Auburn football: Projecting the 2021 starting lineup
What a whirlwind the first few weeks of January have been for Auburn since the Tigers wrapped up their season with a loss to Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl.
Bryan Harsin has been busy building a staff, hiring several assistants away from South Carolina including offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Bobo heads to the Plains with mixed reviews and takes over an offense that, outside of the receiver group, is built to compete in 2021. Bo Nix will need to quickly find reliable targets and improve upon an Auburn passing offense that ranked 10th in the SEC, but he has his entire starting offensive line returning from 2020. Tank Bigsby is also back to propel the ground game higher than 7th in rushing in the league.
There remain some questions on a talented defense that ranked 4th in the SEC. Derek Mason’s unit is losing Big Kat Bryant, Daquan Newkirk and Jamien Sherwood. But the linebackers should be as deep as they’ve been in recent memory, and Roger McCreary opting to return bodes well for the secondary. What scheme Mason elects to use, after running a 3-4 for his entire tenure at Stanford and 6 of his 7 seasons at Vanderbilt, remains a bit of a mystery.
Here’s how I have Auburn’s depth chart playing out for Week 1 of 2021:
- QB: Bo Nix
- RB: Tank Bigsby
- WR1: Elijah Canion
- WR2: Shedrick Jackson
- WR3: Kobe Hudson
- LT: Austin Troxell
- LG: Brandon Council
- C: Nick Brahms
- RG: Keiondre Jones
- RT: Brodarious Hamm
- TE: Brandon Frazier
As much as it may pain Auburn fans, Nix will be the Week 1 starter for his 3rd year. Harsin and Bobo will want to see what type of progress was made over the offseason, and freshman Dematrius Davis will need time to develop.
Bigsby will obviously move to starter after spending 2020 as a backup in name only. Auburn still has Shaun Shivers to spread the load, although the Tigers lost depth to the transfer portal in the form of D.J. Williams, Harold Joiner and Mark-Antony Richards.
It’s a complete overhaul at the wideout position after losing Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove. Canion played in only 2 games last season, but he had a big day against Northwestern and will likely be Auburn’s No. 1 target. Jackson will have to duke it out with Ze’Vian Capers for the slot, and both will likely see even playing time early on. At tight end, Auburn certainly took a big hit will All-Big 12 performer Grant Calcaterra changing his mind to transfer to SMU instead of Auburn. I like Frazier’s upside over John Samuel Shenker’s experience.
The entire starting offensive line returns, but that doesn’t mean it’s status quo. Harvard transfer Eric Wilson will offer a strong challenge for the starting center job. Jones played so well replacing an injured Council at right guard that the sophomore will likely retain that role, and Council will flip to the other side.
- DE: Colby Wooden
- DT: Dre Butler
- DT: Jay Hardy
- DE: Jaren Handy
- Buck LB: Derick Hall
- Mike LB: Owen Pappoe
- Will LB: Zakoby McClain
- Nickel: Christian Tutt
- CB: Roger McCreary
- CB: Jaylin Simpson
- S: Smoke Monday
- S: Chris Thompson Jr.
There are 12 players listed because Mason’s scheme is yet to be determined, but these are the names you’ll see when that plays out. Bryant following Kevin Steele to Tennessee allows for Wooden to maintain his role on the edge, with Handy on the other side after he finished the season well with 2 sacks in Auburn’s final 4 games.
Assuming Tyrone Truesdell is gone, Butler is a sure thing at one tackle spot, while Hardy will be in a battle for the other. Auburn may move Zykeivous Walker to the interior, where he could compete for Hardy’s reps.
Hall finished the season strongly after a sluggish start, and Pappoe and McClain — the team’s leading tacklers — have their spots locked down. How Chandler Wooten factors into the rotation after opting out of 2020 is something to keep an eye on.
The rest of the secondary should come as no surprise, with the exception of strong safety. Sherwood leaving for the NFL puts a strain on that position, but Thompson played the most of any young defensive back.
Final thought …
The definition of success for Auburn in 2021 is tricky. Most new coaches are given a grace period of a year. But Auburn isn’t most places, and Harsin didn’t take over a program with the cupboards bare.
Alabama and Texas A&M should maintain their spots atop the SEC West, but LSU also stands to make significant strides. For Auburn, with a 3rd-year quarterback and one of the best linebacker groups in the league, anything worse than 4th in the division obviously won’t fly. Finishing with a better record than the other SEC teams with new coaches is also a must.