Aubserver Mailbag 85: Household Names
This week: Biggest questions of fall camp, breakout players, Landen King, the offensive line, the Middle 8, potatoes, PlayStation and the July Employee of the Month
WR Tar’Varish Dawson Jr. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
In the words of Jim Ross, business is about to pick up here.
Welcome to the last true mailbag of the offseason. Since the A-Day Game in April, The Auburn Observer has been in offseason mode, previewing what’s to come in 2022-23. There’s been a lot of speculating. There’s been a lot of numbers-crunching. And there’s been a lot of talk about grocery stores.
But next week, a switch will get flipped. Auburn football will open a crucial second fall camp under Bryan Harsin. Meanwhile, in a rare treat for fans, Auburn basketball will start an overseas tour in which all three of its games in Israel will be televised on the SEC Network. We’ll have it all covered here, with Observations, podcasts and a lot more.
We’ve made it through the offseason. For the vast majority of you reading this, you hung around during the long summer months where there isn’t that much to talk about or write about — and it probably showed from time to time, to be honest. All of you are incredible, and we can’t thank you enough for helping keep the lights on here during a down stretch.
Next week, things start rolling full-speed again. It’s a perfect time to get people to sign up. Tell your friends. Tell your friends to tell their friends. It costs less than a quarter per newsletter or podcast, and hopefully we give you something in there you can’t get anywhere else. Tell them everything gets emailed, too, making it the easiest way to consume sports stuff. And they can get seven days for free if they’re still on the fence.
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This week’s mailbag tackles a lot of fall camp questions, including discussion of some players who could be breakout candidates later this season. We also talk offensive line, the Middle 8, NIL and Bryan Harsin before switching to a pressing basketball question and some unrelated fun toward the end.
(One more bit of housekeeping: This week’s premium podcast had to get pushed back until today, and it’ll drop later this afternoon. Our guest this week is Richard Johnson, one of our absolute favorite people covering college football — who you can find at Split Zone Duo, the SEC Network and Sports Illustrated. Subscribers can find that in their inboxes later today.)
What are the top 2-3 questions that Auburn needs to answer in training camp?
One: Who is going to be the starting quarterback? Yes, this is the obvious one. But it’s the most important one, because it’s the most important position on the field. Zach Calzada feels like the favorite, given the good reviews on his return to full health and the fact that he was the first quarterback transfer Auburn went after in the portal this offseason. But Robby Ashford had a great spring, and I know T.J. Finley is going to put up his best possible fight. This is ultimately going to come down to what won Bo Nix the starting job the last time Auburn had a quarterback battle: Who’s under center when the offense looks the best in practices and scrimmages? There’s your winner.
Two: Does Auburn have enough passing-game weapons for the winning quarterback to use? The tight ends will help in a big way, but the Tigers need multiple receivers to step up in fall camp and prove they can be trusted going into the season. And that’s in addition to Shedrick Jackson, Ja’Varrius Johnson and even Koy Moore — the ones with at least some SEC experience. What does Malcolm Johnson Jr.’s role look like in this new-look room? Is the talk of progress for Ze’Vian Capers and Tar’Varish Dawson Jr. for real? Is Landen King ready to be a difference-maker now? What about Daz Worsham? Are any of the true freshmen going to play? For the sake of the entire offense, Auburn needs to see some separation form in fall camp out wide.
Three: Are the inside linebackers ready? Fans can feel pretty good about the defensive line and the secondary — they’ve got experience and depth across the board. The edge tandem of Derick Hall and Eku Leota will be huge if they can stay healthy and get just a little bit of depth behind them. But Auburn lost its top two tacklers, by a large margin, from last season and the only returning linebacker with starting experience is coming off an injury-plagued year. All eyes will be on Cam Riley and Wesley Steiner this fall. The Tigers need them to look SEC starter-ready and get more options developed behind them. Auburn’s defense has the potential to be great in 2022, but only if the heart of the unit is ready.
Each position group has a question mark of some kind, but a lot of them won’t get definitive answers in fall camp — for example, we won’t know much about the veteran offensive line’s progress until games are actually played. But those three above questions feel foundational to how Auburn plays in the early portion of the season, which looks like it could be make-or-break due to the schedule setup.
Which player on the football team is going to become a household name this season that most Auburn fans don’t know already?
I love this question. I typically hate doing predictions, but putting down guesses for breakout players each offseason is a favorite tradition of mine. Some have worked out well (Boobee Whitlow! Seth Williams! Freshman season Marlon Davidson!), while others have not (Matthew Hill, Mark-Antony Richards, Romello Height).
I banked hard on Ja’Varrius Johnson last season, which had mixed results. On defense, I played it safe and doubled down on Derick Hall becoming a star (check!) and thinking Ladarius Tennison would thrive in the new defense (not quite).
But this question is specific to players that most fans don’t know about already. And I’ve got my annual pick on both sides of the ball.