Coming off an 8-5 season and a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl, expectations are high as Auburn begins spring practice Tuesday. Fans want to see the Tigers take the next step and challenge in-state rival Alabama in the SEC West.
Here are three things to keep on eye at Auburn this spring:
1. How healthy is Sean White?
All the talk heading into Auburn’s spring practice has been centered around Jarrett Stidham. What will he look like after not playing football for a year? Can he develop chemistry with the Auburn wide receivers? How long until Gus Malzahn names him the starter?
But Stidham is not the only quarterback on the roster. Between Sean White, John Franklin III, Tyler Queen, Woody Barrett, Malik Willis and Stidham, there will be six signal-callers competing for the starting job when the Tigers begin practice Tuesday. It’s unlikely that all six will still be around in August, but they’re all still in the mix at this point.
The biggest competition to Stidham would have been White, who started 10 games for Auburn last season, but the junior fractured his arm against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and might not be back in time for the beginning of spring practice.
However, during an interview on Auburn’s national signing day show, White suggested that he was recovering well and should be ready when the Tigers hit the practice fields.
“I like the fact that he has that goal,” Malzahn said on signing day. “Things are going a little faster, healing better than we originally thought. I probably can answer that a little bit better a couple days before spring, but I do like his mindset.”
Regardless of his status for Tuesday, this will be a critical spring for White because Stidham looks like the leader in the clubhouse going in.
2. What will the re-tooled offensive line look like?
Despite losing veterans Alex Kozan and Robert Leff up front, Auburn should once again have one of the best offensive lines in the SEC. There’s talent. There’s versatility. And there are plenty of pieces to work with. The only question is how all those pieces fit together.
The returning starters are left tackle Darius James, right guard Braden Smith and center Austin Golson. But James can play tackle or guard, and both Smith and Golson have played tackle in the past. That means second-year offensive line coach Herb Hand can shuffle those three around pretty much anywhere he likes to make way for the two new starters.
That will open up opportunities for players like Prince Tega Wanogho, Austin Carr, Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton to earn a starting spot during spring practice.
Auburn also recently added graduate transfer Casey Dunn to help bolster the offensive line. Dunn, a two-year starter at center for Jacksonville State, gives the Tigers another option at center in case Golson were to move outside to tackle.
And the best story of the spring could be fellow offensive lineman Brodarious Hamm. He and Tashawn Manning signed with Auburn a year ago, but both missed last season after they were diagnosed with cancer. Both are now cancer-free, and Malzahn is hopeful they can go through spring practice.
3. Which newcomer will make an impression this spring?
For the fans, one of the best parts of spring practice is getting to see the newcomers for the first time. What jersey number will each choose to wear? How will they stack up physically? And, of course, the spring game is the first opportunity to see them play in person.
From Cameron Artis-Payne to D’haquille Williams, there have been some memorable performances from newcomers in recent spring games. Who will it be this year?
There’s no doubt that Stidham is the biggest name, and he’ll get plenty of work with the first team over the next month. But keep an eye on fellow junior-college transfer Sal Cannella, the No. 1 tight end in the ESPN JC50. We don’t yet know how new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey plans to use the tight end, but Cannella will compete with Jalen Harris for targets. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Cannella should at least be a threat for the Tigers in the red zone.
There’s also a trio of freshman defenders -- Malcolm Askew, K.J. Britt and Chandler Wooten -- who are hoping to earn early playing time. Askew and Britt both practiced with the team for a couple of days during the bowl preparation.
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