Auburn football: 4 most critical position battles for 2020
Even though the end of the 2019 season wasn’t what anyone in Auburn Nation wanted, the Tigers head into the offseason preparing for 2020 with some serious momentum.
An Iron Bowl victory against Alabama should have been the perfect leaping-off point, of course, but laying an egg against Minnesota in the Outback Bowl didn’t do Auburn any favors.
But Gus Malzahn and his coaching staff reeled in 24 signees during the Early Signing Period, eventually ranking No. 8 in the 247sports.com national recruiting rankings. And with hotshot quarterback Bo Nix ready to start just his sophomore season, Auburn is primed for excellent things in 2020.
That said, there is always competition in the 15 spring practices that could also spill over into fall preseason workouts. Here are 4 positions to keep an eye on …
JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow vs. D.J. Williams
What to expect: Whitlow is equal parts infuriating and electrifying in the backfield, as he went for 763 rushing yards on 156 attempts and 10 touchdowns. D.J. Williams (84 carries, 400 yards, 2 TDs) showed some promise in 2019, most notably against LSU when he rushed for 130 yards on 13 carries, but it was Whitlow who stepped up the most when Auburn needed a playmaker. That said, fumbles and injuries and inconsistency make it hard to love Whitlow too much.
Figure junior Shaun Shivers and Harold Joiner will also be in the mix here somewhere, and freshmen Mark Antony-Richards and Tank Bigsby will want the rock at some point. This position has transfer portal written all over before it is said and done.
Projected winner: Whitlow, but he needs to reduce the mistakes.
Jalil Irvin vs. Keiondre Jones
What to expect: Welcome to the weak link of Auburn’s offensive line the past 2 seasons. Good thing the Tigers have 2 quality weapons to replace Mike Horton, who along with center Kaleb Kim struggled to get any run push at all.
Jalil Irvin played well against Samford last season when Horton was held out for injury. And Keiondre Jones — all 6-3 and 340 pounds of him — generated tons of buzz in preseason practice before a concussion sidelined him. Bonus: Both Irvin and Jones could flip to left guard or center if needed.
Also, keep an eye firmly peeled on mammoth freshman Tate Johnson, who will likely dominate this space in the 2021 version of this article.
Projected winner: Irvin.
Coynis Miller Jr. vs. Daquan Newkirk
What to expect: With Derrick Brown headed to the NFL after an illustrious Auburn career that ended with him becoming the 9th unanimous All-American in program history and the first in nearly 30 years, it is time to replace him on the defensive line.
Good thing Auburn is stocked with talent here, as junior Coynis Miller Jr. and senior Daquan Newkirk will battle it out all spring and fall for the spot. Sure, either one will be a drop-off from a player of Brown’s level, but both possess the athletic ability to be playmakers — even though they recorded only 9 tackles in 22 game appearances between them.
For Auburn’s defense to be as good in 2020 as it was in 2019, 1 of these 2 need to emerge as an actual SEC starting DE.
Projected winner: Magic 8-Ball says … Newkirk.
Owen Pappoe vs. Zakoby McClain vs. Wesley Steiner
What to expect: This should be a doozy.
Sophomore Owen Pappoe is the incumbent here, as he earned the starting spot beside K.J. Britt as a true freshman. But Pappoe was less than ideal when facing the run (see Golden Gophers, Minnesota), and was spelled often by junior Zakoby McClain — who was much more of a natural run-stopper.
This is a spot that could see a 2020 signee find the field early, as Wesley Steiner is an elite athlete with the intelligence to ingest the various Tigers defensive concepts. Even if Steiner doesn’t make the cut at WLB immediately, he will be a special teams force.
Projected winner: Pappoe, but he will be on a short leash.