Aubserver Mailbag 130: Making a case for Robby Ashford and Payton Thorne
This week: SEC Media Days, short and tall offenses, start/bench/cut, the Hawaiian Chick-fil-A and my top five albums of 2023 so far
QB Robby Ashford (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Welcome to the final mailbag of the unofficial offseason. We made it.
After one of the most eventful football and men’s basketball springs and early summers in recent memory, SEC Media Days will commence next week in Nashville. I’ll be there. Dan will be, too. We’ll have newsletters and podcasts from our time up there, so it’s a great time to jump on and subscribe if you haven’t already.
While we’re still a little while out from the start of fall practices, SEC Media Days is the traditional signal that it’s almost time for football again. Auburn is going to be put under the microscope by regional and national media on Tuesday afternoon, and we’ll get to see and hear what people think of the Tigers in 2023 — and how the coaches and players react to that.
As I’ve said throughout the offseason, coming up with newsletters and podcast topics — including mailbags — has been quite easy over the last few months. That’s a testament to the Inner Circle and never-ending news machine that is Auburn in the transfer portal era.
This week, we lead off with a big question about one of the main topics of conversation for Auburn football next week, followed by some questions about Media Days themselves. We’ll also have some fun with wide receivers, eating in the state of Georgia and my five favorite albums of the year so far.
Thanks as always for supporting The Observer. It’s about to get crazy around here again. Let’s go.
This week, I've been told several times that the QB race at Auburn is real. Payton Thorne may not be the starter. Robby Ashford has too much athleticism not to be the starting QB. I don't believe Thorne left The Big Ten to sit on the bench.
Convince me Robby has everything it takes to be a winning QB in the SEC... and then do Payton.
It’s true that the quarterback race at Auburn is real. Even if you believe that Payton Thorne is all but guaranteed to be the starter this season, he still has to go prove that he’s the best option for Auburn in the next couple of months. And you also have to keep in mind that he’s going to have to do that without the benefit of spring practices, which Robby Ashford had on top of being the starter for most of the 2022 season.
In the simplest of explanations, Thorne left a place where he had a real chance of being a third-year starter at Michigan State to come to Auburn. That speaks volumes, and so does the fact that Hugh Freeze and Philip Montgomery went out and got a transfer quarterback with experience after seeing what they had in spring ball. At the very least, they think that Thorne has what it takes to improve their quarterback room. At the most, they think he’ll be the starter.
But don’t think that Ashford is going to just give it up. He’s a tough competitor, as evidenced by him playing through several injuries last season. Despite that, he still was one of the best running quarterbacks in the entire country, putting up some crazy numbers down the stretch under Cadillac Williams’ interim reign.
The case for Ashford being Auburn’s best option at quarterback comes down to just how much improvement he can make through the air. He completed less than 50% of his passes and had as many interceptions and touchdowns. Those were some of the worst numbers for any qualified quarterback in the FBS.
Yet, again, he was playing through injuries that definitely affected his throwing mechanics. What does a fully healthy Ashford look like as a passer? We don’t know yet at the college level. But there were several times last season where Ashford unleashed some picture-perfect passes, such as his touchdown to Ja’Varrius Johnson in the Iron Bowl. It’s not like he’s incapable of making those throws. They just need to come much more frequently.
Can Ashford improve to be around a 60% passer and lead what has the makings of a strong rushing attack in 2023? If so, he could be a new version of Nick Marshall — who completed 59.4% of his passes in 2013 and 60.8% in 2014. Jumping 10% or so in passing accuracy isn’t out of the question, especially for one starting at as low of a point as Ashford. Joe Burrow jumped by nearly 20% at LSU. Bo Nix went up by nearly 11% at Oregon.
If Ashford can be just as dangerous as he was with his legs last season while making significant improvement with his arm, Auburn can build an up-tempo, explosive spread offense around his talents. Freeze and Montgomery have done it with quarterbacks like Ashford in the past. But, again, that improvement through the air is a big if… and Ashford needs to get and stay fully healthy.
It’s easier to see success for Thorne as Auburn’s QB1, because he’s already put up some really impressive numbers as a starting quarterback at the Power 5 level. If Thorne had anything close to what he did through the air in 2021 with Michigan State at Auburn in 2023, he’d finish with one of the best passing seasons in program history. Even his step-back year in 2022, with a 62.5% completion percentage and a 131.19 in passing efficiency, would have been Auburn’s best season since Jarrett Stidham in 2018.
Thorne was extremely successful as a quarterback at Michigan State when he had a strong running game next to him, and Auburn has the potential to get that in 2023. While he might not be the most accurate passer on the short stuff, he can launch deep passes at an impressive clip and performs well under pressure and off of play-action. It’s easy to see that fitting into what Auburn is building on offense this year.
Do I think either of these quarterbacks are going to be Heisman contenders or All-SEC picks this season? No. Auburn has a ton of questions at wide receiver, no matter who starts, and there’s no guarantee that the rebuilt offensive line is going to be automatically better this fall.
But being a winning quarterback in the SEC? For Ashford, it’s going to take better health and subsequent improvement with his passing. For Thorne, it’s going to take getting back to what made him such a successful first-year starter at Michigan State. And with Thorne being the one having to play from behind, so to speak, with his later arrival to the team, it should make for an interesting fall battle — even if a lot of signs are pointing toward the former Spartan ultimately winning the job.
Expectations for Freeze's first time at the SEC Media Days podium in several years?