AUBURN — On a season-opening depth chart in which there were very few surprises, it makes sense that the most unexpected player to make the first-team list is part of the position group with Auburn’s biggest question mark.
And it makes sense that the “surprise” is a familiar name for Auburn fans.
Senior Shedrick Jackson, who has 10 career catches for 130 yards, is a starting receiver. He’s joined by Georgia transfer Demetris Robertson and sophomore Ja’Varrius Johnson, both of whom were projected to be atop of the depth chart and both of whom will be returning kicks.
The greatest unknown entering 2021 is who will be Bo Nix’s primary target. Auburn’s three leading receivers from last season left for the NFL, bringing opportunities for a new generation of pass-catchers. The good news about playing Akron and Alabama State to start the year is that Auburn should be able to experiment with personnel. Expect a revolving door Saturday.
“We’re going to have to move guys around,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. “It’s not just like one guy’s going to play one position, and that’s not how we operate our offense anyhow. You should be multiple. You should be the type of player at the wide receiver position that we can move and utilize in different spots.”
Harsin has shown a penchant for preferring guys with experience. It was evident in the depth chart release, which included just one freshman in the two-deep. It was also evident in his choice of Jackson, a three-year role player who started five games in 2019 but lost the job with limited production.
Jackson was injured when Harsin was hired and first arrived at Auburn. The receiver was out for most of spring. Then complications with classes kept him unavailable. But once he got back into the swing of things, Harsin was instantly impressed.
“The guy’s very sharp, very focused, very diligent about how he goes about his process day in and day out,” Harsin said. “And so it was just a matter of time before we got him out there. He was going to emerge as one of our better guys and more consistent players. We’ve seen that. Fully expect him to go out there this week and practice that way, and then perform that way because he’s been very consistent from that standpoint.”
The most compelling option among the three starters on paper is still Robertson. He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and started his college career with a breakout freshman season at Cal. But after he transferred to Georgia, he didn’t put up the same numbers.
Whether he can return to form as an elite leading receiver remains to be seen, but his 99 career receptions are still valuable considering the rest of the team’s returning receivers have a combined 23 career catches.
“He’s done a heck of a job at just catching on to what we’re doing. He’s very bright,” Harsin said. “His study habits, not just here in the building but away from here in his dorm room — whatever he’s got to do to get himself ready to go each and every day. I think he grasps things pretty well and has done a good job of putting himself in a position where he can move around. We can use him in different positions. That was one of the concerns always with a new player: Is he going to just have to learn one position and really lock into that, or is he going to understand the system a little bit better so we can do more things with him? I think he’s done that.”
If Robertson looks best on paper, Johnson is easily the most compelling according to the eye test. The third-year sophomore has not caught a pass yet in a game, but he was Nix’s most frequent target at Saturday’s practice, and he has been a first-team frontrunner throughout the preseason.
In one of the more encouraging moments for Auburn’s offense Saturday, Johnson found a hole between the defensive backs for a crossing route catch from Nix on a simulated third-and-7. The junior quarterback’s eyes followed Johnson frequently.
“I think that’s been the most consistent player in the wide receiver room,” Harsin said. “I’ve seen him make some really good catches in practice. He’s working on special teams and doing some things in those areas, but I like the consistency. I like his attitude. ... When he makes a mistake, it matters. And he’s working on it to correct it, and he usually does. He doesn’t usually make the same mistake twice.”
Imagining Johnson as a possible leading target is a gamble. But in terms of years in college football, he’s still the most experienced receiver in the room behind Robertson and Jackson.
Which brings back the main takeaway from Harsin’s first preseason at Auburn: He values experience above anything else. In the big picture, that can be a good or a bad thing in terms of recruiting. Newcomers have a great chance to get game reps eventually, just not immediately.
But his depth chart decisions Monday weren’t focused on eventually; there’s an immediate obstacle here, and that’s figuring out how to make the most of the Akron game. That means more than winning. It means discovering who the most effective in-game options will be for Nix as the schedule grows harsher.