A-Day observations: Auburn shows signs of progress in Harsin’s first spring game

The first spring of the Bryan Harsin era is almost complete.

Auburn will practice one more time next week to clean things up before breaking until the summer. But Harsin offered a good long look at what the Tigers might look like in 2021 during the A-Day spring game Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The first-team offense/defense defeated the second-team units 17-13.

“There’s plenty of things that we did do well today as far as stuff the coaches have been hitting and emphasizing with each group and each unit, and some things we got to work on,” Harsin said. “Which is great.”

Here are some observations from the scrimmage:

The offense looks different

The first play Auburn’s first-team offense ran Saturday featured quarterback Bo Nix under center and a 13-yard completion to tight end Tyler Fromm over the middle, a sentence that probably wasn’t written once during Gus Malzahn’s tenure as coach.

Those were the most noticeable differences from the previous era — more snaps under center, different route concepts and more power elements (including two and even three tight ends on the field at once).

And while that first drive did end with running back Tank Bigsby fumbling in the red zone at the end of a third-and-10 reception, there was a lot to like from the first-team offense, which scored on three of four possessions (a field goal and two touchdowns). It gained 226 yards in total, averaging 7.3 per play.

The physical, downhill style of the offense looked like a perfect fit for Bigsby and Shaun Shivers, who combined to rush 19 times for 119 yards behind a first-team offensive line that featured Austin Troxell, Tashawn Manning, Nick Brahms, Keiondre Jones and Brodarious Hamm from left to right. Bigsby’s 46-yard rushing score was the highlight.

Nix completed 12 of 20 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown (to Elijah Canion, who caught six passes for 52 yards) and ran five times for 29 more yards. Maybe this will be the year.

The defense is farther ahead

Despite the success of the first-team offense, it was pretty clear that the defense is the better unit right now. Which is not surprising, based on what coaches said during spring practice.

The defense has much more depth, too. You could see that in the way the second-team unit was able to slow the first-team offense — that group scored three touchdowns, but outside of Bigsby’s run, it wasn’t like they were gashing them.

And the first-team defense dominated a second-team offense that started walk-on Trent Mason as one of its top receivers because of the injuries at that position. It allowed only 37 yards on 1.9 yards per play in the first half, with 28 of those coming on a field-goal drive just before halftime. The first three drives lost 8 yards and went three-and-out.

Derick Hall had a sack. Zakoby McClain totaled five tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.

“The defense did a good job today,” safety Smoke Monday said. “The D-line looked really good. The linebackers look good all the time so that’s nothing new. I feel like we’ve got a lot of things that we can work on, but at the end of the day, I feel like we had a good day and a really good spring.”

Special effects

Bigsby and Shivers combined to return five kickoffs for touchdowns. It appeared that the coverage unit was operating at half speed. None of the touchdowns counted on the scoreboard.

Wide receivers Ja’Varrius Johnson and Kobe Hudson split punt return duties.

A-Day MVPs

Bigsby was named the offensive MVP. Walk-on safety Trey Elston earned defensive honors after totaling six tackles and breaking up a touchdown pass. Placekicker Anders Carlson earned the special teams award after making both field goal tries.

Injuries and absences

Wide receiver J.J. Evans, offensive lineman Brandon Council, defensive linemen Jeremiah Wright and Daniel Foster-Allen, and linebacker Cam Riley were present but not dressed out due to injuries.

Wide receiver Shedrick Jackson, linebacker Desmond Tisdol, and defensive backs Ahmari Harvey and Zion Puckett wore yellow non-contact jerseys.

Wide receiver Ze’Vian Capers, left tackle Alec Jackson, defensive tackle Jay Hardy, edge rusher T.D. Moultry and cornerback Marco Domio were not present.

Harsin did not offer any reasons for their absences, but did say earlier this spring that Auburn did have “a few” positive COVID-19 tests this spring, so that remains a possible reason for absences.

“Those guys weren’t out there today for various reasons,” he said. “Just weren’t a part of what we were doing today. Those things happen. As we move into the next phase, those things will be revisited. And then we’ll get in the summer, and we’ll have new players coming in. Then we’ll go from there.”

Closer to normal

The announced crowd at A-Day was 25,210, which is the largest at Jordan-Hare Stadium since before the COVID-19 pandemic began last March.

“It was awesome. Good atmosphere,” center Nick Brahms said. “I love when the fans are in the stadium. Can’t wait for fall. Obviously the best atmosphere in college football at Jordan-Hare Stadium, so.”