Austin Golson (above) is a returning starter as he heads into his redshirt junior season.
Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of position previews for the 2016 Auburn football team.
Auburn, Ala.--With a pair of very experienced guards to anchor the offensive front, the Auburn football Tigers are hoping that their linemen develop into be a team strength this season.
The new coach for the group, Herb Hand, is counting on a spring training position change to help stabilize the tackle positions after Auburn lost both of last year’s starters, Shon Coleman and Avery Young, who are trying to make NFL rosters. Austin Golson, a starter last season at center, is expected to be the No. 1 left tackle when the Tigers open the season on Sept. 3rd vs. Clemson.
Golson, a 6-5, 314 junior who began his college playing days as an offensive tackle at Ole Miss, is very familiar with the position as he takes over a spot held last season by Coleman. Golson and Auburn’s likely new starter at right tackle, 6-6, 299 senior Robert Leff, will be lined up next to guards who have played a lot of football for the Tigers.
At left guard the Tigers feature preseason All-SEC pick Alex Kozan, a 6-4, 310 senior who started every game last year to raise his total of Auburn starts to 27. At right guard 6-6, 314 Braden Smith, who has 15 career starts, is back for his junior season after earning second team all-league status in 2015.
Alex Kozan (in blue) made a strong comeback in 2015 after missing the previous season with a back injury.
When the Tigers wrapped up spring training it appeared that move of Golson to left tackle was going to stick with the way Xavier Dampeer performed at center and that has not changed. A fifth-year senior who got a medical hardship redshirt in 2015, Dampeer is a 6-2, 310-pounder who won praise from the coaches for his improvement in spring drills.
Hand said that he believes in getting the five best players in the starting lineup whenever possible, which is why he often cross-trains linemen at a second position. Leff has worked at both tackle spots as has backup Darius James, a 6-4, 320 junior. In addition to playing guard, Smith has practiced and started games at tackle.
Redshirt freshman Mike Horton, who practiced at tackle last season, worked at right guard in spring training along with Tyler Carr, who is also a redshirt freshman. Carr is 6-5, 318 and Horton is 6-4, 331.
The backup at left guard, 6-3, 318 Marquell Harrell, is also a redshirt freshman. The same is true at center where 6-4, 290 Kaleb Kim lines up.
Yet another redshirt freshman, 6-5, 300 Bailey Sharp, is the backup at right tackle along with 6-4, 315 junior Deon Mix, who can also play guard and center.
“We want to have a contingency plan,” Hand said about training players to handle more than one position. “My coach always used to tell me if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. We have no plans for failure here.”
Herb Hand made the move to Auburn from Penn State. He previously coached in the SEC at Vanderbilt.
Kozan, Smith and Leff have started games for the Tigers while James, a transfer from Texas, started two times for the Longhorns prior to being injured and transferring to Auburn.
“You have got to have the experience up front to have success in this league,” Hand said. “We have got some experienced guys and that is exciting.”
Two guys with no college experience on the offensive line are Prince Sammons, a freshman from Cincinnati, and Prince Tega Wanogho, a redshirt freshman who missed last season with an injury. Wanogho is healthy now and ready to learn the offensive tackle assignments after playing defensive end in high school. Sammons was also primarily a defensive player in high school, but is expected to be an offensive tackle for the Tigers.
Hand, who made the move to Auburn from Penn State, said a big factor in his decision to return to the SEC was to be a part of Gus Malzahn’s coaching staff. The pair worked together as co-offensive coordinators for two seasons at Tulsa.
“To get back in the SEC was a big factor, but not just to get back in the conference--it was to work with Gus and to work at Auburn University,” Hand said. “I mean, the football here speaks for itself. You are talking about one of the greatest programs since they started lacing up football and so all those factors were part of the decision, but the primary one was to get back with Gus.”
The offensive line coach added, “We kind of have contrasting personalities, but at the end of the day he is a really good guy. I have got nothing but love for the guy. He is kind of got a nerdy cool about him that I love. I like working with him and I like working for him.”