Breakout candidates: 6 Auburn football players to watch during their first spring practices

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

The first spring of the Bryan Harsin era is nearly here.

Auburn football is set to hold its first of 15 allotted practices on Monday. It will also take the field on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The team will scrimmage for the first time on March 27, take a week off, then return to action to get ready for the April 17 A-Day spring game.

It’s not the first spring at Auburn for just Harsin and the bulk of his coaching staff, though. The Tigers, like so many teams throughout the country, lost last year’s practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Most of the team’s first- and second-year players are going through what Harsin described as “maybe the most valuable practices you get in an entire year” for the first time.

“The summertime, that’s where the greatest development comes for a particular player,” Harsin explained to Andy Burcham on the Talking Tigers podcast. “Their strength and speed, their football intelligence, all the things that they’re preparing themselves to go out and execute during the season, happens in the summer. You finetune that in fall camp, but where does that come from? All the things that happen in spring to set the new goals and vision.”

Here’s a look at six potential breakout candidates to watch as they go through spring practice for the first time at Auburn:

Safety Chris Thompson Jr.

Auburn defensive back Chris Thompson Jr. (5) tackles Northwestern running back Cam Porter (20) during the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2021.

There might not be a player on defense with a bigger opportunity. Auburn needs a new starting safety next to Smoke Monday after the departures of Jamien Sherwood and Jordyn Peters, and with the only other natural player at the position being true freshman Ahmari Harvey, the job could be the sophomore Thompson’s to take. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound former four-star recruit from DeSoto, Texas, got his feet wet with eight tackles across six appearances last season, and Peters said “he’s set up to be an amazing player” given the opportunity – “He’s built for it. He has the size, he has the speed, he’s physical. The sky’s the limit.”

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Tight end Brandon Frazier

Auburn tight end Brandon Frazier (87) reaches for a pass against Mississippi State on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Starkville, Miss.

We never really got to see what the freshman was capable of last season. He wasn’t able to debut for the Tigers until Nov. 21 and finished his rookie campaign with just two catches for 13 yards across five games. But the tantalizing skill and size (he’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds) that made him a four-star prospect coming out of McKinney, Texas, hasn’t gone away. A Boise State tight end caught at least 10 passes and one touchdown every season Harsin was coach there. Maybe a healthy Frazier can become that kind of weapon for the Tigers, especially with there being so much inexperience at wide receiver.

Offensive tackle Kilian Zierer

Auburn offensive linemen Kilian Zierer (77) and blocks defensive lineman Zykeivous Walker (3) during practice on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020 in Auburn, Ala.

Auburn returns eight offensive linemen who started at least one game last season. Zierer isn’t one of them, but don’t count him out – the No. 3 junior college offensive tackle in the 2020 class was a player the previous Tigers coaching staff thought could challenge for a starting tackle role immediately before a knee injury sidelined him most of last year. If he’s healthy, it will be worth watching to see whether Zierer, a native of Germany still relatively new to football, can push incumbents Alec Jackson and Austin Troxell at left tackle. The competition could be wide open with a new head coach, coordinator (Mike Bobo) and offensive line coach (Will Friend) running the show.

Defensive linemen Dre Butler and Zykeivous Walker

Auburn defensive lineman Dre Butler (49) during practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Auburn, AL.

Butler and Walker fit similar molds on Auburn’s defense. Both are second-year players for the Tigers (though Butler is more experienced after spending a year in junior college). Both have the size to play defensive tackle – Butler is 6-foot-5 and 304 pounds and Walker is 6-foot-4 and 266 pounds – but also enough athleticism to shift outside and play end, which they both did last season. That kind of versatility will be useful in a Derek Mason-coordinated defense that could use multiple alignments up front. Butler and Walker each finished with 14 tackles and a sack last year and came on strong late in the season, putting them in line for potentially much bigger roles in Year 2.

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Wide receiver Kobe Hudson

Auburn wide receiver Kobe Hudson (5) makes a move to get past Northwestern defensive back A.J. Hampton (11) during the Citrus Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.

Auburn will need multiple players to step up at this position after the departures of Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove, and Hudson is certainly one of the top names to watch. The highest-rated wide receiver signee in the Tigers’ 2020 class is a prototypical flanker in the offenses Harsin and Bobo have run during their careers. Hudson caught seven passes for 70 yards in limited action as a freshman, and that was a year after playing mostly quarterback for Troup County High. He should get plenty of opportunities to build rapport with quarterback Bo Nix this spring.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.