Prince Tega Wanogho

For the most part, Auburn’s offensive line struggled in 2018. There’s not much of an argument against that. Maybe it was due to star running back Kerryon Johnson leaving for the NFL but, for most of the season, the unit was unable to create holes for running backs JaTarvious Whitlow and Kam Martin.

For the first time since 2009, Auburn didn’t have a 1000-yard rusher. This streak of nine-consecutive seasons tied Boise State for longest in the country, and although the offensive line is not all to blame, the unit undoubtedly looked lost at times.

However, when looking at the numbers, it becomes apparent that while it was far from perfect, Auburn’s offensive line fared better in 2018 than it did the previous year. And, with every offensive lineman on the roster, apart from former five-star recruit Calvin Ashley, returning to The Plains in 2019, fans can expect a group that will continue to improve.

Looking at some stats, the Tigers surrendered 6.43 tackles for loss (TFLs) and 2.57 sacks per game in 2017, which ranked 11th and 10th in the SEC, respectively. In 2018, Auburn improved in both those areas, climbing to seventh in the conference in TFLs allowed per game and sixth in sacks allowed per game.

The regression of the Tiger offense was evident from 2017 to 2018 as they went from third best offense in the SEC to 11th this past year. On the other hand, the offensive line has improved as a unit, and with a veteran-laden group in 2019 is positioned to be among the conference’s elite.

Among those veterans is redshirt senior Prince Tega Wanogho. The 6-foot-7, 307-pound left tackle was born in Nigeria and came to the U.S. to pursue a basketball career. However, after a 2018 campaign that saw Wanogho be named to All-SEC first team by Pro Football Focus (PFF), Wanogho’s decision to switch his dreams from the NBA to the NFL seems to be the correct one.

“At the end of the day, we make plans, but God has something else for us and I feel like the whole situation from playing basketball to football, it’s the best thing for me. It was a road I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting to play football, but at the end of the day I’m playing football and I’m playing at one of the best universities in the world,” Wanogho said. “I’ve been blessed. I know I’ve been blessed to be here. So, I just count my blessings and the NFL is my dream now — that’s what I’m aiming for now.”

Excellent at pass blocking, Wanogho was rated as the 17th best offensive lineman in the nation according to PFF. Wanogho’s impressive size and skill translated to possible NFL opportunities in this year’s draft — an opportunity he put on hold in order to return to Auburn for his senior season.

“Coming back, I know we have a real good chance to win a national championship because we have everybody back and I feel like for me personally, it’s unfinished business for me because that’s what I’m playing for — I play to compete,” he said.

Also among those returning on the offensive line is redshirt senior offensive guard Marquel Harrell. Harrell has started 19 games over the last two seasons, including 18 in a row. A solid presence inside for the Tigers, Harrell was named to the 2018 All-SEC third team by Phil Steele.

Harrell announced on Twitter in early January that he would return for his senior season.

“All five guys up front are back so I’m really excited. After I made my decision, I FaceTimed Prince and was like, ‘Hey … I feel like if you come back, we’re going to win a national championship. ‘ ”

With all five starters from last year returning and all five being redshirt seniors, expectations for the offensive line are high. At the same time, Harrell is focused on doing all he can do in order to improve.

“I just want to improve in all areas. … I went back and watched film to see what I could have done better as far as like run blocking or pass blocking and I’m just excited to see the growth because like I say, ‘You get 10-15 minutes in every day, you start to develop better over time’ and I’m excited for that,” Harrell said. “I feel like I’m really one of the top guards in the SEC but my goal is to continue to get better and be a leader, be more efficient as a run-blocker and be more efficient as a pass blocker, get in the weight room with coach (Ryan) Russell and just continue to develop with nutrition stuff as well.”

Going into his third year as a starter, Harrell has one main goal: protect whoever needs protecting.

“At the end of the day, whoever’s back there, if coach Malzahn is back there taking snaps — our job is to protect them. That’s the mentality we have up front. No matter who’s back there, who’s running the ball, who’s throwing, who’s catching — our job is to make sure they stay protected at all times and they stay clean,” Harrell said.

Along with Wanogho and Harrell, the Tigers also return redshirt seniors Kaleb Kim, Mike Horton, Jack Driscoll and redshirt sophomore Nick Brahms — all of whom have starting experience. 

Redshirt senior tackle Bailey Sharp, redshirt sophomores Austin Troxell and Tashawn Manning are also expected to contribute. The offensive line depth chart also features redshirt junior Prince Michael Sammons, redshirt sophomore Brodarious Hamm and redshirt freshmen Jalil Irvin,  Kam Stutts and incoming true freshmen Keiondre Jones, Kamaar Bell and Justin Osborne to add depth.

The Tigers will hit the field for the start of spring practice on March 18. The annual Auburn A-Day game is scheduled for April 13 at 3 p.m.

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