Editor's Note: These lists feature our thoughts on the most important players for Auburn heading into the 2016 football season. We are counting down 16 key Tigers for the offense and 16 more for the defense as Coach Gus Malzahn's team prepares to face Clemson in the season opener.
Auburn, Ala.--Under Gus Malzahn, when Auburn's offense has been at its best the quarterback has shown the ability to be a threat running the football, but the guard position has also been a strength of the offensive line. This season the second part of that equation should be in place with Braden Smith joining Alex Kozan to give the Tigers perhaps the best guard combo in the Southeastern Conference.
A player with a boatload of nicknames, including “The Hulk” and “Drago,” Smith stepped in as a starter at right guard last season and showed why he was one of the most sought-after linemen in the country in the 2014 recruiting class with his physical presence at the point of attack and his ability to get to the edge when pulling.
Braden Smith and the Tigers will open the season vs. Clemson.
Starting his college playing days as a tackle and with the ability to play that position if needed, Smith is at home at guard and it shows with his play. Improving as a pass blocker and settling into his role on the right side, Smith has a chance to be one of an All-American before he leaves Auburn if he continues to progress as a player.
Best Case Scenario: With Smith and Kozan playing at a high level Auburn’s running game should be tough to handle between the tackles with another physical player Xavier Dampeer in the middle. The ability to run the football downhill has been a key for success for the Tigers under Malzahn because it allows for the tempo to be ramped up to a high speed.
Worst Case Scenario: If there’s any area that Smith still struggles with it’s in pass protection, something he has improved since his freshman season. With Robert Leff outside of him at right tackle that could be something to watch in obvious passing situations early in the season against teams like Clemson, LSU and Texas A&M, which all feature talented pass rushing defensive ends.
Career Comparison: Stacy Searels was a powerful offensive lineman who excelled in Auburn’s run-first offensive system early in his career but developed into an outstanding pass blocker as well for the Tigers. While he played tackle, Searels had the ability to knock players off the ball in the running game much the same way Smith does for the Tigers. Also like Smith, Searels was a highly-recruited player.
Quote: “Braden’s very athletic, he’s an athlete, so he can do some things that the rest of us kind of can’t do,” Alex Kozan said. “You see him on plays sometimes do something you don’t really see that much. Braden continues to get better, and he knows all of it mentally now, so he can just play.”