Robby Ashford might have the most pressure on him of any spring game player, but what will that yield?
I get the sense that Hugh Freeze is frustrated, and I can’t say I blame him.
In theory, now is when he should be getting a full look at Robby Ashford to evaluate if he can be his first QB1 on The Plains. After all, Ashford held that title for the majority of a lost 2022 campaign, though the sample size came amidst a midseason coaching change and Auburn essentially shifted into a modern day service academy with its rushing volume (the Tigers averaged 46.5 rushing attempts per game under interim coach Cadillac Williams).
One would think that given the way the transfer portal window now works for potential post-spring additions, Ashford should have plenty riding on Saturday’s A-Day performance.
In reality, though, we should probably temper our expectations because of the limitations in play.
Hence, Freeze’s frustration.
The basic setup of a spring game, wherein a quarterback isn’t live, doesn’t really play to Ashford’s skill set (Freeze would get blasted if he made quarterbacks live and 1 of them got hurt). He doesn’t have to worry about sensing pressure from the blindside and if he takes off with his legs, the play essentially has a 3-second shelf life in a game of 2-hand touch. While Ashford impressed in that setting last year, how he reads defenses and operates in the intermediate passing game is the most important thing for Freeze’s evaluation.
Perhaps that explains why the first-year Auburn coach banged the drum for teams to be playing real exhibition games against opposing programs instead of hosting intrasquad scrimmages (via AL.com).
“I’m going to cry again for the solution,” Freeze said. “The solution is: Allow us to scrimmage somebody on A-Day. Another team. I think everybody would get out of it exactly what they want.”
Hugh Freeze on his spring game proposal @abc3340
“Let Alabama play Troy and we play UAB or vice versa” pic.twitter.com/tl7lx57qZ1
— Chris McCulley (@ChrisMcCulleyTV) April 3, 2023
(For what it’s worth, I don’t think Alabama wants 4 months worth of overreaction to a potential slow start against UAB. Alternatively, I don’t think Nick Saban wants to answer questions about why a starting offensive lineman suffered a significant knee injury in a spring exhibition game.)
What Freeze wants is to actually see if his quarterback can handle game situations, and not just benefit from the parameters in place. Or alternatively, he’d probably like to see his quarterback’s true mobility and not just what he does against 2-hand touch.
Freeze makes a fair point. It can feel like, as he said, “a wasted day” to host an intrasquad scrimmage that doesn’t help in the evaluation process as much as we might think it does, especially when you have 2 starting quarterbacks at opposite ends of the spectrum with their pocket presence.
TJ Finley, who opted to stay at Auburn instead of transferring, is battling Ashford and trying to improve his statuesque ways in the pocket. How can a coach really tell if Finley is developing in that area if his mental clock isn’t being sped up by the thought of taking a shot to the ribs?
Go figure that Ashford actually looked like the better player in last year’s spring game and it was Finley who earned QB1 honors to start the season. In other words, take Saturday for what it is.
Also remember that this might not be the final group of pass-catchers that Freeze’s QB1 will be working with. Reports out of camp have been, um, let’s say “underwhelming.”
. @AuburnFootball fans you might need some, um, patience with your WRs …
— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) March 27, 2023
That wasn’t necessarily a revelation. Last year, Auburn didn’t have a single pass-catcher hit 500 receiving yards, and the offense ranked No. 122 in FBS with 9 passing touchdowns. Leading receivers Ja’Varrius Johnson and Koy Moore are back, but neither truly established himself as a prolific SEC receiver. On top of that, it’s a new offense for them, too. Being on the same page is by no means a given, especially when they’re working with several quarterbacks getting first-team reps.
It’s not crazy to think that Auburn’s leading receiver in 2023 isn’t even on the roster yet. Nobody would be surprised if Freeze dipped into the portal to add some much-needed depth at the position. The addition of Cincinnati wideout Nick Mardner should help. The 6-6 wideout has 1,488 receiving yards at the FBS level, 913 of which came at Hawaii, where he worked with new Auburn receivers coach Marcus Davis. More recently, however, Mardner had 218 receiving yards at Cincinnati.
In other words, it’s perfectly fair to have limited expectations for Auburn receivers on Saturday.
That really feels like it’ll be the case for the Auburn passing game as a whole. That shouldn’t be an issue for a fan base that hasn’t seen a top-40 passing offense in the 21st century (the Tigers’ lone top-50 passing offense in the 21st century came in 2004).
But Freeze doesn’t care about that. He cares about establishing some offensive roots at his new job. It’s hard to establish much of an identity if the quarterback position is in flux heading into the regular season. More pressing is if the quarterback situation is in flux heading into the spring transfer portal window.
Grayson McCall and Spencer Sanders didn’t line up after there was reportedly mutual interest, but that’s not to say Freeze is committed to the idea of a post-spring addition. We don’t know what the market will look like. Yes, we’ve seen post-spring transfers like Joe Burrow, but given all the movement we saw in the post-regular season window, it’s hard to imagine the quarterback market will have more potential options than it had a few months ago.
Then again, all it takes is 1. Freeze is searching for his 1. That figures to be the case well after Saturday’s festivities conclude. Whether that includes some new blood remains to be seen.
For now, though, all Ashford can do is continue to try and win over his frustrated new coach.