A Week To Remember, Or Forget
Coming off a bye week with a 3-2 record, Coach Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers can build much needed positive momentum on Thursday night at Kentucky. However, if the Tigers struggle and lose to the Wildcats this football team will be in serious trouble with the most demanding part of the schedule left to be played.
Even though it will just be the halfway point of the year for the Tigers, this seems very much like a make or break week for this team. Playing without a large amount of confidence on either side of the ball and looking for more guys to step up as playmakers, Auburn needs that to happen in a big way against the Wildcats.
A win means a two-game winning streak, and with two extra days to get ready for Arkansas it’s the perfect opportunity to enjoy something positive. A loss, however, means something entirely different. With trips to make to Arkansas and Texas A&M and with home games against Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, it will be difficult to find many wins left if Auburn doesn’t show significant improvement. That needs to start on Thursday night in Lexington.
Who’s The Man?
With Auburn still not naming a starting quarterback with the game against Kentucky now just a few days away, the feeling that Jeremy Johnson gets another chance is becoming stronger after Malzahn and his offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee, have talked about Johnson's positive practice habits and attitude since being replaced by Sean White following the loss to LSU.
Asked what Johnson has shown in practice, Lashlee said “some maturity I think, the ability and desire to fight and compete, which is what you want to see. I think his confidence is greatly improved, and I like what I see.”
Even though White has done a solid job in his two starts, completing 26-38 passes for 296 yards with one interception, the offense hasn’t responded as the coaches hoped under his direction. Still lacking in the big play department, that is what Johnson may be able to deliver and all signs point towards him getting a shot to show what he can do on Thursday night.
The biggest question that remains is what happens if Johnson struggles again?
That would either mean going back to White or perhaps it would be time to think outside the box and give Jason Smith a look.
Jason Smith, a redshirt sophomore, transferred to Auburn in January from junior college where he played quarterback for Mississippi Gulf Coast.
A talented athlete who starred as a quarterback both in high school and on the junior college level, Smith can throw it well enough to keep defenses honest, but it might be time to commit fully to the ground game if things don’t go well against the Wildcats.
That is where Smith could be an important guy. With Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas, Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson, Auburn has plenty of ammunition to become a team similar to 2013 group that used the ground game to pound opponents into submission. While it may be a work in progress, if things don’t look better on Thursday it might be time to give it a look.
Will The Defense Improve?
With a bye week to work on the basics the Auburn defense will have a great opportunity to show improvement against the Kentucky Wildcats on Thursday night. The first order of business will be to get better play out of the front four, especially rushing the passer.
Expected to be improved in that area with the return of Carl Lawson this season, Auburn has instead fallen into the familiar rut from a season ago with just seven sacks in five games this season. When you consider that four of those came in the first half against Louisville before Lawson was injured again and you have a serious problem for the Tigers.
Working on getting more production out of the front four during the bye week Coach Will Muschamp said he’s seen some improvements but now the proof is in the pudding.
“We’ll see on game day,” Muschamp said. “At the end of the day, I think that they’ve practiced better. I think we’ve tried to improve our pad level and our hand placement up front, our blow delivery and playing behind our pads, been disengaging and getting off blocks, playing double teams better.
“It’s not like we haven’t emphasized it before but again, continue to try and address those things and improve and we’ll find out on game day.”
There is no question in my mind that moving Cassanova McKInzy to the Buck position is a step in the right direction, but much, much more is needed for this defense to take a big step forward. Names such as Jauntavius Johnson and Andrew Williams have been mentioned as players that could get a shot this week to show what they can do, but the playmaking ability at the moment falls directly on the shoulders of Montravius Adams, Dontavius Russell, DaVonte Lambert as the starters.
That group has to set the tone and that means making plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. If they can do that and let Byron Cowart, Jeff Holland, Raashed Kennion and others ride the wave of momentum it could be a huge boost for the entire team.