The prospects for this 2018 Auburn Tigers football team will rest on a stellar defense and a rebuilt offensive line that, if it can excel, will lead Gus Malzahn's 6th team to greater heights than it reached last season when the Tigers defeated Georgia and Alabama at home to win the SEC West, before falling to the Dawgs and UCF in the SEC Championship Game and the Chick-fil-A bowl respectively.
With junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham returning after completing 246 0f 370 passes, 66.5%, for 18 TDs against just 6 ints, along with a talented group of receivers and some emerging running backs, the skilled positions looked well manned. The offensive line is the key here for the offense though running back will need to develop in fall camp. J.B. Grimes has returned to coach the offensive line taking over from Herb Hand, who went to Texas with Tom Herman to be co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Grimes brings a wealth of experience and brings more toughness to the Auburn offensive front. While the Tigers lost 4 of 5 starters, there is plenty of talent and size that will need to develop quickly this month as the Tigers get ready to kick it off on Saturday, September 1st against the Washington Huskies at 2:30 PM CT on ABC. The Huskies and the Tigers are both top 10 teams, so this will be a spectacular football game and a pretty good gauge of this team.
Up front, junior Caleb Kim is expected to start at center. Kim is 6'4", 300. He will be flanked by junior Marquel Harrell (6'3", 307) at left guard, and junior Mike Horton (6'4", 324) at right guard. The right tackle is redshirt freshman Austin Troxell (6'6", 305) and the left tackle will be the experienced and talented junior Prince Tega Wanogho (6'7", 307). The offensive line goes 3 deep. There is some starting experience, and Grimes is an excellent coach, so if he can develop this group, the offense should excel.
Stidham is back after considering going to the NFL. It was a good move. He can learn the system one more season in college, improve his skills for the next level and give Auburn a shot of winning the SEC Championship and making the College Football Playoff. There is good talent at running back though not a ton of experience. Kam Martin (5'10", 193, Jr.) is a speed burner and a good between the tackles runner as well. He has good experience from last season. From the spring game, the coaching staff is high on JaTarvious Whitlow (6'0", 216, redshirt freshman), and Malik Miller (5'11", 216) is a talented player who hasn't developed like the coaches thought he would, but he's got a shot in August to impress. His credentials at Madison Academy in Huntsville were comparable to Kerryon Johnson's. Johnson had a huge year last year running for 1,391 yards and 18 TDs and is now a member of the Detroit LIons after being selected as the 43rd pick in the second round. Miller was expected to be another Johnson, so he's got a shot to be a good player for the Tigers. Asa Martin, a 6'0", 193 pound 6.0, 4 star (Rivals ranking) for this freshman class, could be a factor also. Shaun Shivers (5'5", 175), a 5.8, 4 star and Harold Joiner, a 6'3", 218 pound 5.8 4 star out of Mountain Brook, may need a year to develop, but with the running back spot up for grabs in some ways, they'll get some opportunities this month to see what they can do.
Senior Ryan Davis (5'9", 185), who led the team with 84 receptions for 815 yards and 5 TDs will lead the receiving corps. Auburn got a couple of blows when receivers Will Hastings and Eli Stove sustained MCL knee injuries and are out until mid season or the latter part of this season. But Davis is a stud. Darrius Slayton (6'2", 190) returns for his junior season, and he's a go to, deep threat for the Tigers. Slayton caught 29 passes for 643 yards and 5 TDs last season. The Tigers are looking for Nate Craig-Myers (6'2", 214) to take the next step and become an elite SEC receiver. Craig-Myers was a high 4 star out of high school and has the skillset to excel on the college level and the next level. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey are expecting a big year out of Craig-Myers. Freshmen Matthew Hill, a 6'1", 185 5.9 4 star, and Richard Jibunor, 6'4", 210, 5.8 4 star, could help out wide. Devan Barrett (6'0", 196) will try to take Stove's spot as a slot, wide out player for the Tigers. Barrett has excellent speed and good size.
Defense is where the Tigers look even more imposing. Kevin Steele says this is his best defense at Auburn and expects this defense to be better than last year's, which was 12th in the country in scoring defense at 18.5 points per game. It all starts up front for the Tigers. A front line of defensive end Marlon Davidson (6'3", 278, junior), tackle Derrick Brown (6'5", 325, Jr), big and underrated yet superb tackle Dontavius Russell (6'3", 320, Sr), and sophomore defensive end T.D. Moultry (6'2", 245) gives Auburn massive physicality and a dominating presence that can help win you a lot of games in the SEC. In the spring game, the coaches were very high on Moultry, who will take Jeff Holland's place on one of the bookends. Holland was highly productive posting 12 1/2 tackles for loss and 9 1/2 sacks in 2017. Steele is just as high on Moultry. There is depth led by defensive ends Nick Coe, a 6'5", 282 pound sophomore who is highly talented and physical, and Big Cat Bryant, a 6'5", 253 pound hoss. Sophomore Tyrone Truesdell (6'2", 314) and Andrew Williams (senior 6'4", 286) are the backup tackles. The line goes 3 deep.
Linebacker is experienced, physical and highly skilled led by senior middle linebacker Deshaun Davis (5'11", 233) and outside linebacker Darrell Williams (6'2", 240). Both are excellent players and give great leadership, tackling and playmaking ability. Williams had an outstanding spring game. Jeremiah Dinson made a tackle and strip of a running back and knocked the ball out. With the ball bouncing to the sideline, Williams got to the ball jumped across the line without landing on it and batted the ball back into play which Dinson recovered. It was a terrific, heads up play by the senior. Williams also had some jarring tackles and a knockdown of a pass over the middle. Davis is just as tough and intimidating as Williams They are tremendous leaders for the Auburn defense. Montavious Atkinson (6'1", 219, Sr.) will also start and be an impact player. Depth looks pretty solid led by junior Richard McBryde (6'1", 232).
The secondary has developed well this fall. Corner Javaris Davis (5'10", 187) runs a sub 4.2 40 and has a 44" vertical. He's a tremendous athlete. Jamel Dean (6'2",208) will man the other corner. Dinson (6'0",195) looks like an All-SEC, All American type player at safety. Daniel Thomas (5'11", 208), who collected 2 interceptions against Alabama in the Iron Bowl last year, will man the other safety spot. Jordyn Peters (6'1",191) will play nickel. Sophomore Noah Igbinoghene (5'11", 196) is doing some big things at corner after switching over from the offense according to Steele. Freshman Smoke Monday, a 6'3", 180 pound, 5.8 4 star and Christian Tutt, a 5'11", 184 pound, 5.8 are making strides and could be impact players this fall. Steele is pleased with how the secondary has developed depth and feels confident in this group heading into the middle of August. There is a great deal of talent in the back 4.
The kicking game looks terrific. Anders Carlson kicked a 62 yard field goal in the spring and converted a 45 yarder, a 37 yarder and a 32 yarder in the first half of the spring game. He is the younger brother of Daniel, who was stellar at AU the last four years and just kicked a 57 yard field goal for the Detroit LIons in their first preseason game. Daniel was a fifth round pick of the Vikings. Anders looks just as good as his brother if not better. Malzahn brought in a punter from Australia in this freshman class, Arryn Siposs, and he's expected to be a stud. The last 5 Ray Guy Award winners for best punter in the country have been Australian. Tom Hornsey from Memphis in 2013, Tom Hackett from Utah in 2014, Hackett again in 2015, Mitch Wishnowsky from Utah in 2016, and Michael Dickson from Texas in 2017. So Siposs comes well recommended and should be a major asset to Auburn's special teams' punt coverage unit along with field position punting. Ryan Davis is the punt returner, and Igbinoghene, Kam Martin, Devan Barrett and Javaris Dean are kickoff returners.
First, it's the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic versus Washington at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, Sept. 1st. Should be a classic there. On Saturday Sept. 8th, Auburn will host Alabama State for a 6:30 PM CT kickoff with SEC Alternate Network covering. On Sept. 15th the Bengal Tigers of LSU visit the Plains for a 2:30 PM CT kickoff which will be televised by CBS. Then the Tigers host Arkansas on Sept. 22nd (TV TBD), versus Southern Miss, Sept. 29th at Jordan-Hare, @ Mississippi State Oct.6th in a what could be a major matchup. The Tigers host the Tennessee Vols and first year head coach Jeremy Pruitt on Oct. 13th. All games are on Saturdays. On Oct. 20th, Auburn travels to Ole Miss. The Tigers are off Oct.27th, Texas A&M comes to Jordan-Hare on November 3rd, @Georgia on Nov. 10th in another colossal tilt, Nov. 17th at home versus Liberty, and Nov. 24th at the Crimson Tide for the Iron Bowl, which in all likelihood will be a 2:30 PM CT kickoff on CBS.
So the Tigers have their work cut out for them with a challenging schedule, but the talent is certainly there to excel. Behind Stidham, sophomore Malik Willis (6'1", 195) and true freshman 6.0 4 star Joey Gatewood (6'5", 235) who is already getting compared to Cam, will battle it out. Both are talents.
I see the Tigers, if the offensive line develops, having a real shot at going to Atlanta. Of course, they have to take care of business against Washington first and then handle the rest of their schedule setting themselves up for key showdowns at Georgia and Alabama. But game 1 is tough and that's all that is on the minds of Coach Malzahn and the players. I see this team as a double digit victory team with a shot at winning the SEC and making the playoff. Very realistic if the offensive line and running backs can develop and Stidham can stay upright. The defense should be tremendous.