4 guys are sharing reps like they have been during the spring.
It’s important to remember that while Malik Willis is considered the veteran, he, Nix, Gatewood and Cord Sandberg have all yet to start a college game.
In other words, this is a huge, huge showcase opportunity for all of them to make as lasting an impression as possible before the opener.
3. The downfield passing game
Remember how Jarrett Stidham didn’t get opportunities to make throws downfield? Or how when he finally did, this happened?
74-yd TD pass from Stidham to Slayton! AU 28 Purdue 7 1st qtr pic.twitter.com/49EgnCZxRt
— Power of Dixieland (@PwrofDixieland) December 28, 2018
I’m not saying we’re going to see throws like this in Auburn’s spring game, especially now that Stidham and Darius Slayton are off to the NFL, but there at least needs to be a few plays that stretch the defense.
Why? Well besides the fact that Malzahn probably doesn’t want to make his own fan base groan after an afternoon of nothing but jet sweeps and double reverses, it also wouldn’t hurt to see just who can become that guy with Slayton and Ryan Davis gone.
We know Anthony Schwartz has speed, Seth Williams flashed some big-play potential last year and Marquis McClain is the guy Malzahn singled out for showing some significant improvement. Matthew Hill also could steal the show Saturday to give the Auburn offense some much-needed playmaking ability.
Whoever it is, Malzahn would like to see a different kind of separation when it comes to his receivers.
4. The return of the Auburn running game
Not having Kerryon Johnson hurt Auburn last year, but so did the inexperience on the offensive line. Even before the season started, it seemed like the Tigers’ streak of 1,000-yard rushers faced an inevitable end in 2019, and ultimately, that’s what happened. Boobie Whitlow can start a new streak this year with Malzahn back in his play-calling role, but a lot of that will depend on improvement up front.
The good news is that even with the loss of former 5-star recruit Calvin Ashley to FAU, Auburn returns starters at all 5 offensive line positions. There are no excuses if Whitlow and Kam Martin don’t have holes to run through.
Auburn’s strength is on the defensive line, so if A-Day looks like it’s the offensive line that’s winning the battle up front, that bodes well for what the Tigers are trying to do in 2019.
5. The next Deshaun Davis
Whenever someone as valuable as Davis leaves, the cliché phrase is “we all have to step up because you don’t just replace someone like that.” That won’t be the case in Kevin Steele’s defense. Auburn is hoping that K.J. Britt is going to be Davis-like with his ability to make tackles in space from sideline to sideline.
“K.J.’s a dog, man,” defensive end Big Kat Bryant said via theplainsman.com. “That’s always been K.J. K.J. is great. … Like another version of Deshaun. He’s another leader, he’s behind me so I’m always hearing him, so I believe he’s another Deshaun.”
Britt backed up Davis at middle linebacker the past 2 years, and has been getting plenty of praise the past few months. The good news is that Britt played in all 27 games of his college career, and he’ll have the most experience among a new group of starting linebackers.
Auburn fans wouldn’t mind seeing some offensive fireworks Saturday, but it would also put their minds at ease to see Britt looking like the second coming of Davis.