AUBURN | Looking to replace two starters on the offensive line, Herb Hand feels like he’s found a rising star at right guard but is still looking for more production at the left guard position.
With senior Braden Smith moving to right tackle this spring, Hand has inserted sophomore Mike Horton at right guard and been very pleased with the results. Horton was used as the Tigers’ sixth offensive lineman last fall, playing in 12 games.
“He's been doing a great job in his development and his execution, his understanding of the offense,” said Hand Auburn’s second-year offensive line coach. “I think Mike has a very high ceiling as well. I love coaching Mike. He's a coachable guy and he wants to be great.”
Sophomore Marquel Harrell, who played in four games as a backup last season, has been with the first-team at left guard for most of spring practice.
“That left guard spot right now is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle we still have to figure out and sort out,” Hand said. "We've got a few guys that have been repping there and Marquel is one of those guys. I love Marquel's attitude and his work ethic.
“He's got to continue to develop from a technique and fundamental standpoint. In terms of want-to and desire, the guy works his tail off. He'll be fine. It's just is he ready to take over that spot where you had a rock there in Alex Kozan for so many years? That's a question mark for us right now.”
Hand will have some options at left guard going into fall camp in August if Harrell isn’t quite ready to assume a starting position, and much of them will depend on what happens at left tackle.
Senior Darius James started the final nine games at left tackle last fall and has played there for most of the spring while also getting some reps at right tackle. If sophomore Prince Tega develops enough to be a starter, he could step in at left tackle and allow James to move to right tackle or guard.
Another possibility is California grad transfer Aaron Cochran, who started at left tackle for an offense that threw the ball more than 600 times last fall. If Cochran chooses Auburn over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, he could fit in at left tackle, allowing James to move.
Horton has also worked at left guard this spring and Smith was a first-team All-SEC right guard last season, giving Hand plenty of options. There’s also Calvin Ashley, Auburn’s top-rated signee in the 2017 class, who Hand said will work at left tackle when he arrives this summer.
“Right now, (James) is playing left and right tackle, that gives us a little bit of flexibility there,” Hand said. “Tega is really pushing him right now at left tackle as well, which gives us flexibility. What you want out of your guard, particularly in this conference, are guys that can move the point and reestablish the line of scrimmage against the three-techniques and noseguard and one-techniques that we play against.
“Darius is physical enough to do that if we needed him to. He thinks he can play anywhere. Right now, he's focusing on left tackle and right tackle and as we get into fall camp we'll sort this other stuff out.”