Bryan Harsin doesn’t know if he has ever been happy after a spring game. That’s hard as a head coach. If the offense plays well, that means the defense didn’t. If the defensive dominates, that means the offense struggled.
And neither outcome Saturday would be reason for concern. At the end of the day, A-Day (1 p.m. CT, SEC Network+) is just one of 15 spring practices. Auburn football is still early in the process of preparing for Harsin’s first season at the helm. The Sept. 4 opener against Akron is still more than four months away.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few things we can learn from our first full view of the Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
1. How many strides Bo Nix has taken and what the team’s other quarterbacks are capable of
There’s no doubt all eyes will be on Auburn’s much-talked-about third-year quarterback. And the numbers won’t matter near as much as how he looks — his footwork, his accuracy, how often he leaves the pocket and what kind of decisions he makes. Harsin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo have solid reputations of developing quarterbacks. Saturday isn’t a final exam, but it will be a good gauge of how far Nix has come in his first few months working with them.
It also marks the first chance to see the team’s other quarterbacks get significant playing time. Grant Loy attempted only two passes as the backup last season, and Chayil Garnett and Dematrius Davis are freshmen. Davis may be the future of the position, so it will be fun to get a taste of the dual-threat athleticism he could one day bring to that role.
2. Who’s catching passes and what kind of routes they’re running
This goes for more than just the team’s wide receivers, though that is a position of great intrigue given its inexperience and the injuries it has dealt with this spring. Third-year tight end Luke Deal said he’s worked on his ball skills and route running more than ever this spring, which indicates that tight ends may finally get more involved in the pass game. Cadillac Williams made it sound as if Harsin and Bobo want his running backs to catch more passes out of the backfield.
Things will be different for those wide receivers, too. Ja’Varrius Johnson said they’re running different routes at different depths than they have in the past. Slot receivers have been more involved, which is consistent with the offenses Harsin and Bobo have run in the past. And with so many young players at that position, who Nix has chemistry with will be something to keep an eye on.
3. What the power elements of Auburn’s offense look like
Bobo said someone once told him that the best way to let an opponent know you’ve arrived is “to get under center and run power.” That’s something Auburn’s coaches and players have talked about extensively this spring, is having a physical, downhill rushing element in the offense. There seems a good chance we’ll see some I-formation Saturday, with Nix under center and a tight end lined up as a fullback ahead of Tank Bigsby or Shaun Shivers.
After eight seasons of Gus Malzahn’s shotgun read-option attack, it should be quite the sight for Auburn fans.
4. Whether the pecking order on the offensive line has changed
The two times Auburn opened practice this spring, the first-team offensive line group consisted of the five players who started the most games last season — Alec Jackson, Tashawn Manning, Nick Brahms, Keiondre Jones and Brodarious Hamm from left to right.
But the last of those open practices was March 25. Since then, offensive line coach Will Friend has had an open week, seven more practices and a second scrimmage to further evaluate that group. It will be interesting to see whether players such as Austin Troxell, Brenden Coffey or Kilian Zierer have raised their stock with a new coach. We’ve also heard good things about young players Kameron Stutts and Tate Johnson.
“It was all 0-0 when I got in here,” Friend said. “Who ends up being those five guys — that starts from when I got here, not before I got here.”
5. The impact of the Edge position, plus how multiple Derek Mason’s defense might be up front
There are fewer questions about the defense. That side of the ball seems more settled. The secondary returns five players who started games last season. A standout inside linebacking duo of Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain should only get better with Chandler Wooten opting back in.
But there is intrigue up front, and not just because J.J. Pegues is playing defensive line now. The Tigers have transitioned from a 4-2-5 base to Mason’s preferred 3-4 look. Saturday will be our first chance to see how Auburn plans to deploy defensive ends-turned-outside linebackers such as Derick Hall, T.D. Moultry and Jaren Handy, as well as how many different alignments the defense uses — both Mason and Harsin have talked extensively about the need to be multiple and versatile.