Aubserver Mailbag 144: Can Auburn keep it going out wide?
This week: Most impressive newcomers, a whole lot of basketball predictions, non-conference schedules, Christmas trees and an emo list
WR Shane Hooks (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
It’s hard to believe it’s already November. For some of y’all, you’re not looking at this time with fondness, because it means that college football season is almost over. For others, you’re absolutely pumped that college basketball season is here.
I’ve been looking forward to this month for a long time. Later today, I’m going to drive to Nashville for Auburn football’s weekend matchup against Vanderbilt. On Monday morning, I’ve got a flight to South Dakota for Auburn basketball’s opener against Baylor on Tuesday. I’ll get back to Atlanta early Thursday morning, stay there and fly out to the Arkansas game for football next weekend. A few days later, I’ll head to New York City for Auburn basketball’s games in Brooklyn.
I’ll be living out of a carry-on suitcase for the next couple of weeks. But I cannot wait.
This week’s mailbag tackles a few big-picture questions about Auburn football at this point in the season, then we hit a lightning round of preseason basketball questions before wrapping up with some fun topics.
I really appreciate everyone who sent in questions Thursday. I didn’t have very many earlier in the week, but I got a massive amount in a short amount of time while working on this. I couldn’t fit all of them in here, so… if you don’t see your question in here, I will try to get it in next week’s mailbag. They were all great.
Thank you so much for your continued support of The Auburn Observer. Being able to go all over the country covering the Tigers for y’all and not having to worry about finances is so huge. We’re extremely blessed to have the Inner Circle, who make this the best job I’ll ever have in my entire life.
Last week, we saw improvements from the outside receivers. Do you see those improvements coming from playing lesser competition? Scheme? Or rotation, with different guys like Rivaldo and Caleb playing out there? Can that be sustained?
And do you think rotation helped our offensive line? So much is made of offensive line continuity and playing as a unit.
I honestly think it was a combination of all of those factors that you mentioned. First and foremost, Mississippi State was a team that was giving up a really high completion percentage on defense but had some strong pass-rushing and run-stopping tendencies up front. That played right into Auburn’s decision to play a more pace-and-space style last Saturday.
The scheme was strong, but it also wasn’t completely out of nowhere for the Tigers. This was the type of offense we had seen Auburn run in two-minute drills and late-game situations this season — think all the way back to the winning drive against Cal — but Hugh Freeze said he didn’t want to base his offense around that in order to help out a thin defense against quality competition. Shorten the game and preserve your guys on the other side of the ball. It made sense.
But Auburn didn’t need to do that against Mississippi State. It was the favorite for the first time in more than a month, and it was playing at home in a must-win game for its bowl chances. Be the aggressor and go to the stuff that has worked at times against better competition. Auburn did that, and the result was a great performance through the air.
Payton Thorne looked confident and comfortable, and I think that had a lot to do with the quick passing and easy RPO reads that he had in the first quarter. Then things started opening up more for him to survey the field and take shots, and he did that. The protection was fantastic, and Thorne helped himself out by scrambling and being willing to throw the ball away. All of that naturally made the Tigers look better on offense.
Still, the question was about the outside receivers. Shane Hooks made a great play for his touchdown. Camden Brown continued to stay involved, as well as Malcolm Johnson Jr. and others. I liked the idea of putting Caleb Burton III and Ja’Varrius Johnson outside in certain formations, knowing they would draw 1-on-1 matchups where they could win with their speed and route-running instead of size. And, at this point in the season, Rivaldo Fairweather is a receiver that sometimes plays tight end instead of the other way around.
Can that be sustained? Certainly this week. Vanderbilt’s pass defense has struggled as much as Mississippi State’s has over the last month, and the Commodores don’t have the strength in the trenches to do some of the things the Bulldogs wanted to do. This matchup is perfect for Auburn to keep things rolling out wide. Mixing and matching will continue to be the way to go, because Auburn doesn’t have a true go-to weapon outside of Jay Fair in the slot.
Again, Auburn’s offense doesn’t need to perform miracles to win down the stretch. It just has to be better. It did so against Mississippi State, and repeating that could get the Tigers wins on the road against both Vanderbilt and even Arkansas over the next two weeks.
To answer your second question, Auburn’s offensive line is rotating because of necessity more than strategy. Kam Stutts physically can’t go every single rep right now, per Freeze. Gunner Britton, who has been an SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week twice now, isn’t 100%. We’ve seen guys like Izavion Miller miss time with injury, and there’s the obvious absence of Avery Jones at center. (Connor Lew played well in his first career start, earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors.)
Ideally, Auburn would love to have five guys on the offensive line who can play every snap right now. For continuity and chemistry, it would be huge.
But Auburn has had to rotate throughout the season, so it’s not a big negative to have to do so in this point in the season. Additionally, getting guys like Jaden Muskrat and Jeremiah Wright more SEC reps helps for the future, as they could be starters next season. Dillon Wade could return, too. Instead of having to rebuild completely up front again, Auburn could get selective and go with a couple of premium pickups in the transfer portal this upcoming offseason.
The Tigers’ offensive line has had its rough moments, but it’s been better as a whole in run-blocking statistically and can look pretty strong in pass protection at times. While having to move pieces around during the game isn’t ideal, it could make Auburn a better offensive line for the future. Getting more than just a handful of guys quality reps right now is a nice bonus in Year 1 for a coaching staff.
If you could time travel and add one player from Auburn’s past that’s not a QB, which player do you think would improve this team the most?
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