Auburn football mailbag: What all will change on offense against Clemson?

AUBURN, Ala. — They say the biggest improvements come between the first and second games. Auburn football wants that heading into a game at defending national champion Clemson, and this mailbag wants to step up its own game for such an important week as well.

This week, concerns and questions about the Auburn offense filled the mailbag. How much will change for the Tigers between a breezy win against Georgia Southern and a much bigger challenge in Death Valley?

You asked about play-calling, wide receivers to watch, running back depth and a whole lot more. Special thanks to those who sent in questions on Twitter  @JFergusonAU   and sent them in during SEC Country Auburn’s Facebook Live sessions with Lauren Shute and yours truly during the week.

MORE:  Lindsey, Malzahn explain Auburn’s lack of deep-ball passes in Week 1

Auburn football-Auburn Tigers-Gus Malzahn
Gus Malzahn didn’t let Auburn showcase a lot on offense Saturday against Georgia Southern. (Sarah Lundgren/SEC Country)

Brett Andrews: Was the offense vanilla on purpose against Georgia Southern?

It definitely looked like it. I wrote last week that fans shouldn’t expect an all-out air attack in Jarrett Stidham’s debut. There was still some rust to shake off, and Auburn had a clear path to routing Georgia Southern without exposing too much of its new offense to Clemson.

That proved to be true last Saturday. Now, Auburn’s offense — outside of the running backs and the slot receivers — could’ve done better in that vanilla scheme. There were technique issues and assignment problems that must be cleaned up in order to compete with No. 3 Clemson this weekend. But Week 1 is a good way to work out those problems.

Auburn needs to be less sloppy on offense, and that opportunity to improve should coincide with a more advanced game plan. Gus Malzahn and Chip Lindsey didn’t need to show their full hands against Georgia Southern. This is where the real evaluation period begins for the 2017 offense.

Chris Watson: I think that the defense can keep us in the game, but do you think that the O can do enough to win?

I believe Auburn’s offense has the potential to put up points against anyone in the country this season. The combination of a strong rushing attack and a passing game that has new concepts, a strong-armed quarterback and highly skilled receivers should give the Tigers more than enough firepower. Remember, this offense scored at a good rate last season — when healthy — in spite of a limited passing game.

The issue right now is the second part of that offensive formula, the passing attack, because it is still a work in progress. The Clemson game will go a long way in determining how much it needs to improve. If Stidham can hit some big plays in the passing game, that will open up things for the running game. If not, Clemson has a strong enough front to stack the box and make life difficult for a developing air attack.

The bottom line is Clemson is still one of the nation’s best teams, and winning on the road will be tough, even if the offense plays well. I think the return of Kamryn Pettway, along with a less vanilla offense, should give Auburn what it needs to make this a close contest.

Jon L. Wilson: Why did Auburn fall in the AP and Clemson jump so much?

Auburn fell one spot in the AP poll because of what LSU did in Week 1 against BYU. I do believe BYU was pumped up too much heading into that LSU matchup — the Cougars didn’t look great against a bad FCS team the week before — but getting a 27-0 win over a brand name program in primetime on national TV is naturally going to be more impressive to voters than a 41-7 victory over a Sun Belt team on the SEC Network.

Clemson picked up those two extra spots because of Florida State’s loss to Alabama and Southern California’s too-close-for-comfort win over Western Michigan. Crushing a Kent State team that just wanted to get out of Death Valley without any permanent damage isn’t all that impressive, but it’s enough when the two teams ahead of you don’t do so well.

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Auburn wide receiver Nate Craig-Myers started against Georgia Southern, but didn’t get a single pass thrown his way. (Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics)

David Finch: Do you think Nate Craig-Myers will play a bigger role? Hardly even noticed him Saturday.

Lindsey discussed this Wednesday night, and SEC Country’s Lauren Shute wrote about it. I believe Craig-Myers will have a bigger role this weekend against Clemson, and I think Auburn will give him more opportunities in the passing game.

Craig-Myers showed at A-Day he has all the tools to be a top-notch vertical threat. Unfortunately for him, the Tigers only took a few deep shots downfield against Georgia Southern. The screens and quick slants don’t really fit his game as much as the fly routes and deep post patterns we saw in the spring game.

Craig-Myers’ blocking, which Lindsey praised Wednesday, is an easy way for him to get plenty of playing time. With a strategy more geared toward getting the ball downfield, I think Craig-Myers won’t be overlooked in Week 2.

Skye Underwood: I’ve always thought Kyle Davis had the potential to be Auburn’s most explosive weapon and has prototypical size … what are your thoughts on him?

In terms of pure explosion, I still think Darius Slayton has the potential to be the top man for Auburn in 2017. He’s probably the fastest player Auburn has used at split end, and — although he had a few problems with them against Georgia Southern — he showed great hands last season. Slayton is the type of receiver who can blow by cornerbacks and have the sure hands to come down with contested catches.

But Kyle Davis has that extra weight and leaping ability that makes him such a dangerous receiver. If Auburn needs someone to go up and get it for a crucial play, Davis looks like the perfect target. His catch radius is impressive, and he can move inside and out. Davis’ hands might be the best on the team, too.

He just needs to find the consistency that eluded him in 2016, and that could easily come with more experience.

Devan Barrett-Auburn football-Auburn-Auburn Tigers
Auburn running back Devan Barrett had a solid debut off the bench in Week 1. (Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Cedric Escott: What will the depth chart order be like for running back without Johnson?

Kenji Jones: Will Devan get more touches this weekend if Kerryon isn’t available?

Kamryn Pettway is the No. 1 guy no matter if Kerryon Johnson plays or doesn’t play — and he won’t this weekend. I think a bigger, more physical Kam Martin showed last weekend he has what it takes to be that valuable running back off the bench. What he did against Georgia Southern was quite impressive, especially for someone who had to be called upon much earlier than expected.

Behind those two — and going into Kenji’s question — give me Devan Barrett ahead of Malik Miller at the moment. Barrett got more touches against Georgia Southern, and he looks like a better fit for Lindsey’s offense. If he gets into space, he has the potential to become a popular name among Auburn fans in an instant.

Taylor Hogan: Does Barrett or Iggy play big role in special teams this weekend?

This is another great question. With Johnson out, someone has to step into the kick return role beside Javaris Davis. It’s between Barrett and Noah Igbinoghene, and if I had to pick one, I’d go with Barrett. Barrett has two running backs ahead of him in the depth chart, while Igbinoghene is the next man up if something happens to Eli Stove at flanker. But one of these freshmen will get a chance with Johnson out.

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Auburn defensive end Jeff Holland celebrated a big night against Georgia Southern. (Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Kenneth Drummond: Would I be correct to say this is probably our deepest defense since 2010?

Michael Buchanan: Do you think this defense is legit when it comes to a big-time team like Clemson?

Let’s combine these two questions. First, I’d say this is the deepest defense Auburn has had since 2010, and I’d go back even further than that. Auburn’s defense last year was the best since Tommy Tuberville roamed the sidelines. This year, it could be even better.

The Tigers lost Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams up front. But Nick Coe, Big Kat Bryant, T.D. Moultry and Tyrone Truesdell were there to plug into the two-deep. Marlon Davidson, Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown and Andrew Williams gained valuable experience last season, and their collective ceiling is high as they continue to develop as younger starters.

The linebackers didn’t lose anybody and developed another starter-quality player in Montavious Atkinson. K.J. Britt and Chandler Wooten offer even more depth. The secondary might be the thinnest, but versatile players such as Javaris Davis, Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas and Jordyn Peters give the Tigers security all across the back line.

Auburn showed in Week 1 — admittedly against a weaker opponent — that it could rotate these players and not have any real drop off. That’s huge against an elite team such as Clemson, which will play fast and be physical. That depth can ensure the defense is still playing at a high level in crunch time.

Last season, Auburn proved its defense was legit against Clemson, and it still had Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and Mike Williams. This defense is deeper as a whole and is coming off one of the most dominant performances in school history. The Tigers won’t shut down Clemson, but they’ll make it tough on an offense that is transitioning into a new era with several new stars.

Don Little: What do you think the key will be to containing Clemson’s athletic QB?

New Clemson starting quarterback Kelly Bryant rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown last week. He’s a threat to tuck it and run, and Auburn should be on high alert for that aspect of his game Saturday night.

But for Auburn’s defense, the key will be to keep doing what it’s doing. Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts had all the potential to be dangerous in space. But Auburn got great pressure on him and kept him contained. They didn’t overpursue on the edges and let Werts slip right up the middle.

That’s the same thing it did last fall against Watson, who only had 21 yards on 11 carries against Auburn. Getting pressure and keeping quarterbacks contained was a problem for Auburn in the past. That changed last season under Steele, and Auburn showed in Week 1 it could still do it without Lawson and Adams.

The post Auburn football mailbag: What all will change on offense against Clemson? appeared first on SEC Country.

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