Better or worse? Previewing Auburn's offense in 2019
Editor’s note: After completing the SEC East, this is the third in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Coming Thursday: LSU.
Spring football is in the rear view mirror, but it left us with a sample size of what we might expect for the 2019 season.
The Auburn Tigers’ offense certainly has some holes to fill, beginning at quarterback. There will be a new face at the most critical position on the field and that usually causes great anxiety where expectations are concerned. Gone is Jarrett Stidham, who in 2 seasons threw for nearly 6,000 yards.
But improving Auburn’s offense might not be as difficult a task as perceived at first glance. The Tigers ranked 8th in the SEC in scoring last season, averaging 30.9 points per game. The Tigers were 9th in passing offense (222.5 yards per game) and 10th in rushing offense (167.46 yards per game), finishing 11th in total offense (389.9 yards per game).
Here’s a closer look at Auburn’s offense and how it compares to last year’s.
Passing offense: Worse
There’s really no comparison between a 2-year starter and someone who potentially has never taken a snap at the college level. But there is good news: The potential is there and the athletic ability is present — if spring football is any indication.
The battle to replace Stidham has been whittled to two, according to head coach Gus Malzahn. Redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and incoming freshman Bo Nix separated themselves from a larger pack over the spring.
“One of those two guys will be our starting quarterback for our first game,” Malzahn said during last month’s barnstorming tour stop in Dothan. “Feel like both of those guys have a chance to really zero in. The more reps they get, obviously the better they’re going to be, but they showed that they can lead our offense, and both of them have a chance to be a very successful quarterback here at Auburn.”
Gatewood completed 8-of-12 passes for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns in the A-Day game while Nix went 11-for-17 for 155 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Between them, they have exactly one game of experience. Gatewood played in last year’s Music City Bowl. The 6-5, 233-pounder attempted 1 pass. He also rushed 3 times for 28 yards in Auburn’s 63-14 rout of Purdue.
A thumb injury last season hampered his development, but now healthy again, Gatewood is hoping to take the reins.
However, Nix (6-1, 207) is an extremely talented athlete as well. The 5-star recruit was rated by 247sports.com as the nation’s top dual-threat QB in the Class of 2019.
To complicate matters, Auburn’s top two receivers from last season, senior Ryan Davis, and junior Darius Slayton, have moved on. The next three leading receivers from last season were all freshmen. Seth Williams (26-534, 5 TDs), Anthony Schwartz (22-357, 2 TDs) and Boobie Whitlow out of the backfield (15-173, 2 TDs) will have to step up if the passing game is to be effective in 2019.
Rushing offense: Better
To say that Auburn was young at the running back position last season is an understatement. Of Auburn’s top 4 rushers last season, 3 were freshmen — including leading rusher Whitlow. In 13 games last season, Whitlow ran for 787 yards and 6 touchdowns.
That wasn’t up to par with what Auburn has done in the past — hence, its 9-year streak of producing a 1,000-yard rusher ended. A year older, Whitlow should lead a group of capable running backs into a very prosperous 2019 season, especially when you consider that accumulatively those 4 ran for 1,827 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Junior Kam Martin, along with freshmen Shaun Shivers and speedy wide receiver Schwartz, who added to the run game last season with 27 carries for 211 yards, proved their abilities.
Redshirt freshman Harold Joiner and freshman early signee D.J. Williams also looked good in the A-Day game. Williams carried 11 times for 57 yards while Joiner accounted for another 49 yards, including 28 on 3 pass receptions.
Another positive in the run game is the year of experience that the offensive line garnered. It will be an all-senior group of veterans that include Prince Tega Wanogho, Marquel Harrell, Kaleb Kim, Mike Horton and Jack Driscoll, who look to open running space for an emerging group of running backs.
Special teams: Better
Again, youth was on display, where freshman Anders Carlson struggled. Auburn was last in the SEC last season in field goal kicking, making a conference-low 57.7 percent of its attempts (15-of-26; Carlson was 15-of-25). However, in his only A-Day attempt, Carlson was good on a 46-yard try. In addition he was perfect in booting all 5 PAT kicks.
The Tigers were just OK in kickoff returns last season, finishing 6th in the SEC with a 21.52 return average. Sophomore Noah Igbinoghene carried the bulk of the load, returning 11 kicks for an average of 28.27 yards per return, including 1 touchdown. Whitlow also contributed, averaging 26.67 yards on 3 returns.
Not to sound like a broken record, but both look to improve with a year of experience.
Yes, the passing game must carry its share of the weight, but in all other phases, the Tigers should be improved on offense.
A more cohesive line should help the running and passing game.
If Gatewood or Nix, coupled with a corps of young and improving receivers, can provide even a decent passing attack, Auburn should be much improved offensively because expectations are once again high on what appears to be a solid running attack and that, prior to Stidham’s arrival, has traditionally been the Tigers’ bread and butter.