Healthy and hungry: Auburn football ready for a return to the IHSA state playoffs

Auburn senior receiver Jackson Kern hauls in a touchdown pass from Talin Kern against Athens on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.
Auburn senior receiver Jackson Kern hauls in a touchdown pass from Talin Kern against Athens on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.

AUBURN — When the football playoffs began last October, Auburn wasn’t invited. The Trojans went 3-6 and missed out on a berth for just the second time since 1996.

But with experience and a deeper roster, this year Auburn is hoping to punch its ticket for the first time in Ryan Gardner’s tenure as coach.

“We got more kids out, better kids out and we’re just working as a team,” said the Trojans’ top running back, junior Treshaun Lancaster.

After five weeks, the Trojans (3-2) have matched their win total from 2021 and face a pair of winless teams this week and next — 0-4 Riverton today at home and at 0-5 Pittsfield next week. Auburn made the playoffs 21 straight seasons from 1997-2017.

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Auburn’s gotten equal production from its running and passing games. Lancaster has 724 yards and five touchdowns on 80 carries (of Auburn’s 850 rushing yards). Junior quarterback Talin Kern is 48-of-79 for 735 yards (out of 864 yards passing for the team) with 10 touchdowns against three interceptions.

Kernkraft 400

Statistically, the biggest pairing in the passing game is Talin Kern and his cousin, senior Jackson Kern. Jackson Kern has 19 catches, 252 yards and three touchdowns. But Talin Kern says Jackson Kern isn’t his first look.

“He’s just fast,” Talin Kern said of his older cousin. “He can blow past his defenders. He’s not usually my first read but I can look at the defender and if he’s not looking like he’s Jackson’s speed then Jackson will go past him.”

The Kerns have a special bond that dates back to when they were very young.

“We have done basically everything together from a young age,” Jackson Kern said. “Not being able to go anywhere, being stuck in the neighborhood, each other were our go-tos. We did everything together, played together, we stayed the night together; we did whatever we wanted and it was with us two.”

They live just four houses away from each other.

“We live on a big street … we grew up together, we play football outside in our backyard every single day in the summer, play flag football together,” Talin Kern said.

Doesn't stop there

Senior Nathan Barth is second in receiving for Auburn with 15 catches, 238 yards and five touchdowns while Grant Dobson and Sawyer Smith — Jackson Kern’s cousin on his mom’s side — each have nine catches and one TD (Smith has 164 yards receiving and Dobson has 135).

But Lancaster and the Kerns point to the Trojans offensive line as the vital unit as Auburn averages 38.3 points in its wins.

“Thanks to the linemen: without them, I wouldn’t be able to make those big runs,” Lancaster said.

The offensive line mainly consists of senior Cole Edie at left tackle, junior Joey Barrow at left guard, three-year starting center Ben Warwick, a senior, senior Tyler Lafountain and junior Juan Giron at left guard and senior Clinton Lovens at right tackle.

“It starts with the o-line blocking,” Talin Kern said. “The o-line does their job, the receivers do their job and I just have to do my job.”

Building confidence

Last year, Auburn had a roster dominated by a lot of sophomores — not a recipe for instant success in the ultra-competitive Sangamo Conference. Injuries then created depth issues.

“Less chaos has happened so far,” Gardner said. “Last year, we lost a lot of guys to injuries and we were already pretty thin coming in.

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But Gardner said the numbers rose despite the 3-6 season with some kids joining the team after not playing last year or first-year athletes deciding to play.

“It’s been nice not to have to worry about who to replace with who and where the depth is going to come from,” Gardner said. “The depth has been great this year and the injuries have stayed away. They’re more mature and they understand how things work.”

Jackson Kern added, “Last year we were younger and this year we have a lot more confidence to build on. Last year going 3-6 didn’t feel well; this year we have a chip on our shoulder to come out here and practice and go harder.”

Gardner said the entire team has been on the same page.

“We’re not hurting for athletes by any means, but if you look at our offense, our offensive line makes us going and the culture of being excited to block,” Gardner said. “If you can dominate the guy in front of you, you give everyone else a chance to win.

“Jackson had five pancakes (blocks) last week. That’s the mindset that’s taken us to the next level. You look at him and you wouldn’t think it; he’s got some strength but he’s tough as nails. He’s a ball of energy and he’s such a competitor. You couldn’t ask for a better kid but there’s not a kid on this team that I couldn’t say that same thing about. It’s just a group of kids that’s a ton of fun to be around, they work really hard and they’ve bought into what we’ve been preaching.”

Auburn’s goal isn’t just to make the playoffs.

"We’re thinking second or third round right now; farther on hopefully,” Talin Kern said. “But if we make it there, we’ll be pretty happy with our season and build on it for next season.”

Contact Ryan Mahan: 788-1546, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.

This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: IHSA football: Auburn healthy and hungry for return to state playoffs