Auburn's 5 biggest roster decisions heading into offseason
Even though Auburn finished second in the SEC West and reached the Sugar Bowl, the Tigers finished only 8-5 – a one-game improvement over last season. What’s worse is that AU ended the 2016 season by losing three of their last four games, so there is definitely room for improvement.
Gus Malzahn obviously wants to make more than a one-game jump from year to year, and to give his team the best chance to do that, he needs to make some big decisions about his roster. Here are five major questions Malzahn faces as Auburn heads into the offseason.
1. Who starts at quarterback?
For most of 2016, Sean White was the SEC’s most accurate and most efficient passer, but that was misleading because Auburn ran the ball 70 percent of the time. White being knocked out of Auburn’s 35-19 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl due to a broken right forearm was a microcosm of his career at Auburn.
To this point, White has made more news for his injuries than for what he has done on the field. That’s not entirely his fault, but that’s probably a major reason why Auburn recruited and brought in former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham.
How well Stidham can handle SEC defenses remains to be seen. In his one season in the Big Ten, Stidham completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Jeremy Johnson has played his final game on the Plains, and John Franklin III has shown that he’s a better runner than passer. Auburn’s strength is running; the Tigers need someone who can lift their passing game.
Stidham might be that someone. His arrival should heat things up when spring practice kicks off.
2. Who will be Auburn’s top pass rusher?
Playing in every game in a season for the first time since 2013, Carl Lawson led the Tigers in tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (9) and added a career-high 30 stops. But he’s headed to the NFL, so someone else will have to step up.
Marlon Davidson, who had a solid freshman season with 38 tackles – 6.0 for a loss – 6 QB hurries and 2.5 sacks could step right into the top pass-rushing role. Sophomore Jeffery Holland, who had seven QB hurries and 2 sacks, is also a candidate.
Two other possibilities are question marks. Paul James III, who was limited to just three games due to a knee injury, is one of them, and Bryon Cowart, who missed the final three games of the season because of an appendectomy, is another.
Nick Coe, who redshirted during his freshman season, could also be the answer.
Auburn’s defense and running game were the highlights of the season. Finding a suitable replacement for Lawson is a major goal for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
3. Who can step in at nickel corner?
Like Johnson and Lawson, Johnathan Ford has played his final game for Auburn. Not only did Ford – who suffered an ankle injury in the Iron Bowl that kept him out against Oklahoma — lead the Tigers in tackles over two of the last three seasons, he proved to be a valuable defender against the run.
Daniel Thomas, who had both of his interceptions against Alabama, appears to be a likely replacement. Safety Tray Matthews, who announced earlier this month that he will be returning to Auburn, might also be in the mix.
Nick Ruffin, who played behind Matthews and Stephen Roberts in 2016, could also be a factor. The rising senior finished with 32 tackles and three pass break-ups in 11 games.
4. Who could potentially fill a major void at defensive tackle?
Not only is Auburn losing Lawson from the outside of its defensive line, top interior defender Montravius Adams is also headed for the NFL. Adams made 44 tackles – including 8.5 for loss – and added 4.5 sacks in 2016, so his departure will definitely be felt.
Two-year starter Dontavius Russell might have the inside track to spell Adams. But fellow returnees Derrick Brown and Andrew Williams shouldn’t be counted out either.
5. Who might catch on as the top receiver?
Tony Stevens, who led Auburn in catches (31), receiving yards (487) and TD receptions (3), is a senior, as is Marcus Davis (17, 160). That means there are plenty of Tigers who could contend for the Tigers’ top receiving spot.
In terms of production, Auburn’s next three wideouts were all freshmen – Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis and Eli Stove. Meanwhile, Ryan Davis, Stanton Truitt and Will Hastings all contributed during their sophomore seasons, as did freshman Nate-Craig Myers.
This decision obviously depends upon whom Malzahn chooses to be his starting signal-caller. If it’s Stidham, he more than likely will look to connect with a burner who stretches the field.