One of the positions Auburn football fans will be keen on watching this spring as the annual A-Day game nears will be those along the offensive line.
The Tigers have learned the hard way just how valuable a healthy and cohesive offensive line unit is over the past couple of seasons, as the unit’s struggles to block are often seen as one of the reason’s Auburn’s offense struggled mightily to be consistent.
With new head coach Bryan Harsin bringing in coach Will Friend, the offensive line has begun the process of trying to turn things around to become a dominant unit on the field.
"They’ve done a good job of working hard,” said Friend. “They’ve got a god character about them. We have a long way to go, but we have a group of guys where it's important for them to be better.”
That character has been one of the bright spots that Friend has seen from this unit. Heading into the 2020 season, only center Nick Brahms had previously even started a game. This season, all but two offensive linemen return, leaving a bunch of men who, according to Friend, are ready to change their perception.
“I think they want to prove themselves as one of the better units on the field,” he said.
Offensive linemen are arguably one of, if not the most, physical units on the field. The line cannot do anything if they are not physically in shape. To Friend, being physically dominant is one of the focuses of spring practice.
“You can talk about being tough and playing hard but you have to live that way if you want to be that,” he said. "This (spring) is where we want to build that toughness.”
Friend is no stranger to transitioning an offensive line unit. He spent the last three seasons as the offensive line coach at Tennessee. Friend, a former Alabama All-SEC guard, got his coaching start as the offensive line coach at Gardner-Webb from 2005-2006. He left for the same position at UAB, where he would spend four years.
From 2011-2014 Friend was brought on as the offensive line coach at Georgia before leaving to become the offensive coordinator of Colorado State, under former head coach now Auburn offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Friend was with the Rams for three seasons before being hired by Tennessee. In total, Friend has coached nine linemen who went on to be drafted in the NFL. Now, he is trying to transition his new Auburn offensive line as quickly as possible.
“You have to overcome terminology; you have to overcome hearing new plays," he said. "You know the offensive line is such a repetitive position that often it just takes time to be better.”
Friend also noted that the offensive line is unlike any other position group on the team. The offensive line requires five guys to be in-sync at all times or else the entire offense completely breaks down.
“It's a team within a team,” said Friend. “Every group has had great chemistry. Character is important. It's hard to be successful at this position without that.”
After the first few practices, Friend has been proud of the character he has seen out of the linemen, but has also seen that there is plenty of work to be done before the fall.
“We have to become more consistent in pass protection," he said. "Obviously, if you’re good in the middle that helps you tackle. So it's not just a certain position; all five guys have to become more consistent.”
The Tigers have had to overcome a slew of injuries toward the back half of the 2020 season, which left some key players, such as Brandon Council, sitting out of spring while recovering. To Friend, this setback is just a part of the game. He also emphasized that he is judging players based on their results now, not on any merit of the past.
“It's all 0-0 when you have new guys," he said. "How you work and prepare right now in order to determine who those five guys are starts from when I get here not before.”
Finding the right five guys for the fall and developing toughness will be imperative for Friend, but at the end of the day there is one thing he wants to ensure gets accomplished.
“The number one thing you’re looking at is who can be counted on,” he said.
By the end of spring and heading into the fall, Friend will hope to have found five guys he can count on as the unit looks to get back on the winning track.