Why there’s reason to be optimistic about Auburn football’s 2021 offensive line

The five offensive linemen who lined up with the first-team offense during Saturday’s open Auburn football practice at Jordan-Hare Stadium were the five who made the most starts at their positions last season.

Alec Jackson at left tackle. Tashawn Manning at left guard. Nick Brahms at center. Keiondre Jones at right guard. Brodarious Hamm at right tackle.

Manning and Brahms started all 11 games. Jackson and Hamm started eight each. Jones started seven. The number of starts all five made alongside each other, though, is just two — Oct. 31 against LSU and Nov. 21 against Tennessee.

That’s why there’s reason to be optimistic about Auburn’s offensive line going into the 2021 season.

Experience was the biggest problem the Tigers had at that position going into the 2020 campaign. Brahms was the only one of those players who ever had started. But what held that group back most was continuity — Auburn simply couldn’t keep the same five on the field.

It started during preseason practice, when COVID-19 testing and contact tracing kept the starting five in constant flux. Unable to settle the competition before the Sept. 26 opener against Kentucky, Auburn kept it going into the regular season, rotating seven players in and out of the lineup during the first few games. And when a top group did finally solidify going into a Week 4 game at Ole Miss, starting right guard Brandon Council suffered a season-ending knee injury.

That became a theme. Jackson missed three games after undergoing hand surgery. Hamm was in and out of the lineup down the stretch because of a leg injury. Austin Troxell (who also missed multiple games) and Brenden Coffey combined to make multiple spot starts in their place.

All told, Auburn used six different starting offensive line starting combinations during an 11-game season and eight total, if you consider the mixing and matching tried during the first few games.

The result was a group that was much maligned for its performance, as has been the case throughout every Tigers football season since the program’s last SEC West title in 2017.

But there were actually positives to that unit’s play last season, specifically in the run game. After averaging fewer than 4.4 yards per carry against SEC opponents in both 2018 and 2019, the Tigers ranked fifth in the conference averaging 4.7. And that increase wasn’t just because of the tremendous play of freshman running back Tank Bigsby.

According to Football Outsiders, Auburn ranked 18th nationally in line yards, which is an advanced statistic that looks to measure how much credit an offensive line deserves on a run play. It averaged 2.95 yards, which ranked 18th nationally. That’s up from 2.6 (57th) the season prior.

“Those guys are good. I didn’t have a problem with my O-line last year,” Bigsby said. “The media was all in their heads, talking to them because it was their first year playing and stuff. But I feel like our O-line is straight. They’ve got more experience. I feel like they’re gonna bring a lot this year with the offense. We’re going to be great in that area.”

The determining factor of whether that’s true, though, is whether the offensive line can improve in pass blocking. According to SEC StatCat, quarterback Bo Nix faced the third-highest pressure rate in the SEC at 26.3 percent. Only South Carolina’s Luke Doty and Vanderbilt’s Ken Seals faced more.

That’s where the continuity Auburn lacked had the biggest impact.

“We’re all in the same offensive line room; everybody knows what to do,” Brahms said. “But really, it’s just small little quirks that some guys have, and just knowing, like I said before, what the guy next to you is going to do.

“Me, I make the ID on the offense and make sure everybody knows their job – but maybe, sometimes, some guy might not know. He’s been working with the second-team center or something, so he just calls it different. It’s just that kind of the stuff – the communication – is a little bit different.”

Fixing that is likely one of the priorities for Will Friend, who is Auburn’s third offensive line coach in three years. But maybe he’s the right man for the job – Brahms described him as “really technique-oriented,” a “really good teacher” and “good at explaining concepts.”

Friend still is looking for the right five. Jackson, Manning, Brahms, Jones and Hamm have gotten the first shot – likely because of their experience – but past roles won’t determine future playing time under a new coaching staff, and Auburn has practiced only four times so far this spring.

Council could be a factor at guard after he recovers from a shoulder injury. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said he’d like to see Troxell and junior-college products Coffey and Kilian Zierer give Jackson and Hamm more competition at tackle. It’s not out of the question that a transfer could be added in the summer.

Fortunately, the Tigers have much more time to do that this year after dealing with so many COVID-19 interruptions last year. If they can settle on a starting five and keep it together, there is hope that group can continue to make the improvements it flashed last season.

“They have some swag about them, know what to expect. They’ve seen a lot of looks, so now they know how to communicate with each other,” Nix said. “We’re just familiar and comfortable with each other, and I think that is extremely important when you’re looking at the offensive line.”