While the Tigers will try to cap a largely disappointing 2018 season on a high note Friday with a win over Purdue in the Music City Bowl, it's never too early to look ahead at what may be in store for next season and what new players could make an immediate impact.
With the early departure of Jarret Stidham, tapping a new starting quarterback will be the main task of spring practice for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn has plenty of potential and not much experience to choose from out of a group of returning quarterbacks that includes junior Malik Willis, former minor league baseball player Cord Sandberg, dual-threat redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and early enrollee Bo Nix.
Willis has only attempted 13 passes in 14 game appearances as a backup over the past two years, and the other three quarterbacks have no meaningful experience. Gatewood's play during bowl practice has drawn praise from his teammates, and at 6-5, 237 pounds he possesses a stature reminiscent of Heisman winner Cam Newton. It will be interesting to see whether his skill set has improved enough to be deserving of a mention in the same sentence as Newton.
The lack of experience at quarterback opens the door for Nix, who learned the position under the tutelage of his father, former Auburn quarterback Pat Nix, and has the arm and knowledge of the game to make things interesting in spring practice.
Would Malzahn roll the dice and put the reins of the offense in a true freshman's hands? Probably not, but other schools, like Georgia with Jake Fromm, have found success turning to a freshman under center.
With the graduation of three seniors at linebacker, the Tigers will have to overhaul the starting lineup. Juniors K.J. Britt and Chandler Wooten, and potentially sophomores Zakoby McClain and Richard Jibunior, will compete for the starting positions, although it's hard to imagine five-star signee and early enrollee Owen Pappoe not having a major impact next season.
"You know, we’re losing four seniors with our linebacker class, and we needed guys who could come in immediately, and he’s the guy that can do that," said Malzahn.
Four-star defensive lineman Jaren Handy, who recorded 14 tackles for a loss as a senior, could also work himself into the playing rotation with a good fall camp, as could pass rusher Derick Hall, who enrolled early and will take part in spring practice.
"He’s a big-time pass-rusher, but he can also drop," Malzahn said. "He runs track. We think he’s got a big upside."
It also wouldn't be surprising to see four-star addition and early enrollee D.J. Williams get a shot at running back.
If he sticks with his commitment and signs with the Tigers in February, four-star wide receiver George Pickens top candidate to make an early impact next season.