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Auburn set to give young linemen a shot in bowl practices

December 19, 2017

AUBURN — The time for Auburn to find out what depth it has on the offensive line begins now.

With Auburn set to lose four offensive line starters to graduation, these early bowl practices will give coaches a detailed look at what combinations could work before the Tigers even hit the field for spring workouts in February.

“Early on, it will be focused really on us and the fundamentals and just getting better on us with an emphasis on the young guys, the redshirted guys, the guys that didn’t get to play as much,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “We’ll do some scrimmage-type things, put them in some competition-type scenarios and really give them a little extra head start. Then probably day three or four we’ll transition into our bowl opponent and start gearing up for the game plan.”

Auburn is set to lose seniors Braden Smith, Austin Golson, Darius James and Casey Dunn from an offensive line that was nominated for the Joe Moore Award, which is given to the nation’s top offensive line. The losses will mean less experience in front of Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham next year, but it may not mean a loss of talent and athleticism.

“I think those guys are rising to the challenge. They’re excited. You can feel the energy at the end when we pull those guys together,” Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “It’s fun to see them get out there. And what’s kind of neat, too, is seeing those guys progress all the way from fall camp to now — basically six months. It’s kind of fun to see those guys grow up, and I think we’ve got guys that are improving.”

Marquel Harrell is the only current starter eligible to return next season. The sophomore has held down the left-guard job for five games.

Auburn’s offensive line started seven different five-man units this season under second-year position coach Herb Hand. Even with all the changes, the group helped Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson pick up 1,320 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Auburn had the fourth best rushing attack and fourth most overall yards in the SEC this season despite suffering injuries to Golson, James, Dunn and guard Mike Horton.

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this many new faces and new guys up front,” Malzahn said late in the season. “It’s a tribute to those guys that we’ve been as successful running the football and even throwing and protecting with the new lineups. It’s just a blessing that we have quality depth up front.”

Some of the young players who could see more work in bowl practices include rising junior center Kaleb Kim, eight-game tackle starter Prince Tega Wanagho and seven-game guard starter Horton. In addition, former five-star tackle Calvin Ashley and four-star guard/center prospect Nick Brahms could get an early look with a first-team unit. Brodarius Hamm, a 344-pound guard prospect who redshirted in this 2017 season, could also get an early look at one of the open guard spots as well.

“There’s a group of guys that are going against a pretty good defensive line every day,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said when asked about the scout-team offensive line. “We do one-on-one, three-on-three. … They’ve grown, mature, become physical and I think they understand when you line up across from Dontavius Russell, you’ll learn. It’s a whole lot easier to attack this thing than just to sit and catch it, because if you sit and catch it, it’s painful. They’ve learned to fight.”

Hand’s enjoyment of the tinkering process of his offensive line units in spring practices and early parts of preseason camp is one of the many reasons his boss called him “one of the best offensive line coaches in the country” during a news conference last week.

“Offensive line is a tricky unit because you want guys to work together. It’s one thing to say we’ve got greater depth but how much has a certain guy worked with somebody else?” Hand said in August. “There’s a lot of that synergy that needs to happen as well. You try to give those guys as much work together as possible so when you put the final pieces together, then they can start really getting used together. Now, something happens, a guy stubs his toe and it changes things. It’s not just as simple as saying the starting right guard stubbed his toe, we just put the second-team right guard in there.”