The big surprise of Auburn's spring practices? The offensive line. (Yes, really.)
After a rough 2022 season and a coaching change, the Tigers overhauled their front — and it sounds like it might be ahead of schedule.
(Austin Perryman/Auburn Athletics)
This offseason, most Auburn football fans’ biggest concern outside of the quarterback situation is the offensive line.
There might even be a good chunk of the fan base that is more worried about the offensive line than the quarterbacks. And those fears would be valid.
In 2022, Auburn’s years-long recruiting and development crisis up front hit full red alert. The Tigers’ offensive line was built on several fifth- and sixth-year seniors who had struggled with consistency and/or injuries throughout their college careers.
Some didn’t even make it to the season, with Nick Brahms medically retiring in fall camp. Only three offensive linemen were able to play in all 12 games of a doomed, losing campaign.
According to Football Outsiders, Auburn’s offensive line ranked No. 81 nationally in average line yards, No. 98 in average line yards on standard downs, No. 107 in stuff rate and No. 112 in sack rate last season. In the previous five years, Auburn had only finished 60th or worse in any of those four categories just twice.
After such a dismal 2022, six offensive linemen were soon out of eligibility, and the lone non-senior who was a regular starter (Keiondre Jones) hit the transfer portal quickly. When Hugh Freeze and his assistants got to Auburn, the Tigers were only set to bring back seven scholarship offensive linemen — and only a few of them had starting experience.
The new staff quickly got to work, becoming the first team in the portal era to sign three 4-star transfer offensive linemen in one class in addition to five more pickups from the JUCO and high school ranks.
The talent acquisition process, for the most part, was complete. Now Auburn had to find a way to make sure all those new pieces fit together and improved together as part of an overhauled offense. That part of the job was much easier said than done.
But as it stands right now, with just one week left to go in spring practices, no single position group has made as much progress as that nearly brand-new offensive line.
“Offensive line, I think, has been a real positive surprise throughout the spring,” offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery said last week. “I think the guys that we've been able to add to that room have made an impact. I think we're more athletic than what we've been, I think those guys are moving well. I think they understand what we're doing up front. I love the way they're approaching practice every day.
“That has been one of our strong suits throughout spring ball.”
Of course, spring football is a time for optimism. Teams are several months away from having to play in anything that matters in the record books, so why not look on the bright side as much as possible?
It’s understandable that some Auburn fans may react to the encouraging reports about the offensive line with a healthy dose of skepticism.
But Freeze hasn’t shied away from critiques about other position groups — quarterback, wide receiver, Jack linebacker, etc. — this spring. And the new head coach has an increasingly positive view of the Tigers’ retooled offensive line.
“They have absolutely improved us,” Freeze said last week. “We won’t know until the fall (if) we closed the gap far enough to be able to compete with the elite in this league. We won’t know that until the fall. But there’s no question in my mind that they improved us, and I’m pleased with how they’re going about their business.”
That improvement has a lot to do with the three impact transfers from the Group of Five ranks. However, there are younger players up front who are making similar amounts of noise ahead of Saturday’s annual A-Day Game.
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