Fall camp preview: 5 position battles to watch
Despite two Power 5 conferences cancelling their 2020 fall seasons altogether, Auburn will still open fall camp Monday.
The SEC is trudging forward with its previous preseason camp plan, not allowing cancellation announcements from the Big Ten and Pac-12 last Tuesday to affect its trajectory toward playing football in just over a month.
And if the SEC says there will be football played, until told otherwise, Gus Malzahn and his staff will continue to prepare the Tigers for their 2020 campaign.
Per conference regulations, SEC teams can begin preseason camp Monday, with a 40-day window to complete 25 practices before each team's respective seasons begin Sept. 26. The stretched-out practice period aims to allow programs to have fall-back days in case of COVID-19 issues within their ranks.
Each week of camp must include at least two off days. The first five days will be an acclimatization period, with the first two days in helmets, shells added for the next two days, and full pads donned on the fifth day.
And when the Tigers finally put those pads back on, coaches will be keeping close eyes on a handful of position groups throughout camp, as players battle for vital starting roles.
Here are five important position competitions to watch during Auburn's 2020 fall camp.
Figuring out his lineups in both trenches is likely Malzahn's most important task on the gridiron this preseason.
On the offensive side of the coin, the Tigers are replacing four of five starters up front — all but the center position, where junior Nick Brahms returns.
If healthy, redshirt junior Austin Troxell could be the first option at left tackle. The monstrous Brodarious Hamm figures to slide into a starting position at right guard or right tackle after two successful seasons waiting and learning — and dominating at practice, according to coaches and players — behind the previous starters. Junior Tashawn Manning is thought to be ready to fill in a guard slot, as well.
It's anyone's guess how the rest of the line will shake out. Underclassmen guards Keiondre Jones, Jalil Irvin and Kam Stutts impressed coaches last season down the stretch.
Plenty of new faces enter the fold, as well, such as JUCO transfers Brendan Coffey and Kilian Zierer (if healthy), Akron transfer Brandon Council and the three true freshman linemen brought in Auburn's 2020 class (Tate Johnson, Avery Jernigan and Jeremiah Wright).
New position coach Jack Bicknell Jr., in his first on-field task at Auburn, has one of the deepest and most difficult groups on the roster to sort out.
There's no replacing consensus All-American Derrick Brown right away, so Auburn will hope for its next wave of defensive tackles to contribute by committee this coming season.
Brown's running mate at DT from last year returns in senior Tyrone Truesdell, who led the Tigers in sacks early last season and was one of the defensive front's most consistent players throughout the 2019 campaign.
The veteran contenders to replace Brown — senior Daquan Newkirk and junior Coynis Miller — each appeared in 12 games last season, recording four total tackles apiece and combining for 1.5 sacks.
Miller, a former 4-star prospect in Auburn's 2018 class, is thought to have the higher ceiling, while Newkirk has shown flashes of excellence when fully healthy. Malzahn expected Newkirk to miss a large portion of the season last year with an Achilles injury before the 6-foot-3, 317-pound defender made a swift comeback and appeared in Auburn's win over Oregon the first week of the season.
The upperclassmen will be met in the competition by a slew of talented newcomers. Auburn signed the No. 1 JUCO prospect in the nation, Dre Butler, in the 2020 class, in addition to 4-stars Jay Hardy and Zykeivous Walker, who can bounce inside and outside like Marlon Davidson did, and JUCO transfer Marquis Burks.
It may take a bulk of the 2020 season for Auburn's running back competition to truly sort itself out.
The Tigers are replacing their starting running back of the past two seasons in JaTarvious Whitlow, who left the team in February.
In fall camp, sophomore D.J. Williams — the team's top returning rusher at 400 yards and two scores — will likely get the first look as the starter in the backfield, considering how well he filled in last year during Whitlow's bout with a leg injury.
Position coach Cadillac Williams' group also includes one of the most explosive freshman playmakers in the nation in 4-star Tank Bigsby, who was an early enrollee and might begin to work his way up the depth chart right away.
Malzahn always loves his veterans at tailback, however. Shaun Shivers is in his junior season after a strong 657 yards through two years. Redshirt sophomore Harold Joiner began to find a niche last year with 18 touches, 222 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage. Though they present contrasting skill sets, Auburn will look to increase Shivers' and Joiner's involvement further in 2020.
The X-factor in the running backs room may be redshirt freshman Mark-Antony Richards, who signed as an elite athlete in the 2019 class but missed all of his first year with a leg injury. If Richards can settle into the offense smoothly, his ability as both a pass-catcher and a patient runner could allow him to be a vital piece to the Tigers' tailback puzzle by season's end.
Though Auburn technically loses four of five starters in the secondary, all but one of the vacant positions are essentially locked up.
The safety duo of Jamien Sherwood and Smoke Monday have been carefully groomed for two seasons to fill the void on the back end of Kevin Steele's defense, while junior Roger McCreary was one of the Tigers' best overall defenders last season at the third cornerback slot and will quickly transition into the CB1 role.
With Christian Tutt reprising his role at nickelback in the middle, that leaves just the No. 2 cornerback position up for grabs.
Sophomore Nehemiah Pritchett saw some valuable reps in the secondary last season and is the early leader in the competition in terms of returning experience. But No. 3 JUCO prospect Marco Domio has had his eyes on a starting spot since committing to Auburn a year ago. The race should be fiery between those two.
Steele will utilize plenty of depth in the secondary, so the players who emerge as reserves behind the five starters will be important to watch, as well.
Is Aidan Marshall now the man to beat at punter?
The walk-on returned to Auburn's program this offseason after leaving the team at the start of 2018, once he officially lost the job to Arryn Siposs.
With Siposs gone to the NFL, Marshall is undoubtedly the most experienced punter on the roster. In 11 games with the Tigers, Marshall holds the program's 10th-best punting average at 39.2 yards per kick. In 2017 as Auburn's starter, he pinned eight kicks inside opponents' 20-yard lines.
Opelika High School star Marshall Meyers and Gardner-Webb transfer Crimmins Hankinson enter the mix as walk-ons, but the competition is expected to boil down to Marshall and Oscar Chapman, who comes to Auburn from the same Prokick Australia program that produced Siposs, as well as more than a dozen All-Americans and four of the past five Ray Guy Award winners.
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