AUBURN, Alabama — Spring training on the Plains is now officially in the rearview mirror, with Auburn wrapping things up over the weekend with the annual Spring A-Day game.
Auburn staff, after about a week of internal player assessments, will now turn to the recruiting track and transfer portal as the Tigers hope to add significant roster members to a number of positions – at both for the immediate squad of 2022. and their graduating class of 2023. But in the meantime, football will hit a hiatus as players complete the semester at school and then enjoy a break of about a month from activities team until they’re back in the weight room this summer.
After overcoming the drama of February for Bryan Harsin and the Auburn program – which the sophomore head coach tackled head-on and transparently in early spring – the team’s 15 practices were highlighted by the competition to replace Bo Nix to the starting quarterback, and a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball.
And Auburn was introducing new coordinators on both sides of the ball, as well as four new assistant coaches. To the benefit of the Tigers, however, neither their base attack nor their defense will change much from last season, as Eric Kiesau and Jeff Schmedding says there won’t be many perceptible differences in what Auburn was running in 2021.
Due to the aforementioned injuries, some positional groups — with the offensive line being the most affected — couldn’t be fully under the microscope at Spring Ball, and will be a clearer picture at preseason camp. The same could be said in a less extreme sense of QB Hall, who was also missing a contender through injury.
So what did Auburn learn about each position this spring? Over the next week, Auburn Undercover will take a closer look and summarize each group’s spring. Expect a new daily payout.
We’ll start with the spring headlines: quarterbacks.
Eliminate that: Auburn’s passing concepts and trends won’t change much, if at all, this coming season. It’s still going to be a game-action look-based group, with plenty of tight uses to help offset what is still a relatively unproven receiving corps.
The only member of the quarterback room with any experience handling Harsin’s offense is TJ Finley; freshman in red shirt Dematrius Davis was the substitute at the end of last season, but was transferred during the second week of spring training.
As such, Finley was, almost by default, handed the keys to the first-team attack at the start of spring training – and he never let them down, commanding the starting line-up exclusively in scrum settings. .
The former LSU transfer, who had 5.8 yards per attempt, four touchdowns and one interception in three starts last season, has always looked comfortable leading the show in practice this spring, with a big familiarity with his setters and attacking staff.
Harsin said Finley had “good control” of offense throughout the spring, although he still needed some extra explosiveness from the passing game. Of course, a lot of that had to do with wide receivers, but it’s still one area Harsin wants Finley to focus on this offseason: building block plays and overall execution.
“I think he sees defense well,” Harsin said of Finley after the team’s second spring scrimmage. “And now it’s just about going out there and making plays, throwing with precision, getting the right read and being able to handle the different pressures.”
Finley said after Day A, where he completed 11 of 19 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown, his comfort zone is submerged and perfectly comfortable running a system, so he will continue to “re-evaluate the book of game” and work on the timing with his receivers this summer.
“That’s what I appreciate about the leadership he’s provided this spring – he could be out there asking guys about something he already knows, has had to figure out, “He had to get help, whether other quarterbacks or other players helped him,” Harsin said. “…We know the quarterback position has to play well. And (Finley) is trying to help these other guys as well, with some things that he’s learned that might be a little bit ahead.”
Of course, Finley knows he can’t get comfortable after keeping the driver’s seat warm this spring — especially after the way Auburn’s No. 2 quarterback shut things down.
Oregon Transfer Robby Ashfordwho kept control of the second-team offense for most of the spring, especially after the transfer from Davis, was named offensive MVP for the spring game: 12 of 16 passes for 132 yards, plus some nifty jamming that was only cut short. because the QBs wore non-contact jerseys and were tackled on touchdown.
“A guy swings his arm over there – is it really going to be a sack with Robby?” Harsin said. “Probably not.”
A former dual-sport (baseball) athlete at both Hoover High School and Oregon, Ashford’s athleticism was his most revered quality both with the Ducks and now with the Tigers in spring camp.
Harsin said throughout the spring that Ashford’s talent was evident; he just needed to not get ahead of himself and develop a fundamental understanding of the offense.
And against the first-team defense at A-Day, the quarterback looked very comfortable. He wasn’t perfect and the Tigers didn’t technically find the end zone on any of his five drives, but he showed a drive at the position that Auburn doesn’t have with any of their other QBs.
Comparing Finley and Ashford, their pocket presences couldn’t be more varied. Ashford has a constant buzz after taking the snap, and he’s likely to surge at the first sign of pressure (likely something the Auburn staff will continue to work on, like they did with Nix). Finley stands tall and delivers – even though it was to his detriment at times last season, and he should have taken at least one extra sack in the spring game because of it.
Both had some impressive strikes on A-Day, with Finley putting a nice touch on a 20-yard touchdown for Malcolm Johnson Jr. on the first drive – which served as the lone touchdown from scrimmage until the final series. On replay, however, Johnson Jr. did not hold possession to the turf.
Ashford had the best passes down the middle on the heels of his goals, including 27 and 23 yard completions for Ze’Vian Capers. He also used his legs to draw in defenders before finding the tight end Tyler Fromm on the run for a third conversion.
“He made some big decisions today,” tight end Jean-Samuel Shenker, Auburn’s leading wide receiver, said. “Obviously I made a lot of progress in the spring with the new attack. It’s a lot to throw at him. He did well, and we will continue this summer as he continues to compete.
First-year student Holden Gerineran early four-star registrant, was the most effective passer on Day A, going 9 of 11 for 71 yards and a touchdown on the final drive of the afternoon.
As Harsin and his teammates have been talking about all spring, Geriner has a strong tool base to be a top passer — he’s just young. Harsin hasn’t cut back on QB competition at all after the spring, so Geriner will technically remain in contention for the starting job once fall camp begins.
“He can play, there’s no doubt about that,” Harsin said. “It’s just that he’s never done it before.”
After starting 10 games last season at Texas A&M, Zach Calzada brings an infusion of experience to the Tigers – but that’s all he’s been so far. The Georgia native has been limited in spring training as he continues to nurse a shoulder issue he ironically suffered against Auburn at College Station last season.
So Harsin and the attacking staff made sure to focus on ‘mental representations’ for Calzada; the red-shirted junior stood behind the offense and mirrored the quarterback participating in every scrum in addition to A-Day.
It was “killing him” not to be more involved, Harsin said, but Calzada was still able to make an impact despite the shoulder brace.
“Just the experience he had at Texas A&M,” Finley said of what Calzada brought to the room. “Watching a movie with him and putting him under my wing, things of that nature. … We sort of help each other out. Anything he needs, he comes to me and asks me, and stuff like that. He was a huge help in the quarterback room.
Auburn’s quarterback competition looks to be really open this fall. Finley didn’t part ways in the spring but will still be the No.1 option at the start of pre-season camp, Ashford has created some hype and is a big wild card, and Calzada could be the group’s best passer in healthy .
“At some point after that first scrum in the fall, we have to refine it to, ‘Okay, here’s our top guys,'” Harsin said. “Get them more reps, then make a decision. And when we do, we’ll name a starter – and that doesn’t mean other guys won’t have a role somewhere on this team.
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