When Auburn brought in J.B. Grimes to take over the coaching responsibilities on the offensive line after Herb Hand left for Texas in January, the veteran coach inherited a group in transition.
Yes, the Tigers had three returning players with starting experience. But they had also just recently lost five seniors, four of which finished out the seasons as starters.
Grimes, though, may be the perfect person for the job. He recruited and signed many of the players he’s coaching now before he left Auburn following the 2015 season, and he spent much of his first spring back on the Plains taking those players back to the basics.
“Details, details, details. It’s the fundamentals of the game — where my eyes are going, where my hands are going, where my feet are going — and I’ve always believed this, that you coach guys from the ground up,” Grimes said in May. “We’ll get these guys playing nasty, playing physically and playing better fundamentally.”
Here’s a look at what we know and don’t know about the players who will occupy the interior spots on Grimes’ offensive line:
Guards: Marquel Harrell (Jr.), Mike Horton (Jr.), Tyler Carr (Jr.), Brodarious Hamm (R-Fr.), Tashawn Manning (R-Fr.), Kameron Stutts (Fr.)
Centers: Tucker Brown (Sr.), Kaleb Kim (Jr.), Nick Brahms (R-Fr.), Jalil Irvin (Fr.)
WHAT WE KNOW
What we know is that Auburn has two starters locked in at guard — Horton on the right side and Harrell on the left. The juniors are two of those three returning players with starting experience (tackle Prince Tega Wanogho is the other), as Horton started seven games at left guard last season and Harrell six.
They’re going to be looked to as the anchors in the middle of Auburn’s offensive line. As starters, both performed well last season. As leaders, they are probably a bit green. After all, during many of the games they played at left guard last season, they had senior Austin Golson lined up on their left and two-time FCS All-American Casey Dunn lined up to their right. The other guard spot was manned by Braden Smith, a second-round NFL Draft pick who started 41 consecutive games to close out his collegiate career.
Harrell will have Wanogho on his left. Horton will have either a redshirt freshman or graduate transfer from UMass on his right. In the middle, the Tigers will have a first-time starter at center. The roles of the guard positions won’t change much, but the responsibilities of the two juniors will.
“It’s a lot of growing pains, especially within myself, because I’m still learning to be a leader,” Harrell said this spring. “I’m not a real vocal guy, so I’m learning to be more vocal, learning to be more of an encourager, just steady growing and knowing how to set a perfect example, because I can’t do certain things because the young guys can feel like they can do them. It’s just like being a leader on and off the field, becoming more vocal and just growing.”
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What we don’t know is who that first-time starter at center between Harrell and Horton will be. We know that Kim, Brahms and Brown are the candidates, but because of injuries — Kim’s sprained ankle and Brahms’ broken leg — that competition was nowhere close to being decided at the end of spring. Brown, a former walk-on who spent most of last season as a blocking tight end, was the only one of the trio healthy enough to play on A-Day.
“We kind of got into the middle of spring and somebody threw a hand grenade in the huddle,” Grimes said.
Both Kim and Brahms made a strong case for the job before suffering those injuries, though. The former has the most game experience of the trio, having appeared in nine contests at center as a reserve. The latter has yet to appear in a game, but he was Auburn’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year last season. Grimes said Kim had responded to a heart-to-heart discussion about translating his strength in the weight room to his play on the field before he went down. Brahms “was about to make a little jump” before the same thing happened.
Kim’s injury was the less serious of the two, so he was expected to be cleared in time to participate in at least some of Auburn’s summer conditioning program. As of coach Gus Malzahn’s last update June 19, the team was “hopeful” Brahms would be ready for the start of fall camp.
“I think these guys have a chance. I just didn’t get enough information on two of them,” Grimes said. “We’ll just have to find out as early in fall camp as quickly as possible which one’s going to take the bull by the horns.”
THEY SAID IT
“The thing that I noticed with Marquel is he couldn’t step with his left foot. I mean, you know, some of it was just the fundamentals of being in a good stance. Being in a stance that you can use efficiently. Just getting him into that stance and getting comfortable with that stance, he made strides during the course of the spring. He’s a grabber with his left hand. We’ve got to get that left hand more disciplined. And then Mike, what I saw him do at the first of the spring is he was playing on one leg too much. He’s trying to really over-stride with his second step. I know these are fundamental things and y’all probably don’t want to hear them, but what I saw at the end of spring is him getting his second step on the ground so he’s generating more power at the first level. So I saw great improvement. Now do we, are we, have we arrived yet? No. We’re not close. But we will get there. We will get there.” — J.B. Grimes
Now that you’ve read a little bit about the players who will occupy the middle of Auburn’s offensive line, we’ll take a look at what we know and don’t know about the players who will bookend them — the offensive tackles.