Defense dominates 2018 A-Day
On a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the 2018 Auburn Tigers took the field for the first time. The goal of this year's A-Day was primarily to answer the mounting questions on offense and discover new starters to replace the old guard that are headed for the NFL.
The day began with a 7-on-7 skeleton drill, a treat for the fans willing to brave the elements. This was starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham's first action since offseason shoulder surgery and he didn't disappoint. Last season's 3,000 yard passer looked in his element and make his toughest throws of the day look easy. And that's great news for Auburn because the depth chart at quarterback is questionable at best. Sophomore Malik Willis and Freshman Joey Gatewood struggled to find consistency and showed real issues with accuracy downfield.
Willis had the better day of the two but still lacked any signs of serious growth from year one to year two. On the day, he was 8-20 for 45 yards and no scores. He added three carries for -7 yards and a fumble. For Gatewood, this was his first game action in an Auburn uniform. The blue chip recruit went 4-14 for 0 yards and was sacked in the end zone for a safety. While the stat line for both quarterbacks is certainly concerning, it's important to remember both quarterbacks' relative inexperience and that the A-Day rules take away an element that is crucial to both quarterbacks' game. QBs are not allowed to run in A-Day and the zone-read is taken out of the equation when it comes to playcalling. In a game situation where either quarterback had their number called, you can be certain the zone read would play a large role.
Running back may be the biggest question on the team headed into the 2018 season. With Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway headed for the NFL, someone needed to step up and show they were willing to take the next step. Once the dust had settled, three names stood out over all else.
CJ Tolbert was the most impressive back of the day, stat-wise. Tolbert tallied 137 yards and two scores on 16 carries and showed a real ability to be the power back in Auburn's offense. Tolbert had a breakout performance in last year's A-Day but didn't see it translate into any opportunities during the 2017 season. That might not be the case this time around, since the lack of returning talent leaves playing time up for grabs.
Boobie Whitlow is a name we've heard all spring, but seeing him in action showed why so many Auburn players and coaches were impressed by the redshirt freshman. Whitlow had 112 yards on 15 touches and showed many of the traits Gus Malzahn and his staff look for in a lead back. Whitlow has a lethal combination of power, speed and decisiveness, all traits Kerryon Johnson showed off en route to his SEC Offensive Player of the Year award.
Asa Martin, a true freshman who has only been on campus for a few months, was the last running back to stand out. His 66 yards rushing were the fewest of the big three but he still showed an ability to do everything the Auburn coaches are looking for and is certainly deserving of carries once the season opens up against Washington.
But the true story of the day was the defense. Kevin Steele's unit made a name for themselves last year as one of the best in football. Even after the early exit of star players like Carlton Davis and Jeff Holland, this defense looks like it will remain one of the country's most dominant groups.
The defensive line had their way all day. The D-Line recorded two sacks and almost every contributor on the line logged at least one TFL. Nick Coe may have had the best day of any Auburn player, tallying a sack, two TFLs and a safety.
At linebacker, Darrell Williams looks to have taken a step forward. Williams was around the ball all day and made a phenomenal play along the sidelines to keep a fumble in play.
One of the biggest concerns with last year's defense was their willingness to attack the ball in the air. With new secondary coach Marcus Woodson on board, that no longer appears to be an issue. The Auburn DBs were attacking the ball all day, both in the A-Day game and the 7-on-7 showcase beforehand. If this Auburn defense can add ballhawking to their list of abilities, look out.
All in all, the A-Day game served its purpose. It answered the burning questions for Gus Malzahn and gave the coaching staff a better picture of what this team will look like in 2018.