Better or worse? Previewing Auburn's offense in 2020 and the impact Chad Morris will make
Editor’s note: This is the 3rd in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Next: LSU.
Auburn football’s 2019 season was filled with what-ifs.
The Tigers beat in-state rival Alabama and Pac-12 champion Oregon but still finished an underwhelming 9-4. The Tigers reached No. 7 in the AP poll but eventually fell to No. 14 in large part due to an offense that struggled to deliver consistently against top teams.
An offense that was led by an inexperienced signal-caller.
Gus Malzahn chose Bo Nix as his starter, and his decision drew some criticism late in the year.
Still, there was a lot to like … and opportunities to grow. Nix was voted the SEC Freshman of the Year. He completed 58% of his passes for 2,542 yards and 16 scores (all Auburn freshman records) and rushed for 313 yards and 7 touchdowns. On the other hand, he looked overwhelmed in some big moments – particularly in the losses to Florida and LSU.
The raw numbers looked good. Auburn finished tied for 3rd in scoring at 33.2 points per game, but the reality is the Tigers topped 30 just 1 time in 7 games against ranked opponents.
Malzahn decided to make some changes to his offense. Malzahn hired Chad Morris to run the offense and Jack Bicknell Jr. to replace J.B Grimes as Auburn’s offensive line coach.
What should we expect in 2020 from the Auburn offense? How much will Morris affect the Tigers in 2020?
Let’s play better or worse:
Key Losses: LT Prince Tega Wanogho, LG Marquel Harrell, RG Mike Horton, RT Jack Driscoll and RB JaTarvious Whitlow
Key Returnees: QB Bo Nix, C Nick Brahms, WR Seth Williams, WR Anthony Schwartz
Potential breakout players: RB DJ Williams, RB Tank Bigsby, TE John Samuel Shenker
Auburn is set to return several key playmakers, including Nix. However, the Tigers have the tough task of rebuilding an offensive line that lost 4 of its 5 starters.
The taller task? Building an offensive line unit without the benefit of spring ball.
Passing Offense: Better
The Auburn offensive line took a lot of hits in 2019, but the group did well in pass protection, allowing just 48 quarterback pressures and 18 sacks, the fewest since 2014. As I mentioned above, the Tigers will be forced to replace several O-line starters, but the good news is that Nix is expected to be more comfortable under center in his second season as the starter.
One reason for optimism is Morris, the new offensive coordinator. Morris is known for his quarterbacks putting up big numbers in the air by running the RPO system and using tempo to put pressure on defenses. No, it didn’t work at Arkansas, but Morris was instrumental in helping Clemson lay the framework for its ACC takeover. Not to mention that Morris has a stellar reputation in developing quarterbacks (see: Tahj Boyd, Deshaun Watson as examples).
Auburn’s passing offense already has the talent for Morris to plan around. Nix not only has several talented receivers in Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove, the sophomore also has John Samuel Shenker, Jay Jay Wilson and Spencer Nigh to target.
The trio combined for just 19 catches in 2019, but expect Morris to scheme more plays to Auburn’s tight ends. In 2012, Morris’ tight ends at Clemson combined for 54 catches and 11 TDs. In 2013, that group had 43 catches and 7 TDs.
This is what makes the passing offense different in 2020.
Auburn already had the talent, however with Morris, they will have an upgrade in schemes and concepts.
Can you imagine one of the fastest player in the SEC, Schwartz, in Morris’ offense?
Rushing Offense: Even
I was almost tempted to say “better” rather than even, however, there are too many unknowns going into fall.
It is no secret that the offensive line struggled in run-blocking last year. The side managed just under 200 yards per game — 130.7 yards per game and under 4 yards per carry against ranked teams – not the best combination if you want to compete for a Playoff spot. Especially with a freshman QB.
This new line is potentially a more physical group in the trenches. They’ll need to be, especially now that Whitlow no longer is a Tiger. He led Auburn in rushing the previous 2 seasons.
Regardless, Auburn’s running back room has talent. Talent that could very well provide the speed necessary to earn some big yardage plays that was lacking last season – the offense only managed 16 plays of more than 20 yards on the ground. And the Tigers failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the 2nd consecutive season.
In addition to returners, DJ Williams, Shaun Rivers and Mark-Antony Richards, the Tigers will also have true freshman Tank Bigsby.
Although Williams is probably the favorite to win the starting role due to his experience, Bigsby seems like the running back that fits the offense best. Despite an injury his senior season at Callaway High, Bigsby rushed for 1,636 yards and 27 touchdowns, showing off great instincts, balance and an ability to break tackles. He could very well be the running back needed to create those big plays needed to succeed.
Malzahn is excited to see what wrinkles Morris will add.
“That’s a position that we’re very deep and we’re very young and talented,” Malzahn told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. “And so we feel very good about the guys that we have. And to fit in with what coach (Chad) Morris wants to do, you know, the thing that you’ll see him doing a little bit more than what we’ve done is get our backs out of the backfield, you know, matching them up on linebackers and all that and in the pass-catching and everything that goes with that. So that will be an emphasis of his …, also, but that is a position that we have a lot of depth. We have a lot of very talented young men, too.”
Special Teams: Even
Auburn will return Anders Carlson, who is entering his 3rd season as Auburn’s kicker. He ranked 11th in the SEC, connecting on 72% of his kicks.
Five kickers. 78 games. 303 extra points. One record.
“You have to be detailed in everything you do. You have to understand it doesn’t matter what kick it is, it’s important to the team.” – @_anderscarlson_
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) April 6, 2020
Christian Tutt, who averaged 13.6 yards per punt return is back, however, kick returner Noah Igbinoghene is gone. Shivers could very well step into the kick returner role due to his speed.
With Malzhan handing the keys to the offense to Morris, it’s understandable why many are excited about the Auburn offense this season.
The Tigers have weapons … and Nix has coveted experience.
There are still questions surrounding the line, especially with no spring practice for Bicknell to build the unit, but, Nix should have plenty of targets in the air to help alleviate the pressure.