Auburn was on its way to a storybook ending to its 2017 season. The Tigers came back from a demoralizing loss to LSU to knock off top-ranked Georgia and Alabama to earn a berth in the SEC Championship Game as the West Division winner.
But back-to-back losses, to the Bulldogs in the league’s title game and then a crushing loss to undefeated Central Florida, left Gus Malzahn’s squad thinking of what might have been.
“We didn’t get it done,” Malzahn said of his team’s 34-27 loss to the Knights. “We laid an egg that day. That’s not taking anything away from our opponent, excellent team, but we weren’t happy with the way that season ended.
“That’s something that our team has really used to motivate them over the summer,” the coach continued. “I know our coaches feel the same way as far as that goes.”
Malzahn acknowledged there’s a fine line between winning the SEC crown and coming close. The Tigers lost the rematch with Georgia 28-7 in Atlanta.
“We came close last year,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to take that next step. And that’s easier said than done.”
Malzahn’s men have a leg up on making another push for the SEC Championship and the almost certain berth in the College Football Playoff that goes with it.
“We do have a lot of the players that experienced how close we were,” the coach said, “and we have our staff back that experienced that.”
Among those returning players are the members of Auburn’s defensive line, which grew to be one of the most dominant across the land. Dontavius Russell, a three-year starter at defensive tackle, is an anchor of the line, having amassed 115 career tackles.
“I really feel like he’s one of the more underrated players in the league and doesn’t get enough credit for what he does,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days. “He’s a very unselfish player (and) he’s very consistent.
“Defensively, I really feel like our strength, once again, will be our front seven, like it was last year,” he continued. “And I think big picture-wise we have a chance to be as good defensively or possibly even better.”
Offensively, Kam Martin is likely to get the first shot at carrying the load at running back. The Tigers have had a 1,000-yard rusher each of the past nine years.
“We do have four or five other guys that we feel very good about that’s competing for time,” the coach said. “If you look back at our success, we usually try to have two guys as far as that. Unfortunately, you know, after the regular season, both our guys were a little banged up. There’s nothing like depth. We’re working hard to get that done.”
Malzahn was insistent after the second fall scrimmage that those young runners must hang onto the football.
“There was a couple of guys who put the ball on the ground,” he said. “We’ve got some very talented young guys and the guys who can protect the football, you have confidence in putting them in early. The guys who can’t, you don’t. It’s real simple.”
No one doubts the confidence Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have in quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The second-team preseason All-SEC selection has been named to the watch lists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award.
“I think it’s going to be really good for us this year,” the Baylor transfer said. “Throughout the season, we kind of saw a progression week to week. This summer has obviously been really big for us. We have a lot of guys coming back, especially at the skills positions. We’re going to be hitting on close to all cylinders, more so at the beginning of the season rather than waiting till halfway or the end of the season.”
“Not a lot of people actually believe in our offensive line right now, so we just have to prove them wrong,” Wanogho, a junior offensive tackle, told auburntigers.com. “I’ve seen real improvement in the line, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Auburntigers.com reported that Wanogho is entrenched at left tackle while Horton and Harrell will likely fill the two guard spots, although Horton has taken some reps at center during fall camp. That leaves the center position where – assuming Horton stays at guard – Kaleb Kim has emerged while Nick Brahms works his way back from a spring injury. At right tackle, transfer Jack Driscoll and redshirt freshman Austin Troxell are locked in a battle.
Other players are in the mix, including sophomore Calvin Ashley, who is making the move from tackle to guard during fall camp.
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