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Can Auburn’s plan to lead with the run work?


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Can Auburn’s plan to lead with the run work in today’s game?

Published: Aug. 25, 2022, 10:49 a.m.

7-9 minutes

Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin, offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, running back Tank Bigsby, and the Tigers’ offensive line share a set of tasks that sounds simpler than it’ll be if Auburn is going to course-correct from a dismal 2021 season.

Harsin and Kiesau said Auburn’s fortunes would hinge upon establishing the run since April during spring football. Their messaging about a running attack leading the way hasn’t changed from spring into “Talking Season.”

A physical offense that bludgeons teams with an onslaught of runningbacks sounds a bit fanciful in the error of spread offenses. Increasingly squads around the nation are using four, and five-receiver sets and backfields without a running back as the quarterback lines up in shotgun on nearly every snap. Auburn doesn’t see a ground-and-pound attack as going back into the past. The Tigers believe their offensive mindset is continuing a tradition rather than digging old relics.

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“I don’t know how much different it is. Most successful teams, whether in the spread or four tight ends out there, want to be physical if they want to be successful,” Auburn offensive line coach Will Friend said when asked about how different the Tigers’ philosophy is. “The one thing about us, the pro-style attacking offense that Coach Harsin wants, there’s going to be an element of spread. You don’t want to lose that element of physicality and take that to the park every Saturday.”

Friend hopes to bring stability to his unit with his return from last season on the Plains. Auburn will have its offensive coach in consecutive seasons for the first time in several years. Continuity will be a calling card for the Tiger offensive line.

Nick Brahms (center), Kilian Zierer (left tackle), Alec Jackson (right tackle), Keiondre Jones (right guard), and Brandon Council (left guard) lead a group of returning contributors. Brahms is currently dealing with an undisclosed injury. His status remains undecided.

“Still just kind of waiting for that one out a little bit, see where he is at,” Harsin said after Saturday’s practice. “At some point, we’ll figure out what his situation is, but just kind of let him settle in a little bit, heal up and then figure out what the final decision’s gonna be.”

If Brahms can’t play, the Tigers could use either Council, Jalil Irvin, Tate Johnson, or Avery Jernigan to replace him. If it’s Council, the Tigers would have to adapt at left guard. Irvin played in place of Brahms during last season’s Birmingham Bowl.

Harsin recently complimented Johnson’s development. He also hinted at a possibility of Irvin or Johnson alternating roles from guard to center, depending on which athlete is the better fit.

“He’s physically better; he’s able to handle the pressure out there of playing that position. We move him to guard; we bounce him around if Jalil comes in and other guys are moving to guard,” Harsin said.” So he really knows that center-guard position area. And he’s just taking it upon himself to show up every day and try to make sure he does his job so that everybody else around him -- quarterback included -- can do theirs. That’s where the next step’s going to take place. He’s taking ownership in what he’s doing.”

Auburn has several athletes that have played significant minutes on the offensive line. Returning so much experience is good; however, there were times when it appeared the offensive line didn’t give Bo Nix or TJ Finley enough time to throw passes in big moments. Nor did the group seemingly open up lanes for Bigsby or Jarquez Hunter when yards were at a premium.

Will the Tiger line stand up to the test in the Southeastern Conference? Friend believes they will.

“Hearing the same verbiage and the same things repeatedly has been a big plus for them. They feel more comfortable with that. That’s been big,” Friend said. Offensive line is such a repetition position, not only the physical part of the repetition but the mental part. It’s light years ahead of where it was a year ago.”

Bigsby had over 1,000 yards rushing last season and nearly 900 as a freshman in the previous campaign. He’s a tough player to tackle in open space because of his elusiveness. He’s also hard to bring down because of his ability to break tackles. Bigsby presents the type of matchup nightmares for opposing defenses that might make Harsin’s plan look like a brilliant masterpiece.

Tank’s a powerful back, you know? I’m glad we’ve got a back like Tank to help me out going into each week in the SEC,” Tigers defender Cam Riley said. “To me, he’s the best back in the country right now,” He’s a very powerful speed back; he’s got all the attributes you wish a back would have in him.”

If Bigsby exceeds his production from last year, the Tiger might prove doubters wrong. He will count on the experienced line to help his journey down the gridiron.

“You’ve got to come to play. You can’t come in like a high school game and think you can take over the game by yourself,” Bigsby said. You need other guys. It’s a team game, you know? That’s what I learned from getting into college. It’s a team sport. It can’t just take one guy. That’s what I’ve learned.”

Auburn looks to get Bigsby, Hunter, and possibly freshman running back Damari Alston involved in the offense in several ways, including catching passes out of the backfield.

“They get us in open spaces, one-on-one with the linebackers, just catching the ball — and we all can catch, pretty much, in the running backs room,” Hunter explains why the running backs will get more involved in the passing game. “So that will be a big part of the offense, running backs catching.”

John Samuel Shenker leads a deep group of tight ends. There is so much depth at the position that it allows the uniquely talented Landen King to transition from tight end to receiver.

Auburn’s plans predicate on the run; however, the winner of the quarterback competition between TJ Finley, Robby Ashford, Zach Calzada, and freshman Holden Geriner will need a retooled receiving core to elevate its level of play.

Koy Moore transferred from LSU this offseason. He could be a newcomer who instantly translates to success for the Tigers.

“I think the first day he was there, we ran a little inside slant, and he snatched it and just took off,” Harsin said. “So, everyone’s like, hmmm, alright. So, you’re like, OK, that dude—he can move. But he’s just got, I don’t know, he’s just got a presence about him when he showed up.”

Moore is one of several receivers on the Auburn roster seeking their role in the Tiger’s road to redemption from last year. It won’t be easy since the Tigers will play five teams ranked in the preseason top-25 AP Poll while the Tigers are unranked for the second consecutive season.

Adversity can either be galvanizing or destroying. Which one will happen for the Tigers?

Bigsby believes the former.

“I feel like the team got closer. You know? The relationship with the team has gotten closer,” Bigsby said. “I feel like it brought us together because we had to figure out how to come together and work together. We came together and figured out how to work and put out people telling everyone what our coach was doing. I feel like we needed that on the team.”

We’ll start finding out if the ebullient running back is correct in less than 10 days.

Nubyjas Wilborn covers Auburn for Alabama Media Group.

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I think it can work, but not sure the OL can open up run lanes consistently. You probably need a mobile QB to help open it up, which might be why a starting QB hasn't been named yet 🤷‍♂️?

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I wonder how many different articles these guys can write using the same few quotes that we've seen multiple times. I'll give them credit for creativity and determination. It's admirable.

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I haven't seen how our offensive line has upgraded to the point to change last year's run problems to any significant degree. 

I suspect defenses will continue to crowd the line and quick passes are going to continue to be our best bet. 

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A run first game plan can work, but you have to be able to take what the defense gives you. If you can't pass effectively, you will be running into a stacked box, and that for sure won't work.  Do we have the offensive line to be a run first offense?  We shall see. We have the backs to do it.

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This is the type of Al.com article that makes one wonder if they actually understand college football. Winning w/ a run-oriented O using a top tier RB, mediocre O line and QB, and sound defense in the college game - what a radical concept.

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The only problem I see with this philosophy is a coach knowing when the defense recognizes the "run first" part. For example, if you INSIST on running the same play on first down when the D knows you're going to do it, that's just stupid. On the other hand, if you come to the line on first down and the D stacks the line, you have accomplished your goal without running a back against a stacked D line. The QB should throw over the top or where the D is vulnerable due to overcompensating to stop the run. It ain't rocket science.

Run first doesn't have to mean run stupid. 

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It can work if OL opens holes,  QB can pass effectively enough to keep the defense out of the box and we scheme in  misdirection and trap plays to slow down the defensive pursuit.

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4 hours ago, aucom96 said:

I haven't seen how our offensive line has upgraded to the point to change last year's run problems to any significant degree. 

I suspect defenses will continue to crowd the line and quick passes are going to continue to be our best bet. 

Which is exactly the purpose of a “run first” offense. Crowding takes more bodies. As long as we are capable in the passing game, they must make a choice.

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