Auburn got bigger in the passing game for 2023. Now... can it get better?
Hugh Freeze has a track record of getting the ball to playmakers with size. And the first day of spring ball showcased some of that.
TE Rivaldo Fairweather (Austin Perryman/Auburn Athletics)
Rivaldo Fairweather started the play with his hand in the dirt.
Then he exploded out of his stance and sprinted down the right hash mark before looking back to his quarterback.
Robby Ashford quickly fired a 25-yard pass toward the end zone. Fairweather had to jump up to get it, but the former FIU tight end high-pointed it perfectly and came down in the end zone.
Moments later, Nick Mardner lined up to the outside of tight end Tyler Fromm. He drove up the field before cutting his route toward the back corner of the end zone.
Holden Geriner lofted a deep ball toward Cincinnati transfer receiver, who caught it in stride and made sure to get both of his feet inside the pylon.
The plays didn’t count for any real points. There wasn’t anybody in the stands. (There were no stands, in fact.) The closest “defender” to either of them was wide receivers coach Marcus Davis, who was shouting out instruction and encouragement through the pass skeleton drill on Auburn’s first day of spring practices.
Those were just two passes in a few dozen that were thrown during that particular drill Monday. But they stood out, because they were caught by brand-new playmakers in the early days of a brand-new system from Hugh Freeze and Philip Montgomery.
And, man, it would be nearly impossible to miss the 6-foot-5 Fairweather and the 6-foot-6 Mardner out on the practice field.
“If you follow my track record, I believe in it… I think at the tight end position and at the wide receiver position — particularly the outside guys — to have some length is very beneficial,” Freeze said Monday.
In 2023, Auburn looks to rebuild a passing attack that averaged only 172.7 yards per game last season. That ranked No. 119 out of 131 FBS teams. The only two worse than the Tigers in the Power 5 conference were Iowa and Rutgers. The other 10 were seven of the worst Group of Five teams in the country, then the option-running service academies.
A lot of the aerial improvement will come down to the development of returning quarterbacks like Ashford and Geriner or whatever the Tigers add via the transfer portal in the May window — if that’s the path they decide to take.
But developing the targets who will be catching the passes could be just as critical. Auburn brings back its top two receivers from last season in Ja’Varrius Johnson and Koy Moore, who were both among the first receivers working in drills Monday.
Johnson is listed at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, while Moore is 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds. And there is certainly a place in the Tigers’ new offense for those types of receivers, particularly toward the middle of the field.
“We need all kinds,” Davis said earlier this month. “But the biggest thing is building off what we have — because I think we have guys that can help us in this offense already on campus.”
Meanwhile, it was telling that the two other receivers in that first group with Johnson and Moore were Mardner and Camden Brown — a 6-foot-3 sophomore who, surprisingly enough, will be Auburn’s No. 3 returning wide receiver this season after catching just nine passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns in 2022.