Better or worse? Previewing Auburn's offense in 2022
The Auburn offense gets a full reset in 2022, both with a new quarterback and the third offensive coordinator in 14 months.
As Bryan Harsin said at the start of spring practice, stability is the priority.
“If we’re all going in that same direction, people are going to want to be a part of that,” he said. “If we’re not going in the same direction, people aren’t going to want to be a part of it.”
Eric Kiesau will try to provide some stability to an offense that has seen regular upheaval since Harsin took over the program. Coming out of the spring game, Auburn’s offense showed some elements not present in 2021, such as designed rollouts.
The Harsin era is still very much in the air, though the spring gave off plenty of vibes that Harsin was unaffected by the turmoil of the late winter, but one of the main ways to calm fears would be to get the offense on track. The Bo Nix-Mike Bobo combination simply didn’t work over multi-game stretches. The Tigers were 10th in the SEC in total offense last season at 401 yards per game. However, almost every 2-game stretch saw a 100-yard gap, or more, in yards.
So what can be expected from the Tigers on that side of the ball in 2022?
Passing game: Better
In the mix at quarterback are former Texas A&M starter Zach Calzada and Oregon transfer Robby Ashford to join Finley, redshirt freshman Dematrius Davis and signee Holden Geriner in the competition. While the expectations may be that Calzada is the odds-on favorite to win the job, Finley impressed in the spring game by simply offering more touch on the ball on shorter throws. Consistency is key here, and both offer a wrinkle and have experience to surpass what Nix did overall. Not necessarily in a single game or 2, but over the scope of the season.
For the receivers, Miami transfer Dazalin Worsham is a candidate to contribute alongside his high school teammate, Ja’Varrius Johnson. Shedrick Jackson also is back. The turning point for the Tigers would be if players like Malcolm Johnson Jr., Ze’Vian Capers, Landen King and Tar’Varish Dawson step into more prominent roles.
Dawson is one to watch as Kiesau has already lauded him and shared that Dawson made the biggest jump among all the receivers since his arrival. While he’s raw, that speaks to the potential Dawson shows.
Also earlier this offseason, Kiesau explained some alignment expectations, including 2- and 3-receivers sets, because of depth. Landen King is ultimately still a tight end, he will also be used at wide receiver because he’s so versatile.
Running game: Better
Auburn did not have a balanced attack last season, as the Tigers had considerably more passing yards (3,121) versus rushing yards (2,096). That is tough to read when Tank Bigsby is in the backfield. He collected 1,099 yards but had 7 games of less than 70 yards. He’s one of the best returning running backs in the country, and after a freshman campaign where he had 4 100-yard games against SEC opponents, Bigsby is due for a national breakout season.
He averaged 4.9 yards per rush and caught 21 passes for 184 yards. He rushed for 403 yards and 4 scores through Auburn’s first 4 games, before the SEC gauntlet began. As a freshman in 2020, Bigsby tallied 834 yards on the ground with 4 100-yard games against league competition. A key difference in Bigsby will be that he will be a bigger part of the passing game, which Auburn first revealed in the spring game. When healthy, Bigsby is elusive and has the ability to run through initial contact.
A new face to keep an eye on is 4-star 2022 running back signee Damari Alston, who has already impressed Auburn legend Cadillac Williams. Alston joins a backfield behind Bigsby that includes Jarquez Hunter, who is returning from a leg procedure, former walk-on Sean Jackson and backup Jordon Ingram. It speaks volumes that Alston is even being discussed by the coaching staff as having a complimentary role.
Kicking game: Worse
Anders Carlson, who tore his ACL during an onside kick attempt in the loss to Mississippi State last year, has an optimistic chance to return by the start of the season, according to Harsin. Before the season-ending injury, Carlson was 14-of-21 on the season, and since his absence, walk-on Ben Patton handled place-kicking duties in spring ball. However, Auburn also signed the No. 1 kicker in the class of 2022, Alex McPherson, who is also the brother of former Florida kicker Evan McPherson, who now kicks for the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the return game, it’s a positive that Nehemiah Pritchett, the top return man from 2021, returns this season after he delivered an average of 29.5 yards per return on 10 attempts. Alongside Pritchett, there’s Bigsby, Donovan Kaufman and Jay Fair. Then Hunter is also coming back from injury.
Simplicity is the name of the game here, but also experience, between the quarterbacks, no matter if Calzada or Finley starts. What’s more, Brandon Council’s decision to return for another year means there are 4 returning starters on the offensive line. Council started 7 games last season at left guard, and this will be his 7th season of college football. Council’s decision followed other returnees Nick Brahms, Austin Troxell and Alec Jackson.
Given the offseason tumult, including the coaching staff changes, what the Auburn offense needs is stability. After all, new coordinator Eric Kiesau’s path to the job included a stint as an offensive analyst, a sudden midseason promotion to wide receivers coach before he took over the play-calling duties, and quarterbacks coach. That path speaks to Kiesau’s belief in Harsin’s system, but also his willingness to sacrifice in order for a longer-term goal. Now Kiesau and Harsin must first find the starting quarterback and develop that player to deliver on why they were hired, which is to create the same type of offensive success they experienced together at Boise State.