Who are the next men up on Auburn’s rebuilding offensive line?
AUBURN — Nick Brahms spent the past two seasons as the young guy on Auburn’s offensive line.
In 2018, he was the redshirt freshman who filled in for injured junior Kaleb Kim at center for a five-week run during the middle of the season. In 2019, he was the only nonsenior to start a game up front, taking over for the struggling incumbent starter at the start of November.
In 2020, the 6-foot-3, 301-pound junior will suddenly be the seasoned veteran on an offensive line that is otherwise almost completely devoid of SEC experience.
Between Kim, Prince Tega Wanogho, Marquel Harrell, Mike Horton, Jack Driscoll and Bailey Sharp, Auburn is losing six senior offensive linemen who combined to make 119 of a possible 130 starts on the offensive line over the past two seasons. Brahms made 10 of the other 11.
“I feel like it'll just give him confidence to take control of the room. Because, like, right now, he just goes with what the other guys say. But next year, he'll have to take on a whole different mode,” Harrell said. “The hardest thing I've been through is trying to be a leader, because people don't tell you the ins and outs of what makes a great leader. You just kind of figure it out as you go. Just him figuring out how to become a leader in that room, becoming a leader on the team and him just growing as a person and as a player is going to help him out a whole lot.”
The Tigers need Brahms to take that step forward this year. They’re set to return SEC Freshman of the Year quarterback Bo Nix, leading wide receivers Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz and a deep stable of running backs led by JaTarvious Whitlow, D.J. Williams and newcomer Tank Bigsby, but they’re about to go from having the most experienced offensive line in the SEC to probably the least experienced.
Five months ago, before the 2019 season began, replacing four starters seemed like a daunting task. Given that senior group’s somewhat inconsistent performance in an up-and-down, 9-4 campaign, however, it now feels like it could be a much-needed fresh start up front.
A new offensive line coach will oversee the rebuild after veteran J.B. Grimes stepped down from the role on Tuesday. He’ll inherit 11 returning scholarship players, five newcomers signed in December (more could join them in February) and plenty of potential possibilities.
“The future is bright. I’m looking forward to playing with those guys,” Brahms said. “They’re super talented, and next year is going to be a fun one.”
Here’s a closer look at the candidates who will be vying for one of the four open starting spots next to Brahms on Auburn’s 2020 offensive line:
Brodarious Hamm (Jr.) — 6-5, 312
No reserve offensive lineman was talked about more during the 2019 season than Hamm, who might be the only true lock to ascend to a starting role in 2020.
“We're really expecting big things out of Brodarious,” head coach Gus Malzahn said last month. “The defensive players, he gets their attention and they always comment on how strong he is and how powerful he is. And I think he's getting to a point now, he's ready to take that next step.”
Hamm signed with Auburn in 2016 but did not join the football program until 2017 after undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Griffin, Georgia, native spent his first two seasons playing guard before shifting out to right tackle in August, where he backed up two-year starter Driscoll and quickly made an impression. He appeared in each of the final 11 games of the 2019 season.
“Brodarious, you know, he’s a really strong kid. He’s naturally strong. When he gets his hands on you, it’s over,” Driscoll said. “I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
Austin Troxell (Jr.) — 6-6, 310
The only thing that has held the former four-star recruit out of Huntsville back during his three years on campus is injury. He redshirted his first season in 2017 as he recovered from a torn ACL suffered as a senior at Madison Academy, then missed all of 2019 recovering from a reoccurrence of the same injury during Auburn’s A-Day spring game.
In between those injuries, though, he appeared in 12 games off the bench as Driscoll’s backup at right tackle during the 2018 season and performed well in his opportunities. Hamm has replaced him as the heir apparent at right tackle, but it seems Troxell could get the first crack at taking over for Wanogho at left tackle, provided that he’s healthy.
And he is expected to be — Malzahn said prior to the Outback Bowl that he has progressed well and his rehab and “should be ready to go” when the team returns to the practice field.
“I think he's in a good spot,” the head coach said.
Alec Jackson (Jr.) — 6-5, 304
Kilian Zierer (Jr.) — 6-7, 284
Brenden Coffey (Jr.) — 6-6, 264
Hamm and Troxell appear to be the leaders for the two open starting tackle jobs, but nothing will likely be handed to them.
Their top returning competition will come from Jackson, a former defensive tackle out of Jeff Davis High who made the move to the offensive line in 2019 and appeared in all 13 games as a reserve tackle.
“In the run game, I feel like he’s going to be really good,” Wanogho said of Jackson. “He’s a real physical dude. But in the pass protection game, I feel like there’s just something switching from the defense to offense, that’s something he’s got to work on.”
December signees Zierer and Coffey could also factor into the competition given that they each have two years of experience at the JUCO level (the three-star recruits ranked No. 1 and 3 in the 2020 tackle class, respectively), but they’ll have some catching up to do first. Coffey isn’t expected to arrive until the summer. Zierer, a native of Germany who has been playing organized football for only a few years, did enroll early, but he’s recovering from a knee injury and isn’t expected to be cleared in time for spring.
Malzahn described Zierer as having “a chance to really be a special player,” and Coffey as “a hard-nosed guy” who could “help us right off the bat.”
Jalil Irvin (So.) — 6-2, 299
Keiondre Jones (R-Fr.) — 6-3, 325
Tashawn Manning (Jr.) — 6-3, 326
Kameron Stutts (So.) — 6-4, 320
Auburn’s two starting guards in 2020 could very well come out of this mix of players.
Irvin served as the backup to Brahms at center after Kim went down with injury late in the season, but he played right guard a few weeks earlier against Samford and it appears he may get the first crack at replacing Horton at that spot. Grimes called him the “surprise of camp” in August.
“I'm determined (to win a starting job),” Irvin said in November. “I'm going to go out there and give my best effort, and whatever happens, happens.”
Manning — who, like Hamm, beat cancer in 2016 and, like Jackson, moved to offense after signing as a defensive lineman — appeared in five games this season as the backup to Harrell at left guard. Stutts, a three-star recruit in 2018, appeared in 12 games mostly on special teams; and Jones, a four-star recruit ranked eighth nationally at the position in 2019, did not see any action after dealing with an injury early on during his rookie season.
"Those guys — Tashawn, Stutts, Keiondre — all those guys, I'm going to be excited to see their growth," Harrell said. "I know that Tashawn has personally put in a lot of the work, just asking me if I can help with stuff as far as technique and things like that. He just wants to get better, and they all have that itch to get better. Just all that extra growth. Those guys, I'm excited to see them step into the starting role, whoever it may be. They're going to be fine."
Prince Micheal Sammons is the only senior slated to be on the roster next season, but he has hardly been a factor since arriving on campus in 2016 and missed the entire 2019 season due to injury. True freshmen Justin Osborne and Kamaar Bell did not see any action during their first season with the program.
Auburn has very high hopes for its crop of 2020 high school signees — three-star tackle Jeremiah Wright, guard Tate Johnson and center Avery Jernigan — though it seems unlikely that the team will look to any of them to be starters as true freshmen.
The wild cards
Auburn would like to not be done adding players at this position prior to the start of the 2020 season. It has a commitment from No. 6-ranked JUCO tackle prospect Jonathan Buskey (though it’s unclear if he’ll be able to sign in February), and Malzahn left open the possibility that the Tigers could go after a graduate transfer.
They have been successful going that route in the past, most recently with Casey Dunn in 2017 and Driscoll in 2018. Vanderbilt’s Devin Cochrin, Texas A&M’s Kellen Deisch and Maryland’s Terrance Davis are among the immediately eligible players currently in the transfer portal, however it’s not known whether Auburn has shown interest in any of them.
The biggest name to watch, though, is that of Broderick Jones, a five-star tackle recruit out of Lithonia, Georgia, ranked as the No. 19 overall player in the 2020 class. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound prospect has been committed to Georgia since April 2018, but that was before offensive line coach Sam Pittman departed for Arkansas.
The Bulldogs pushed for Jones to sign during the early period in December, but he did not. In fact, he told 247Sports at the Under Armour All-America Game last week that it’s a “50-50 battle” between Auburn and Georgia, and that the Tigers will get his final visit before National Signing Day.
If Auburn can land him, he could immediately become a factor in what should already be a fascinating competition to replace four departed starters on the offensive line.
“They're going to have to become the leaders on the team,” Harrell said. “I feel like the sense of urgency with those guys are going to the next level. They're taking that next step.”