Observations: What we saw and heard from Day 7 of spring practices
At the midway point of the spring, it's clear that Auburn football has ways to go. But several players and positions are impressing.
At the midway point of spring practices, it’s clear that Auburn football has a lot of work to do.
That was the main message from Hugh Freeze on Monday, and it makes plenty of sense. After all, this is a team that has had back-to-back losing seasons, replaced almost everyone on its coaching staff this winter, has nearly a third of its roster that just got here and is installing two brand-new systems on both sides of the ball.
Some position groups are further along than others, but the Tigers still have a “ways to go” at several really key spots on the field.
But that’s what spring practices are for, and Auburn got its third week of them going Monday. For the second straight week, Freeze gave media members nearly a full hour of practice viewing — which included a warm-up, a special teams period, a pace period and a long stretch of individual drills.
Here’s what we saw and heard from Day 7 of spring practices, starting with the all-important questions that are continuing to be asked at quarterback.
Auburn wishes it was ‘further along’ with its quarterbacks
The Tigers are still looking to rotate reps among Robby Ashford, T.J. Finley and Holden Geriner in spring practices. On Monday, Ashford was the first in drills, while Finley and Geriner were behind him. To open Week 2, Finley was the first in line.
Freeze isn’t getting into too many specifics about the individual quarterbacks at this point, but he is very honest about the group as a whole. And, coming out of last Friday’s practice, he sees a lot that needs to be improved.
“They’re very coachable,” Freeze said. “It’s very new, what we’re asking them to do, and, truthfully, I wish we were further along after watching Friday’s tape. But it’s certainly not from a lack of want-to, and I’m not even sure it’s a lack of can-do. We just, I think we’ve got to coach it better. Hopefully we’ll see a turn toward a better understanding of what we’re trying to do this week.”
Freeze’s main issue is the decision-making and progressions in the RPO game, which has slowed down the installation process of the offense with coordinator Philip Montgomery. The head coach says he puts it on himself and the rest of the staff “to get it fixed,” and that might take a change in how stuff is being taught.
“Quarterbacks should be making the correct decision — if he's gonna be your guy — 85 to 95 percent of the time,” Freeze said. “And then you judge the execution, and then you start knowing who your quarterback is based off those. Right now, we're having too many of the eyes in the wrong spot, and the decision-making isn't what it's supposed to be.”
For what it’s worth, the quarterbacks appeared to have better passing accuracy during the open viewing window Monday than they did in the first two weeks. However, those passes were coming against air, and the drills aren’t exactly a full-fledged test of a quarterback’s decision-making skills.
Ashford, Finley and Geriner are all having to learn an offense that they weren’t recruited to play in, and the differences between the previous staff and what Freeze and Montgomery want them to do are significant.
The good news for Auburn is that it still has time to turn the corner at quarterback this spring, and it’s got even more time before any big decisions have to be made at the position.
“Again, I've liked their attitude, and I've liked their work ethic, and I've liked the way they desire to be coached,” Freeze said before Monday’s practice. “I don't like the inconsistencies that I've continued to see through six practices. Again, I want to say that I think part of that is on us, the staff, to get fixed. I've challenged myself and the quarterback coaches, too — let's get some of this fixed, these inconsistencies.
“I don't want those inconsistencies to be because of indecisiveness or lack of understanding. That falls in our lap. We've got to make sure that's not it first, and then hopefully, by the end of the week, we see it being more consistent."
A young offensive lineman stands out in pace drills
During the first two weeks of spring practices, there was a lot of talk about Tate Johnson — who was named the starting center after Nick Brahms’ medical retirement but missed most of last season with an injury. Johnson received praise from Freeze for his vocal leadership, and he was getting a look as a potential first-team option at guard in drills.
Johnson is out for the rest of the spring, though, after suffering a dislocated elbow. The Tigers are picking up a decent number of minor injuries at this point in practices, but only Johnson and wide receiver Malcolm Johnson Jr. (collarbone) are out for the rest of spring ball. (Both Tate Johnson and MJJ are expected to return to action in the summer.)
Because of Johnson’s absence, there was bound to be a shakeup in who was playing where on the offensive line Monday. And one young player getting reps with the first group in the offensive pace drill stood out the most. Here’s a breakdown of all three units: