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It's March. Spring practice is close. Let's project Auburn's 2021 offensive depth chart.
After all the changes for Auburn football over the last three months, it's time to lay out the first projected depth chart of 2021.
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TE J.J. Pegues and RB Tank Bigsby (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
It’s March 1. This past weekend was a particularly warmer one on the Plains. After some cooler rain earlier this week, early spring temperatures look like they might be here to stay.
Basketball season is coming to a close, and spring sports are starting to get underway. For many in and around Auburn, this is the sign of an important time on the calendar — spring football practices, which are set to start in a couple of weeks.
Not only are the Tigers going to be back on the practice field this spring after missing it all last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also what feels like the unofficial start of the Bryan Harsin era.
Projecting a depth chart for a brand-new coaching staff in still-to-be-unveiled schemes with a constantly changing roster is either challenging at best or foolish at worst. But that’s what this time of the year is for, Auburn fans.
Using the examples of Harsin and new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s depth charts at previous stops and 2020 snap counts, let’s roll out a pre-spring look at how the pieces might fit for the Tigers in 2021.
It’s still extremely early, and there should be a lot of movement once practices get underway. But this is a projection of where the Tigers are at right now, not a guess as to where they might end up by Week 1 against Akron. (That definitely would be foolish to predict.) Players who are expected to arrive after spring ball are listed at the bottom of their groups.
This projection has a quick breakdown of each player listed at their respective positions as they head into spring ball. Today, let’s run down the offensive players. An even more difficult stab at the defensive depth chart will follow Tuesday morning.
QB Bo Nix (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Bo Nix: The spotlight is always going to be on QB1, but it feels like it shines even hotter on Nix for the third straight offseason. Nix didn’t take that big step forward in Year 2 on the Plains, as his yards per attempt went from 6.7 to 6.8 while the completion percentage stayed below 60%. He must become a more accurate passer in order for Auburn to reach its goals, and a new staff led by two former college signal-callers and career QB developers might be what he needs to progress. Don’t be surprised if there’s talk of competition here, but it would have to take a lot for another quarterback to rise to the top of the depth chart.
Grant Loy: Loy was QB2 last season for Auburn, taking a handful of snaps in three games. It was a bit of a surprise to see the former Bowling Green transfer come back for his free year of eligibility, given Nix is just now entering his third season and the Tigers now have two freshmen in the room. Loy should continue to be a veteran security blanket with FBS starting experience at the position, and it will be interesting to see how he takes advantage of any chances this spring.
Chayil Garnett: The former 3-star dual-threat quarterback from Florida didn’t see the field in 2020 for Auburn, as expected. Garnett was a project pickup for the last staff, and he could have some real upside under Harsin and Bobo. If he can hone some impressive physical gifts into a more polished product, Garnett shouldn’t be forgotten in the eventual race to replace Nix as Auburn’s starting quarterback. Keep an eye on him during spring ball.
Dematrius Davis: Again, this is a projection of where the players are right now. Davis could make a big leap up the depth chart this spring or even push Nix for some serious playing time as a true freshman. The Texan is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in modern high-school football history, and his skill set is potentially game-breaking. As an early enrollee quarterback under a new staff, Davis will be one of the most popular names among the fan base this spring. If Nix gets a real challenge for the starting job, it will most likely be from the quarterback who can’t stop getting compared to Lamar Jackson.
RB Shaun Shivers (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Tank Bigsby: Harsin’s staff did some serious work in adding talent under a tough situation to the 2021 class. But there wasn’t a more important recruiting job than the one that kept Bigsby at home. Bigsby was Auburn’s most productive offensive weapon last season in terms of PPA. Pro Football Focus has even tabbed him as the nation’s top returning running back for the 2021 season. He averaged more yards per carry than any Auburn RB1 since 1993, and that came behind an inexperienced offensive line. There might not be a more valuable offensive player in the SEC than the Tigers’ No. 4.
Shaun Shivers: With D.J. Williams now at Florida State and Mark-Antony Richards following Gus Malzahn to UCF, Shivers’ importance to Auburn’s roster is sky-high. Shivers’ yards per carry dipped below 5.00 last season as he took on more feature back duties, but he had several games where he showcased his big-play burst. The Tigers need Shivers to stay healthy, and he could further evolve his game in 2021 as part of a diverse, versatile offensive scheme. Tank might steal the headlines, but no one should ever overlook Worm.
Devan Barrett: Talk about a much-needed return. Barrett opted out the 2020 season after spending a couple of years as a reserve cornerback and special teams player. Now Barrett has opted back in and is moving back to his old position, where he flashed some upside in limited touches as a true freshman. Barrett left a loaded running back room and is now coming back to a thin one. How quickly he’s able to adjust back to playing offense — where he was a 4-star prospect coming out of high school — will be vital for Auburn. It might not turn into a massive amount of carries in the fall, but the Tigers will love having him back right now.
Post-Spring Arrivals: Jarquez Hunter
WR Ze’Vian Capers (Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics)
Wide Receiver - X
Ze’Vian Capers: Of the 2020 freshman class at receiver, Capers made the biggest impact from the very beginning. He had the second-most targets out of any returning wideout, with most of his snaps coming in the slot. But, as a 6-foot-4 playmaker with great ball skills, lining up at the split end position in Harsin and Bobo’s offense makes the most sense for him. Capers suffered a foot injury in the Citrus Bowl that required surgery, so his status for spring practice is still largely unknown. Whenever he gets back to 100 percent, though, expect Capers to be a leader out wide for the Tigers.
Elijah Canion: With Auburn’s receiving depth put to a major test in the Citrus Bowl, Canion stepped up with a big catch-and-run touchdown after playing just a small number of snaps during the regular season. He’s similar to Capers in size, but he might have even more speed — he’s an alumnus of the Chaminade-Madonna Prep program in South Florida that produced Shivers. It will be interesting to see how Canion follows up his breakout bowl performance, as there’s a lot to like about what he brings to the table as a receiver.
J.J. Evans: Evans didn’t play during his true freshman season, and he was coming off a senior season of high school that was affected by injury. Again, like the previous two 2020 pickups at this projected position, Evans has the size to win 1-on-1 battles downfield. When healthy in high school, the 6-foot-3 receiver was one of the most productive receivers in the entire state of Alabama. His development will be a special one to watch during spring practice, considering the fact he hasn’t taken a snap yet at the college level.
Wide Receiver - Z
Kobe Hudson: Auburn’s top receiver prospect in that massive 2020 class, Hudson got some opportunities at flanker behind the likes of Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove last season. He had a strong success rate on intermediate passes, even though a good portion of his work came on screens and other quick strikes from Nix. Hudson looks like a prototypical flanker in Harsin and Bobo’s past offenses, and he’s got a great skill set that would translate well on any speed sweeps or reverses that the Tigers might want to pull off with the position. Hudson has a good chance of being an offensive leader in 2021.
Malcolm Johnson Jr.: If you’re looking for a natural successor to Schwartz’s throne as the afterburner king of Auburn’s receivers, it’s Johnson. He only got one target during the 2020 season, but that isn’t too surprising — he reclassified from being a 2021 recruit to join the Tigers a year early. The ceiling is high for this elite speedster, and it should be fun to see how Auburn tries to utilize him moving forward. There will be a lot of competition at these positions, but don’t forget the Virginia native who was a 4-star prospect, even after he moved up a year.
Ja’Varrius Johnson: The other Johnson at wide receiver for the Tigers hasn’t had his breakout moment yet, only getting offensive snaps in the Week 2 loss to Georgia last season. He’s dealt with injuries during his time on the Plains, which is a real shame — the undersized playmaker posted absurd numbers in high school at Hewitt-Trussville. Auburn could move him around to get opportunities, especially down the middle at slot, but he almost exclusively lined up out wide in his second year. Stay healthy, and his stock might explode this spring.
Wide Receiver - H
Shedrick Jackson: As hard as it might be to believe, Jackson got more snaps than Eli Stove did last season — and that’s even with a few missed games due to injury. Jackson got on the field mostly as a slot receiver in 2020, and he’s already shown that he can do the dirty work necessary to find the field as an outside receiver. Let’s keep him at slot in this projection, because it matches the versatility that he brings to the table. As Auburn’s resident veteran at receiver, there should be a lot of eyes on Jackson this offseason, starting with spring practices.
Caylin Newton: There’s a lot of intrigue surrounding Newton. Has he made a smooth transition to receiver? Why wasn’t he targeted in the passing game last season? What is his best role? Is he even on scholarship? No matter the answers to those questions, Cam’s younger brother has a chance to make a real impact in 2021. This is an extremely young position group, and Newton has seen a lot during his time as a college player. He took most of his snaps in the slot in 2020, so this is where he’ll sit, for now, in this initial projection.
Post-Spring Arrivals: Hal Presley, Tar’Varish Dawson
TE Luke Deal (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
John Samuel Shenker: The elder statesman of a now-crowded tight end room, Shenker played more snaps than any skill position player not named Bo Nix, Seth Williams or Anthony Schwartz last season. Plug him in anywhere, and he’ll get it done. Shenker was the constant across plenty of formations and packages last season as the Tigers rotated in the younger tight ends. There might be more buzz around the bigger-named recruits who make up this position, but Shenker’s experience should be a real boost for Auburn in 2021.
Luke Deal: Deal was only targeted twice last season, but he was on the field quite a bit as an in-line blocker. He’s a bulldozing type of tight end that fits right in line with what Harsin had at Boise State, and that should click with former Broncos offensive line coach-turned-Auburn tight ends coach Brad Bedell. While Deal’s development as a receiving option will determine his overall ceiling at the position, there’s a lot to like about a blocking option who got a lot of work a season ago.
J.J. Pegues: The ultimate wild card on Auburn’s offense, Pegues lined up as a Wildcat quarterback, fullback, tight end, big slot and even split-out receiver during his true freshman season. He made majestic moves with the ball in his hands and planted some unsuspecting defenders with his crushing blocks. Pegues can already do some of everything, and now he’ll be in an offense that tries to truly do everything. If Auburn runs a traditional fullback at any point — something that both Harsin and Bobo have had in the past — Pegues could get some extra snaps there. No one really has to say this, but watch out for the big man this spring.
Brandon Frazier: If Harsin’s past emphasis on throwing the ball to multiple tight ends is any indication, Frazier might be in for a big Year 2 at Auburn. Frazier was only targeted four times as a true freshman, but it’s easy to see why he could shine in a new scheme as a 6-foot-7 target with an impressive vertical. There is nothing guaranteed under this new staff, especially in a position group that had three others get significantly more snaps in 2020. However, Frazier could be a big-time boost for an offense that lost its top three receivers from last year.
Tyler Fromm: Like several others down on the depth chart last season, Fromm only saw time in a blowout home win over LSU. He dealt with injuries all throughout his first year at Auburn in 2019, and he was unable to make a jump up the depth chart in 2020. This spring will be an important one to see where he stands as Auburn continues to add depth and experience at the tight end position. Fromm got comparisons to C.J. Uzomah coming out of high school, so there’s some intriguing talent here.
Landen King: The latest addition to Auburn’s tight end recruiting renaissance, King stayed solid to the Tigers after the coaching change and enrolled early. King showed a ton of versatility in high school, lining up all over the field for one of the top teams in Texas. He might be the closest thing the Tigers have to a true H-back on the roster, which is a role that has been utilized by both Harsin and Bobo’s teams in recent seasons. He could carve out a role early on the Plains.
RT Brenden Coffey and RG Keiondre Jones (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Alec Jackson or Austin Troxell: Let’s put this as delicately as possible — no matter if it was Jackson or Troxell last season, pass protection at left tackle was a real problem area for the Tigers. Jackson is still a relative newcomer to the offensive line. Troxell has been battling injury issues for several years now. It’s no real surprise to hear Harsin openly talk about targeting offensive tackles in the transfer portal. That pickup probably won’t come until after spring practices and the second wave of transfers begins. That makes the development of these two former starting left tackles even more important during spring ball.
Kilian Zierer: The German native didn't play during the 2020 season, as he tore his ACL during his final season of JUCO and had to go through a lengthy recovery. If he’s back to 100%, he could make a major push for a starting job in 2021, particularly at left tackle. He was one of the top JUCO offensive line recruits when Auburn signed him, and he brings a ton of physical upside. Look for Zierer to make some strides this spring.
Brandon Council or Tashawn Manning: Council might be the most interesting variable on Auburn’s offense in 2021. He was, statistically, Auburn’s top offensive lineman in 2020 — and the line never was the same after his season-ending injury in the middle of the campaign. Council can play anywhere, and he lined up at both guard spots for the Tigers last season. Manning was arguably the top performer on Auburn’s line after Council’s injury, so there’s a lot to like about keeping him in place at left guard. Needless to say, the guard spots are going to be fascinating to follow, and the Tigers could add more players here in the future.
Tate Johnson: Johnson got a little bit of playing time as a true freshman last season, lining up at right guard for a handful of snaps despite being listed as the backup left guard on most depth charts. We’ll keep him at left guard in this projection. He might still be a year or two away from contending for a starting job, but it says a lot that he got on the field last season while other reserves did not.
Nick Brahms: Brahms was Auburn’s lone returning starter on the offensive line during the 2020 season, and while he had a rougher start to the season, he found a groove during the second half of the campaign — even winning SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after the win over Tennessee. Auburn needs to get better across the offensive line as a whole, but having the continuity of a third-year starter at center with all the change going on could be a real boost. Let’s see if he’s a true lock as a starter this offseason.
Jalil Irvin: Now entering his fourth year on the Plains, Irvin has settled into a role as Brahms’ backup at center. He only got a little bit of experience in 2020, coming in for a snap against Alabama and finishing out the contest against LSU. Irvin won’t be expected to push for a starting job, but a new coaching staff might change things for him.
Avery Jernigan: While Johnson got a small amount of in-game experience, Jernigan didn’t play during his true freshman campaign last year. Jernigan was set to start his career as a center for the Tigers, although he has the ability to shift out to guard from his high school days.
Brandon Council or Keiondre Jones: Council could virtually play anywhere up front for the Tigers, but right guard was his home prior to the injury. Once he went down, Jones — Auburn’s highest-rated high school recruit along the offensive line — took the field as a redshirt freshman. While there were some growing pains, Jones looks like he has a bright future ahead of him at guard. Expect him to be a major competitor for a starting job under the new regime.
Kam Stutts: Stutts received some offensive line snaps during his first two seasons at Auburn, but he was limited to just special teams duties in 2020. Coming out of high school, Stutts was an intriguing project up front, boasting some real impressive athleticism for a player his size. Like Irvin, his fellow 2018 signee, his fortunes could turn under the fresh eyes of the new staff.
Brodarious Hamm: Injuries kept Hamm from playing a full season — he missed time against Arkansas, plus he sat out the Tennessee game and the bowl loss to Northwestern. However, he was solid in pass protection and had some impressive moments as a run-blocker. Consistency and health will be big for Hamm, who previous coaches believed had real All-SEC potential. Auburn might bring in more talent at tackle this offseason, but Hamm should be a tough challenge in any competition.
Brenden Coffey: With Council out and Hamm dealing with injuries, Coffey got some run for the Tigers during the second half of the season, primarily at right tackle. He has the look of an old-school road grader up front with a massive physique and a real mean streak on film. Coffey just needs some more time to develop into an SEC tackle, and getting the free year of eligibility might do him wonders. If the Tigers move some pieces around up front, look for him to make a possible push.
Garner Langlo: The lone newcomer on the offensive line for spring practice, Langlo is a traditional “swing” offensive lineman who has experience at both guard and tackle. (Since the other four positions have three options, let’s tentatively pencil him in here behind Hamm and Coffey.) Langlo most likely won’t see much playing time in 2021, but being an early enrollee should give him a leg up in his development.
Post-Spring Arrivals: Colby Smith