Auburn returned to practice for the first time in a week this Tuesday. The Tigers had 16 players confirmed with COVID-19 and cancelled practices because of the absences. With just over three weeks until Auburn play their first game at home against Kentucky on Sept. 26, the Tigers still have a number of questions to address before the end of fall camp. Here are five they need to answer:
1. How much will Bo Nix progress in year 2?
Nix won SEC Freshman of the Year in 2019, but his season was far from perfect. At times, the quarterback looked uncomfortable in the pocket and too often showed a willingness to forgo his reads and try to escape with his legs. He’s not the biggest guy back there, and my time as an intramural QB makes me sympathetic to running for your life – although Nix most definitely has a step on me. In all seriousness, I don’t think anyone is questioning last year’s start of the season decision to start the true freshman over now transferred Joey Gatewood. The looming detriment to Nix’s progression is the loss of spring practice time to implement new offensive coordinator Chad Morris’s system. Still, the Tigers’ weapons around the second-year quarterback are only getting better and Morris has a record of developing great quarterbacks. Nix will need to show more consistency – especially on the road – this season, but the struggles he had in year one should have built his resilience and confidence going forward. There’s no denying it, Auburn’s success in 2020 hinges on the 20-year-old’s arm.
2. How much will Chad Morris impact the Auburn offense?
The former Arkansas head coach struggled as the leader of the razorbacks. However, he’s not far removed from being thought of as one of the best offensive minds in college football. Malzahn has been questioned in the past for overshadowing and overriding his offensive coordinators’ play calls. Morris and Malzahn have a relationship that goes all the way back to their high school coaching days so Morris should be given full trust to run his system. Hopefully, Morris’s biggest impact will be on Nix’s growth but one change in philosophy has Tiger fans mesmerized by the possibilities – the integration of the tight ends. This means Auburn’s offense is expected to implement more short to intermediate pass concepts – slants! Morris’s arrival and new system go hand-in-hand with Nix’s growth. Malzahn needs to give his friend and new offensive coordinator full reign this season for the Tigers to reach the lofty heights they are striving for.
3. How will the Auburn defense reload?
Auburn lost four trustworthy secondary members and defensive cornerstones Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson from the 2019 defense. However, during his tenure, Kevin Steele has proven that he can consistently field a dominant defense, despite the turnover. There’s no shortage of young talent to step up, but much remains to be seen. The Tigers will likely lean on their experienced linebacker corps to lead the defensive unit and a group of lightly experienced backup secondary members look poised to turn into dominant starters. 2020 will be the biggest challenge of Steele’s five-year tenure on the Plains; but with the impending growth on offense, the Tigers might get by if this year’s defense is merely disruptive, not dominant.
4. How will the offensive line shape out?
The Tigers lost four of five starters from the 2019 offensive line. But the program has failed to field a 1,000 yard rusher the past two seasons after producing one for nine straight seasons from 2009-2017. So, the new faces are more reason for optimism than worry. Running back is arguably the deepest position on the team, but they will be running behind either first-year starters or junior college transfers. Malzahn needs to run the ball effectively for his offense to thrive – but does Morris? A shift of emphasis to the passing game, getting the ball out of Nix’s hand quickly and timely run calls may be the key for the 2020 offensive line.
5. Will anyone else opt out?
With 2019 National Champion LSU experiencing the biggest breakup since NSYNC – whether by opt outs or the draft – the Tigers from the Yellowhammer State will be hoping to avoid anymore losses. Projected starting linebacker Chandler Wooten, projected rotational linebacker John Marsh and defensive back Traivon Leonard have all announced their decision to sit out the season due to COVID-19 concerns. The number of recent confirmed cases throughout the team caused a week-long shutdown, causing COVId concerns to grow even more. While health and safety are always the number one priority – the Tigers are running out of time to finalize the depth chart. Any more loses would would only stunt the growth of this young talented team.