Let the kids play.
Auburn didn't rely on true freshmen much in 2021 and 2022, but the new staff knows the value of turning them loose early.
OL Connor Lew (Austin Perryman/Auburn Athletics)
Pop quiz: Do you know how many true freshmen played past the four-game redshirt limit under the previous staff?
The answer is… eight.
No, not eight per year. Eight, total.
What’s even wilder about that number is that the Tigers’ usage of true freshmen in 2022 looked like a full-on youth movement compared to what they did in 2021.
During the first season under Bryan Harsin, Auburn had just two true freshmen play over the four-game limit: Jarquez Hunter and Landen King.
The then-new staff inherited and then put some finishing touches on a 2021 class that was ranked No. 18 nationally by the 247Sports Composite. They proceeded to use none of the seven highest-rated players in the class: Dylan Brooks, Lee Hunter, Ahmari Harvey, Dematrius Davis, Tar’Varish Dawson Jr. and Marquis Robinson. (The No. 8 signee, Hal Presley, left Auburn before fall camp even began.)
It might come as no surprise to you that none of those players are still on the team — and that King, who had six catches in eight games as a Tiger, has already left the program as well.
In 2022, Auburn leaned on its No. 21-ranked recruiting class more. The top-ranked player, Robert Woodyard Jr., didn’t crack the rotation. But J.D. Rhym saw action in all 12 games. So did Damari Alston, Camden Brown and Omari Kelly. Jay Fair appeared in nine games, while Caleb Wooden just got over the mark at five.
Of course, this shouldn’t have been a major surprise. Harsin didn’t play many true freshmen during his time at Boise State, a place where top-tier, instant-impact talent was hard to come by. His strategy with the Broncos, which he learned from the likes of Chris Petersen, was mostly to bring in players and develop them over time.
That seemed to be the previous staff’s plan of action at Auburn, but it quickly proved to be a disastrous one.
In the high-stakes world of SEC football — where you have to recruit at an elite level just to survive — you have much more access to players who can help your team right away. And, in the current transfer portal era, great recruits who sit on the bench for their first seasons usually don’t stick around for much longer.
Harsin’s predecessor, Gus Malzahn, knew that you’ve gotta turn the kids loose in this league. Over his eight seasons as Auburn’s head coach, here’s how many true freshmen played more than four games:
Malzahn’s teams hit double-digits for true freshmen contributors in six of his eight seasons — which, again, was more than what Auburn played in the last two seasons combined. Those teams averaged 9.75 true freshmen playing per year.
Under Malzahn, Auburn produced an SEC All-Freshman pick each season, and a majority of them were true first-year players: Braden Smith (2014), Carlton Davis (2015), Marlon Davidson (2016), Big Kat Bryant (2017), Seth Williams (2018), Bo Nix (2019) and Tank Bigsby (2020).
Hunter was an All-SEC pick in 2021 as a true freshman, but the Tigers didn’t have one in 2022. (Robby Ashford, who was in his third year of college football, somehow made the cut.)
And that brings us to new Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze.
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