AUBURN — Pre-season training is a month away.
For Auburn football, this development time will be critical. Who are the six players who need to make the biggest progress in 2022?
There are two schools of thought for applicable returns. The first type: Someone who hasn’t had much playing time in previous years and who Auburn needs to step up their reps. The second type: someone who is already a regular but was unsuccessful last season.
Choosing just six is difficult. Here’s what we found.
Tar’Varish Dawson, r-Fr., WR
During spring training, receivers coach-turned-offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau said Dawson had “probably taken the biggest leap forward since he came in until now.” The former four-star rookie didn’t play last season after emerging as the only true freshman on Auburn’s first depth chart.
There are other receivers that would make sense to include in this list, given the fragility of the post group. More likely starters Ja’Varrius Johnson and Malcolm Johnson are to take on bigger roles. Shedrick Jackson returns as the main target, having to avoid falls. But Dawson is the true wild card whose potential looks the most appealing, if he earns playing time. He has brilliant speed and fluid movement, but Kiesau described him as raw, adapting to the tree of course and university game.
Zion Puckett, Jr., S.
Speaking of talented rookies, this should be Puckett’s year, if he stays healthy. National No. 133 prospect in 2019, he spent two years as a substitute, then competed with Donovan Kaufman at the nickel last season. With starters Smoke Monday and Bydarrius Knighten departing for the NFL, safety is one of Auburn’s biggest question marks. The Tigers have never needed Puckett so much in his natural position.
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Council of Brandon, Sr., OL
It’s impossible to single out a single individual on Auburn’s offensive line. The left guard board and center Nick Brahms are longtime vocal leaders and returning starters, so they represent a positional group that needs to turn their experience into a much better production.
Brahms played last year with a team-high 821 snaps, but his run blocking rating on Pro Football Focus was just 61.1. The board was 50.2, potentially jeopardizing his starting role with Kameron Stutts in the picture.
Auburn expects running back Tank Bigsby to be the bedrock of this offense, but that can only work if a veteran offensive line improves.
Cam Riley, Jr., LB
Auburn’s spring game defensive MVP is competing with fellow junior Wesley Steiner for the second starting linebacker position (next to Owen Pappoe). The coaches fell in love with both. But replacing Zakoby McClain and Chandler Wooten is a challenge. Riley played less frequently than Steiner last season, so with both set to get some meaningful playing action, Riley still has a little more to prove.
Landen King, So., TE
He was one of the only true freshmen at Auburn to see game action in 2021. Not only that; his first career touchdown tied the Iron Bowl in overtime. King is 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds (he added a few) and has been working out with the receivers occasionally this spring. He has more time to develop this season behind John Samuel Shenker and a loaded tight end room.
TJ Finley, Jr., QB
OK, we don’t know if Finley will even start. He was dominated by Oregon transfer Robby Ashford in the spring game, and that was before Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada recovered from a shoulder injury. Finley replaced an injured Bo Nix last season and went 0-3 as a starter. But he’s a natural leader with the advantage of gaming experience in Harsin’s system – so if he has a chance with Kiesau, queue up the new wave of memes, which started with a tweet aware declaring Nix a Heisman candidate in the Spring 2021 game.
This is the year. TJ Finley has improved so much under this new offense. He is focused. He’s having fun. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a dark horse for the Heisman.