This week’s preview focuses on what may be the most important, yet most unknown position group: The Offensive Line.
Of Auburn’s 19 lineman from the 2019 season, six will not be returning for 2020. While this may seem like a minuscule amount, it happens to be the six players who made the most impact. Auburn will lose Kaleb Kim, Mike Horton, Bailey Sharp, Jack Driscoll and Trent Kelley to graduation, as well as Prince Tega Wanogho, who was drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
While Auburn had five seniors on its starting offensive line, a line which paved the way for 2,588 yards of rushing, it struggled to hold up to defensive lines that were equal in talent. Auburn’s offense was able to average over six yards per play against weaker teams such as Kent State, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Samford, but against tougher teams such as Georgia, Florida, LSU and Minnesota, Auburn failed to gain even 4 and a half yards per play. The ability to gain yards starts with the offensive line’s ability to secure the line of scrimmage, which was inconsistent at best in 2019. Now, as the entire starting line moves on, there are plenty of unknowns moving into 2020.
Auburn will return 13 offensive linemen from its 2019 season, and will add on three linemen from its signing class as well as grad transfers Brandon Council from Akron with Kilian Zierer and Brenden Coffey from the JUCO ranks. The issue in predicting the starters and contributors is that there is a massive lack of experience among all of the candidates. Of the 130 starts in the last two seasons, the five graduated starters combined for 119, with junior lineman Nick Brahms taking 10 of the remaining 11. This means that only one returning lineman has played meaningful game time. However, while much is unknown, there are a few linemen who can be expected to emerge.
The most obvious candidate for a starting position is Brahms, who took over the role of starting center in 2018 in place of Kaleb Kim, and the two rotated the position throughout the last two seasons. Brahms saw five starts in 2018 and 2019. Another experienced lineman is Brodarious Hamm, a cancer survivor who fought back and has been a consistent backup, playing in 11 games during the 2019 campaign. Austin Troxell is the third-most experienced lineman who saw action in 12 games in 2018, but spent 2019 sidelined by injury. Kameron Stutts is a redshirt-sophomore lineman who played in 12 games last season as a backup. The lone senior will be Prince Michael Sammons who, like Troxell, was sidelined last season, but has been a consistent reserve throughout his career. Junior Alec Jackson made the move from defense to offense last season, and was able to see action in every game.
All remaining returning offensive linemen have either played in fewer than five games or have not played at all. Experience does not always translate into getting the starting position, but it never hurts.
In 2020, Auburn will bring in six fresh faces to the offensive line. The eldest of these will be grad transfer Branden Council. Council will be transferring from Akron where he played guard and tackle, although Auburn will be looking at him primarily as a tackle. The Tigers are also bringing in the top junior college offensive lineman in Kilian Zierer. Originally from Germany, Zierer looms at 6-foot-7, 284 pounds, and coaches hope he can make an immediate impact. Auburn’s third graduate transfer is Brenden Coffey, the number two JUCO offensive lineman according to ESPN.
Along with the three grad transfers, Auburn also brings in three freshmen into the class of 2020. Avery Jernigan, Tate Johnson, and Jeremiah Wright all enter looking to make as much of a splash as possible. All three are highly touted, being ranked in the top 20, top 15, and top 30 for their position respectively. Johnson reigns from Callaway High School where he blocked for fellow Auburn freshman running back Tank Bigsby.
With J.B. Grimes stepping down in early 2020, Auburn selected Jack Bicknell Jr. to be its new offensive line coach in 2020. Bicknell inherits what may be the most unknown yet most important key to the success of Auburn in 2020. A coach since 1985, Bicknell comes to Auburn after spending three seasons at the same position at Ole Miss. Bicknell has been coaching for 33 years, with 25 years in college and 7 in the NFL.
While Bicknell has been all across the country as a coach, he is most famous for a play fans wouldn’t even recognize him for. In college, Bicknell was the center for Boston College who snapped the ball to Heisman winner Doug Flutie in the famous "Hail Flutie" game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Gerald Phelan in the 1984 upset of Miami.
The 2020 linemen will be under a new ringleader this year as Chad Morris was hired as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after serving two years as the head coach at Arkansas.
The skillset Auburn has can be most compared to the players Morris had when he was the offensive coordinator for Clemson. During his four years at Clemson the Tigers went 41-11, won the 2011 ACC Championship and had four bowl berths, including two BCS Orange Bowl appearances. Under Morris' offense, the Tigers set 127 offensive records and had the top three scoring seasons in school history, as well as four of the top five passing seasons at Clemson.
It is not an understatement to say that Auburn’s success in 2020 will largely depend on the success of the offensive line. History has shown that Auburn works well when its offensive line is able to dominate the line of scrimmage. With so many new and inexperienced faces, where even the seniors have not seen much action, there are many questions that will be left to the fall to answer. Without the spring to develop players, Auburn will have to play catchup to get the line ready to play in the SEC, and to mix and match the best five.
Finding the five starters will not just be about finding the best five players, but also about where those players will fit best. Linemen are often asked to be flexible as to which position they play, but each has their own place where they work best. It will be up to Bicknell and the rest of Auburn’s offensive coaches to find where the best five fit, and as fast as possible.