Will Auburn football's offensive line experience equal production? Tigers' fate hinges on it

·4 min read

AUBURN — When Bryan Harsin was named football coach at Auburn football, he noticed quickly that his offensive line was "under fire."

The position group was experienced but scrutinized throughout his first season.

Now a year later it's even more experienced.

And equally scrutinized.

"It just is what it is," Harsin said. I think we have good players in that group. I think we showed it last year at times. I don't think we're consistent enough, and I think we've got to find guys that are going to be able to do that through four quarters."

With eight seniors and increased emphasis on the run game, this is a now-or-never year for improvement in the trenches. The fate of a team picked to finish last in the SEC West could depend on it.

Run blocking vs. pass protection

Auburn finished in the bottom half of the SEC in almost every run blocking metric last year. The Tigers' opportunity rate (percentage of carries that gained at least 4 yards) was 49.1%, ranking No. 52 in FBS and No. 11 in the SEC.

The offensive line allowed 16.8% of runs to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. That was the No. 8 stuff rate in the SEC, also outside the top 50 nationally.

Football Outsiders keeps a statistic estimating a team's yards per carry that can be accredited to an offensive line's production, rather than running backs. Auburn averaged 2.72 "line yards per carry," again in the same range: ninth in the SEC, 59th in FBS.

But there was a clear discrepancy between run blocking and pass protection.

Five linemen played more than 100 run blocking snaps: Keiondre Jones, Brandon Council, Austin Troxell, Nick Brahms and Kilian Zierer. The average of their Pro Football Focus run blocking grades was 55.6.

The same five averaged a 68.7 grade in pass blocking.

Auburn's sack rate allowed was 4.8%, fifth-best in the SEC (No. 27 FBS). That rate lowered to 3.3% on standard downs but worsened to 7% on passing downs, accentuating the importance of avoiding chasing the sticks.

And of course, that starts with efficient running in early downs.

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Conditioning and continuity

If the personnel stays mostly the same, what areas can the production improve, and what are the reasons for optimism?

Harsin's promise of progress is not his usual speech about intangibles.

"You play the best defensive lines in the country in the SEC," Harsin said. "We can talk about mindset – 'Is a guy tough enough?' – and all that, but if you physically can't whoop somebody, it's hard to go out there and have confidence.

"I think, physically, we're much better than we were a year ago."

That idea looks different for each player. Two returning starters lost weight this offseason. Zierer, on the other hand, gained 14 pounds and believes "I’m at the perfect weight right now."

Jeff Pitman has prioritized heavier lifting in his two years leading Auburn's strength and conditioning program. The goal is build muscle that will allow blockers to "finish" better: "We’re going to stay on blocks until the end of the whistle – don’t let nobody shed off," Council said.

Power success rate measures the percentage of third- or fourth-down runs, with no more than 2 yards to go, that a team converted. Auburn's was 60%, the second-worst in the league (No. 107 FBS).

"A lot of people say it's just 'You've got to get stronger' and all that in that situation," offensive line coach Will Friend said. "Well, a lot of it is: You've got to improve your focus and your concentration because of how big of a moment it is."

As he's quick to point out, the theme of "finishing" this preseason is more macro than just finishing blocks – both in terms of Auburn's season-ending five-game skid and the blown leads that defined that stretch.

Continuity could help. Last season, Friend became Troxell's fourth offensive line coach in five years at Auburn. The right tackle finally has a leader back for a second season. No more learning new terminology makes a huge difference, he says.

Auburn is also lessening its emphasis on cross-training linemen between positions. More continuity: Tackles are tackles. Guards are guards.

"You'd like to have that core working together and have them at the right spots more now than when we first got here," Harsin said. "Because we were still trying to figure out who they are. Now we want to spend more time with them in the right positions."

Harsin was asked at SEC Media names to name an "under the radar" position group on his team. The offensive line was his immediate response.

Will the changes he identified be enough for the same "under fire" group to now fly under the radar? Auburn is betting on it.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn football 2022: Will offensive line experience equal production?