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2018 Auburn Football Review: Part 1

The 2018 Auburn football season began with high hopes and expectations. Fresh off a 2017 campaign that saw 10 victories, including two against No. 1 teams in Georgia and Alabama, the 2018 team was expected to accomplish something similar. Obviously, things didn’t go according to plan. In this three-part series, we’ll look at how the offense, defense and special teams performed, as well as assessing what the overall record probably should have looked like given the strength of Auburn’s opponents. We’ll look at the good, the bad, and the ugly, maintaining focus on 2018, but keeping in mind some of the underclassman’s performances with an eye toward the future.

Part 1: Offense

The most talked about subject coming into 2018 was the return of Jarrett Stidham. Stidham had a very solid 2017, and it was a rare opportunity for Gus Malzahn to have a returning starter at quarterback. Auburn was also projected to have a very strong receiving core. Led by senior Ryan Davis, Auburn returned the vast majority of their receiving, with the only questions being the health of Will Hastings and Eli Stove, which a talented freshmen class was expected to offset.

Photo By: Todd Van Emst | Auburn Athletics

The question marks for the offense centered around the offensive line and running backs. The offensive line returned three players with significant experience. However, Marquel Harrell only became the starter at the end of 2017 due to injuries, and Prince Tega Wanogho had a body to covet in an offensive lineman but struggled and ultimately lost his starting job in 2017. Meanwhile, Auburn lost its star running back Kerryon Johnson who made an impact not only running the ball but also catching and pass blocking.

Photo By: Todd Van Emst | Auburn Athletics

However, the Auburn offense was still anticipated to be good. It was believed new (but not-so-new) offensive line coach J.B. Grimes would be able to quickly develop some of the talent the previous position coach Herb Hand brought in. It was also believed Auburn would be just fine at running back as Auburn had spit out 1,000-yard running backs since 2009 and had a plethora of running backs vying for the job. Those things, with the aforementioned return of Jarrett Stidham and the receiving core, led to high hopes for the unit, but it was not to be.

As early as the Washington game, struggles with the offensive line, as well as disappointing deep balls from Stidham, began to leave some with uneasy feelings despite a late game-winning touchdown. It would be a theme all year long. Auburn’s offensive line just could not play a full, consistent game. It gets overlooked so often, but the offensive line truly is the foundation of the offense. And it gets noticed most when it is bad, not when it’s bulldozing holes and giving the quarterback seven seconds to throw.

With a shaky offensive line, other problems arose. Jarrett Stidham never seemed to get comfortable. He consistently was not able to deal with pressure well, either leaving the pocket prematurely or, as in the Tennessee game, making a couple of poor, costly decisions with the football. The season wasn’t all bad for Stidham. He still showed his arm talent and, in the Music City Bowl, looked as sharp as ever throwing the ball down the field.

Photo By: Todd Van Emst | Auburn Athletics

But in the close games, he just didn’t make the plays. The Mississippi State game is mostly remembered for two 50-50 calls that went against the Tigers, but don’t forget a beautifully called trick play that left Darius Slayton wide open, only to have Stidham, albeit hurried, fire one beyond the reach of Slayton when all that had to be done is for Stidham to throw it in the ocean.

All in all, a resilient Stidham had an OK year, but problems stemming from the offensive line led Stidham to lack confidence at times, which ultimately led to a disappointing 2018.

As for the running backs, the 1,000 yard rushing streak is no more. Kam Martin, who was slotted to be the running back in 2018, never could find anything early, leading to JaTarvious Whitlow emerging as the top back.

Photo By: Todd Van Emst | Auburn Athletics

He played pretty well for the most part, but was hampered by injuries at times, and was also affected by the less than stellar offensive line play. Auburn also found something in the play of Shaun Shivers, a little guy with a lot of speed and tenacity. While he wasn’t used too much in 2018, Shivers and Whitlow show promise for the future, so at least that positive can be taken from the running back group.

There was one big negative with the running backs this year, though — the gross mismanagement of Asa Martin’s redshirt. I personally don’t believe it’s a big deal he’s leaving. As I mentioned, I really like Shivers and Whitlow. But, with a guy as highly rated out of high school as Martin, and just being a freshmen, it’s hard to lose a guy like that before he could really show what he was or wasn’t.

As for receivers, they are obviously affected by the play of the quarterback, therefore, positives and negatives were present. Ryan Davis did break career receiving records, but had a ho-hum season compared to his 2017 where he had 15 more catches, almost 300 more yards, and four more receiving touchdowns.

Another disappointment in the receiving core was the transfer of Nate Craig-Myers. This wasn’t a shock; he had been under-utilized in the offense. But still, a talented receiver capable of making plays left after the disappointing loss to LSU, making it an even tougher week for Auburn.

There were some bright spots for the receivers, though. Anthony Schwartz demonstrated the elite speed necessary to be a weapon on jet sweeps and deep balls. And maybe more importantly, fellow true freshman Seth Williams proved to be a stud.

Photo By: Todd Van Emst | Auburn Athletics

Williams made 26 catches for 534 yards and tied the team lead in touchdown receptions with five. Williams showed he can run any route, and his big catch radius gives him true No. 1 receiver ability. Schwartz and Williams will be building blocks for the receiving core for years to come.

The final issue that needs to be discussed is play calling. The creativity seen in the past from a Gus Malzahn offense just wasn’t there. Simple run up the middle, followed by bubble screen, followed by routes that were easily defended was an all too common sequence.

For whatever it’s worth, I 100 percent believe Chip Lindsey called the plays this year and I personally don’t feel he was good at it. I also think when you have an offensive line that was this poor throughout a lot of the season, the coaching staff never felt comfortable doing something different when they couldn’t execute the basics. I’m not saying this was the right course of action, I’m simply putting some line of reason into what might have happened.

Whatever the case, the play calling was subpar this year, which obviously plays a major role in the offense’s struggles.

To sum everything up, Auburn on offense in 2018 did just enough good to provide hope, and did enough bad to make someone go bald. There will once again be hope for the future with the young talents of Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, and JaTarvious Whitlow. But as for the 2018 offense, it got what it deserved — a change in the play caller for 2019.

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