Observations: Everything we learned from Day 1 of Auburn football fall camp

Auburn opened its first camp under Bryan Harsin with two split-squad practices. Here's all of what you need to know from what we saw and heard Friday.

DB Smoke Monday (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

At long last, Auburn football is inside one month until the start of the 2021 season.

And before that Sept. 4 opener against Akron, the Tigers will have 25 practices to get ready for their first campaign under new head coach Bryan Harsin — the official start of a new era on the Plains.

On Friday, those practices got underway. Harsin and his staff oversaw a pair of split-squad practices at the athletics complex. The Tigers will go through their first week of camp before hitting Jordan-Hare Stadium next Saturday night for an important first fall scrimmage.

Auburn allowed media members to watch a few periods of each of the two practices Friday and made a trio of veterans available for Zoom interviews. This will be a recurring format during the middle of next week — late morning practice, early afternoon interviews.

So let’s get things started with the first batch of Observations from Auburn’s opening fall camp practice under Harsin. Here are several key takeaways, plus some quick reads and the ever-popular Quote of the Day.

First things first, a quick note about fall camp coverage

Before the veterans practice began Friday morning, media members were specifically instructed by Auburn not to report on who is absent or injured during these open viewing windows. That means I cannot answer any questions about if a certain player was at practice or not. While I will write about a lot of the players I saw, obviously, it’s not like I am going to name every single player in these observations. Just keep that in mind moving forward.

Don’t read too much into the specifics of the split practice…

At SEC Media Days, Harsin said the first day of practice would be split between a session for the veterans and one for the newcomers. That made plenty of sense, considering the volume of incoming transfers and true freshmen who weren’t around in spring practices.

But, in the veterans practice, there were several fresh faces, including defensive backs Donovan Kaufman and Bydarrius Knighten, edge defender Eku Leota and defensive lineman Marcus Harris. The remaining newcomers — quarterback T.J. Finley, running back Jordon Ingram, defensive tackle Tony Fair and cornerbacks Dreshun Miller and Ro Torrence — were in the later practice. Members of Auburn’s 2021 freshman class, including spring enrollees such as quarterback Dematrius Davis and tight end Landon King, were also involved in the afternoon drills.

Additionally, transfer wide receiver Demetris Robertson was not at practice, as Harsin said Thursday he was finishing up his academic work at Georgia this week and might be a later arrival to camp. Among Robertson’s fellow wide receivers, Shedrick Jackson, Caylin Newton and J.J. Evans were in the newcomer practice with freshman Tar’Varish Dawson Jr. while Ze’Vian Capers made his practice return from an injury that kept him out of spring ball with the veterans.

What does all of that mean? Probably not a ton, in the grand scheme of things. Auburn had to balance its position groups between the two practices, so there were new arrivals on both sides of the split as well as returning players working later.

For example, Auburn didn’t have any new tight ends arrive in the summer. Brandon Frazier and King were out there with the later group. The Tigers also have a ton of defensive linemen, especially on the interior, so the likes of Dre Butler and Zykeivous Walker were in the P.M. session. Sophomore defensive back Eric Reed Jr. was also part of the later practice.

Auburn is scheduled to have a split practice again Saturday, then the whole team will be together starting on Sunday. The splits could mean different things early on, but it is Day 1 of a camp that is expected to have a lot of competition and rotation at virtually every position. By the next media viewing window, everybody will be on one field at one time. Don’t read too much into it.

DE Marcus Harris (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

…but the early returns on several transfers look good

Smoke Monday was one of the players who spoke to reporters after the veterans practice Friday, and he raved about two of the transfers who were out there with him — Kaufman and Knighten.

“One thing I like about both of their games is that both of them are going to play hard,” Monday said. “They're real hard workers. They've learned the playbook. I feel like they both know the playbook very well. That's really a big thing for me, for them to come in this late and just pick up the playbook so quickly. It's just great to see.”

Kaufman and Knighten both have built-in advantages in their quest for early playing time when compared to other summer transfers. Kaufman played in defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s exact scheme last season at Vanderbilt and played virtually every snap of the two games he had with the Commodores before his 2020 season ended due to COVID concerns.

“Man, he's a great athlete,” Monday said of Kaufman. “He's fast. He's physical. That's one thing I can say: He loves ball. By having somebody on my side like that, that loves ball just like I love it — hey, I can play with them any day.”

Knighten is a rare four-year starter at the FCS level who took his bonus year of eligibility to transfer to the Plains. He might be the most experienced and battle-tested college player on the 2021 roster for Auburn, at least until Robertson arrives and starts practicing.

To be able to jump into the veterans practice on Day 1 is great for the two newcomers. The same goes for Leota, who worked with Derick Hall and others at the edge position under Bert Watts. All three transfers could immediately compete for open starting jobs vacated by Jamien Sherwood and Big Kat Bryant, so their pre-camp preparation was definitely an important factor.

“Yeah, we do have a lot of new guys,” Monday said. “But I feel like the new guys have done a great job of grabbing the playbook and just getting to know the teammates so that we can trust them even more when we get on the field. I feel like all those guys are doing a great job with that.”

A healthy Brandon Council highlights a first glance at the OL

Harsin told reporters in his pre-camp press conference that Brandon Council would not be limited in practices after missing the spring with injury. That was obvious during the veterans practice, as he lined up at his old spot, right guard, with the first team during a good-on-good drill toward the end of the viewing window.

Council was the first-team right guard during the drill — an offensive front vs. defensive front matchup on running plays. The first-team offensive line, from left tackle to right tackle: Austin Troxell, Tashawn Manning, Nick Brahms, Council and Brodarious Hamm. In other positional drills, Alec Jackson and Keiondre Jones rotated in with the first team.

The healthy presence of Council is significant for Auburn. He was arguably the Tigers’ top performer on the offensive line in 2020 before his injury, and the group as a whole wasn’t the same after he went down. Council has also had FBS experience at every position on the offensive line, which is huge for the cross-training emphasis the staff wants in fall camp.

“Brandon has always been an athletic guy, and I don’t think he’s lost a step,” Brahms said after practice. “He did all of the conditioning and stuff with us this summer. He was 100 percent a lot of the summer. I think he did a good job today. He’s working at different positions. He’ll definitely contribute this year.”

The second-team offensive line during the veterans practice featured Kilian Zierer at left tackle, Avery Jernigan at center and Kameron Stutts at right tackle. Manning and Hamm took reps with the second team as well. During the newcomers practice, the offensive line in the same good-on-good drill was, from left tackle to right tackle: Garner Langlo, Tate Johnson, Jalil Irvin, walk-on Thomas Kirkham and a rotation of Brenden Coffey and Colby Smith.

Expect to hear about mixing and matching among the units throughout fall camp, including some players switching positions at certain times. According to Brahms, that will be key to a camp-long search for the top overall unit up front.

“We want to get the best five on the field,” Brahms said. “So if that means moving some guy to tackle from guard or from guard to tackle, that’s what we’re going to have to do. Cross-training is big for us. We did a lot of it today and I think we’re going to continue to do that, but that’s up to the coaches, honestly. Then I think we’ll start honing in on the starting five near the end of camp or getting closer to game time.”

TE Luke Deal (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

Yes, the tight ends are going to be a part of the passing game

Would you like to see a large man throw a football to another large man, especially if that second large man is lining up at the tight end position? Of course you would, Auburn football fan!

Two things to take away from that above clip: First, Finley is gigantic. He is listed at nearly the exact same size as Frazier, and he definitely looked like it — even from the media area in the end zone. The arm strength is very obvious with Finley from the jump.

Second, Auburn’s tight ends were focal points during both of the open viewing windows, starting with some blocking drills next to the offensive tackles. Then, after working on handoffs out of under-center snaps and the shotgun, Bo Nix and the rest of the quarterbacks spent time hitting the tight ends on quick routes. Nix and Grant Loy went to John Samuel Shenker, Luke Deal and Tyler Fromm, while Finley and Dematrius Davis worked with Frazier and King.

There were a few times when the drill called for two tight ends at the same time, which has been a staple in both Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s past offenses. Harsin hasn’t shied away from saying that he likes the depth and experience at tight end, and he expects it to help the passing game in light of the inexperience at wide receiver early in the fall.

Again, Harsin’s Boise State teams had multiple tight ends catch double-digit passes in each of his full seasons there. Auburn hasn’t had a true, out-and-out tight end hit that number since C.J. Uzomah in 2014. It was obvious during spring practices that things were going to be quite different for the tight ends in this offense, and Day 1 of fall camp only further confirmed it.

Cornelius Williams is keeping the receivers busy

Over on one side of the practice field, new wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams was in constant motion throughout both sessions. He told reporters in the spring that he felt like his inexperienced unit still had a lot of work to do, which was also a key message from Harsin on Thursday.

During the two windows, wide receivers went through a constant stream of high-intensity drills. One of the most notable ones utilized chutes and blocking dummies. The receivers ran hitch routes, crouching under the chutes in order to get just the right form. After catching the ball just shy of the dummies, they cut upfield through the specifically marked lanes on the field. It was all very technique-oriented — a major theme for this new-look offense.

At other times, wide receivers worked on their footwork on quick slants and other cutting routes. There was a drill that focused on catching the ball through contact. The wideouts’ hands were consistently tested by Williams, who played quarterback and even defensive back in certain drills.

Then, toward the end of the windows, the wide receivers and the cornerbacks joined up to run a stack screen drill. Harsin even came over to quarterback that drill in the veterans practice, shouting instructions and corrections to players on both sides of the ball. In the newcomers practice, the young quarterbacks were the ones throwing the passes.

As previously mentioned, Capers was one of the receivers in the veterans practice. He looked good after missing time in spring practice recovering from a Citrus Bowl injury that required surgery. Along with Elijah Canion, Capers has an opportunity to emerge as a key outside force in this offense after breakout performances during his true freshman campaign.

DT J.J. Pegues (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)

Quick reads

For those of you new to these practice observations, this is a catch-all section for any additional notes I had. Some of them are important. Some of them, maybe not so much.

  • Most of the work during both viewing windows were individual drill-focused. Inside linebackers worked on the sleds and had several alignment drills. Offensive and defensive linemen worked a lot on pass protection and pass rushing, respectively. The edge defenders practiced on their first steps during the veterans session, while the defensive backs ran through footwork drills. As the case was during spring ball, it was constant motion all over the field.

  • During the newcomers practice, a full 11 on defense practiced getting aligned and running on and off the field — some of the operational work that was crucial for the Tigers during spring practices.

  • At running back, true freshman Jarquez Hunter caught my eye for the way he was cutting during drills. That’s not surprising, considering how much praise he’s gotten this offseason. Additionally, new walk-on Sean Jackson doesn’t look like the average non-scholarship back, as he moved well for a 5-foot-9, 236-pound ball-carrier. Jackson played at Hewitt-Trussville and had some opportunities to play elsewhere before deciding to walk-on in the SEC.

  • Once again, Tank Bigsby looks like he’s taken full advantage of the new strength and conditioning program. That’s an NFL back.

  • Both J.J. Evans and Shedrick Jackson didn’t seem to have anything slowing them down from the injuries that limited them during spring practices. The same goes for safety Zion Puckett. Harsin repeatedly gave the team a clean bill of health heading into fall camp, and that proved to be true in practices Friday.

  • One of the more interesting quirks from Day 1 of fall camp came in a couple of drills in which the offensive skill players squared off against the defensive skill players. A few times, the sides would switch — meaning edge rushers such as Derick Hall and T.D. Moultry would have the ball in their hands while running backs like Shaun Shivers tracked them down. The defensive backs even got some hands work as receivers during that aforementioned screen drill.

  • Going back to Kilian Zierer’s work with the veterans Friday, Nick Brahms said he believes the German left tackle has “gotten that step back” from his long ACL injury layoff. He added that Zierer has “a chance to play” for the Tigers’ offensive line this season.

  • Brahms also had a good answer to how he felt about being picked first-team All-SEC: “ I was very thankful, but all that takes care of itself when we win this season. So that’s really what I want to do. I just want to win with this team, and everything else will take care of itself.”

  • The perks of being a veteran: The heat was much more bearable during the morning practice than the late afternoon one for the (mostly) younger crowd. Harsin wore long sleeves during both sessions, though.

  • Tony Fair is a massive human being. Auburn currently has the UAB transfer nose tackle listed at 6-foot-1 and 330 pounds. He’s also wearing a familiar number to Auburn interior line stars — 90.

  • During his interview session Friday, Zakoby McClain echoed teammate Owen Pappoe from SEC Media Days in his praise for the progress of sophomore linebacker Wesley Steiner. He also spoke highly of Cam Riley, Desmond Tisdol and new JUCO transfer Joko Willis, but his words on Steiner stood out: “I've seen a big improvement out of Wesley. Wesley really stepped up a lot. He started becoming like a leader and an older player and not having that young mindset.”

  • When asked about the NCAA’s rule on limiting teams to nine full-contact practices in the fall, Smoke Monday wasn’t worried: "Hey, that's enough for us. That's all we need. Coming into the spring, man, we knew our defense was going to be very physical, very violent.”

  • More Monday, this time when he was asked about NIL: “I'm not really too big on NIL right now. I'm really trying to focus on helping my team be the best they can possibly be, and I feel like NIL is kind of — it's some distraction, with pros and cons. But I'm not really too much focused on that right now. I'm really just focused on helping my team." Hey, more time to talk about actual football after an offseason of NIL and realignment chatter!

  • The in-practice music playlist was rather interesting, hopping back and forth from modern rap music to some classic rock. Artists overheard during the viewing windows included Drake, Lenny Kravitz, Big K.R.I.T. and AC/DC.

Quote of the day

I've got a lot of goals. I'm making more of them. How many tackles did I have last year? I'm making more than that. I didn't even start the first two games, so I'm going to dominate.

My goal is to make more plays, get my team hyped up to make more plays, win my awards, just be a better leader, win more games and get better every day, 100%. And love the game the most.

— LB Zakoby McClain on his goals for 2021

Up next on The Auburn Observer: We’ll be back Sunday with a new podcast episode covering the start of fall camp, free to all listeners and available wherever you listen to podcasts.

The Aubserver Mailbag will be sent out Monday morning, so this is a last call for questions: Send them to the1andonlyJF@gmail.com or via Twitter @JFergusonAU.