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As the Tigers face scrutiny – picked to finish last in the SEC West – they have work to do in the final month before games begin.
What will the final depth chart look like? Here are the six most important position battles that will play out during preseason practices.
Kicker: Anders Carlson vs. Alex McPherson
Honorable mention for the kickers. Surely a true freshman can't dethrone an eight-year Auburn dynasty, right? Senior Anders Carlson tore his ACL late last season and has worked his way back from the knee injury. His brother, Daniel, was the kicker from 2014-17. If Carlson's healthy, he probably gets first dibs, but don't forget Auburn added the nation's No. 1 place-kicker recruit in Alex McPherson.
Offensive line: right tackle, left guard
Brandon Council is the defending starter at left guard, challenged by Kameron Stutts, who might have extra appeal because he's a rare case on this offensive line: someone who will still be around one year from now. Thinking ahead matters with eight seniors. At right tackle, it's a familiar competition between seniors Alex Troxell and Alec Jackson.
Safety: Craig McDonald vs. Cayden Bridges vs. Marquise Gilbert
Auburn is replacing starters Smoke Monday and Bydarrius Knighten. Zion Puckett is almost a lock. He played ample free safety and slot corner last season. Who starts alongside him? With injuries and personnel shortages in the spring, redshirt freshman Cayden Bridges and early enrollee Caleb Wooden took first-team reps.
Both could earn playing time this season (Harsin is less likely to start a true freshman like Wooden), but safety was a top transfer priority after the spring. Auburn landed Iowa State's Craig McDonald, instantly a legitimate contender. Juco transfer Marquise Gilbert is also in the mix.
Receiver: A lot of guys
The most wide open position group on the roster. Senior Shedrick Jackson is a likely starter. The slot and the other wideout aren't so certain. Does Ja'Varrius Johnson become a full-time starter after 19 catches for 274 yards last year? He played 86% of his pass snaps in the slot, but that's also where Harsin-hyped LSU transfer Koy Moore fits best.
Any number of unproven receivers could factor in. Tar'Varish Dawson is a raw talent but still learning. He's also 5-foot-11, joining the 5-10 Johnson among Auburn's compelling options who lack height. Maybe Malcolm Johnson Jr. at 6-1 is a better fit out wide. He didn't play as much as expected last year (six catches). Or the 6-4 Ze'Vian Capers.
Auburn has a list of newcomers in the room, all of whom are question marks in terms of playing time. Converted tight end Landen King and Miami transfer Dazalin Worsham enter the mix. So do three true freshmen: Camden Brown, Jay Fair and Omari Kelly.
At receiver, these weeks of practice are proving ground in the truest sense. It should finally give shape to Auburn's most jumbled position group.
Inside linebacker: Wesley Steiner vs. Cam Riley
If team captain Owen Pappoe stays healthy after an injury-plagued 2021, he will start. The other inside linebacker spot is up for grabs.
Cam Riley was the defensive player of the game on A-Day. Wesley Steiner played 24 more snaps last season and is lauded for his leadership. Riley has five inches on Steiner. Steiner has seven pounds on Riley. The juniors are different styles of linebacker. The one who starts will likely be one of Auburn's leading tacklers.
QB1: Zach Calzada vs. T.J. Finley vs. Robby Ashford
If a pre-preseason depth chart had to be predicted, the order of starter likelihood would probably be as listed above: Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada has the most buzz and the most starting experience in Auburn's first legitimate quarterback competition since 2019. His practice reps will be closely monitored after a lingering shoulder injury preventing him from playing in the A-Day Game.
But Calzada starting is far from a foregone conclusion. All four quarterbacks on Auburn's roster entered the program during Harsin's tenure. He will want to evaluate his options thoroughly, and there isn't one player with an obvious talent advantage over the others. (Incoming four-star Holden Geriner could be a starter someday, but the true freshman isn't quite an immediate candidate.)
T.J. Finley has a year in Auburn's system. Robby Ashford has the least experience but left the most dazzling impression in the spring game. I'm not ruling out anyone yet. It's game on.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn football's 5 most important preseason practice position battles