AUBURN — Auburn’s version of fake football begins again.
Spring football at Auburn University will begin Thursday with no shoulder pads, no starting quarterback and the likelihood of no set depth chart.
Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn, fresh off his new seven-year contract extension, will begin the first of 15 allotted spring practices with his starting quarterback on the injured list and eight first-year players from the 2018 recruiting class on the field.
“Once you get to spring and you put the pads on, specifically, usually a couple other guys step up from a team leader standpoint, too, and it doesn’t always have to be an older guy,” Malzahn said. “Sometimes it’s younger guys and we’ve got some younger guys that have performed very well on the field that have the ability to kind of take that next step.”
For the second straight spring season, Auburn will open practices without its returning starter at the quarterback position. Sean White, who is no longer on the team, wasn’t available last year, and today likely will not feature Jarrett Stidham, who took nearly every practice rep last spring with the first-team offense. He’s been seen around campus this spring wearing a sling. Stidham had offseason surgery shortly after the Peach Bowl loss to Central Florida to clean up damage to his non-throwing shoulder.
Malzahn confirmed this likelihood in his National Signing Day news conference, saying Stidham won’t be fully cleared to participate until after the spring break gap in the practice schedule. Auburn will have four practices from Thursday through March 8 before the campus breaks for spring break from March 10-18. The Tigers will regroup for practices between March 20 and the A-Day spring game April 7.
“At this point, it looks like he probably will not start participating until after spring break," Malzahn said.
Stidham finished the 2017 regular season leading the Southeastern Conference in completion percentage (66.7) and had 3,158 yards along with 18 touchdowns with just six interceptions. He could be considered a possible preseason Heisman Trophy candidate and All-SEC selection in a 2018 season but could possibly be held out of any contact until summer workouts.
With Stidham’s injury, sophomore Malik Willis and incoming early enrollee freshman Joey Gatewood can assume control over the first-team offense. While Gatewood, the four-star signee from the Jacksonville (Fla.) area, will be asked to learn nothing more the basics of the offense, it’s Willis who will be evaluated with more scrutiny after seeing mop-up duty in seven games as a freshman.
“I think he’s becoming more and more comfortable, obviously, with the offense but (also) just things that we want to coach with him now are just carrying his self like a quarterback all the time,” Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “Good, bad or indifferent on the field, being able to have that really good body language, because you’re the leader of the team when you’re the quarterback. He’s doing a really nice job of taking coaching. He’s learned how to prepare as the season’s gone along. He’s got a really bright future.”
The only two new coaching developments in the spring were the return of J.B. Grimes as he replaces the departed Herb Hand as offensive line coach and Marcus Woodson coaching the defensive backs.
Grimes will take over an offensive line that loses four starters from 2017. Grimes coached the offensive line at Auburn from 2013-15 before leaving to joins staffs at the University of Cincinnati and University of Connecticut.
“I’m excited about J.B. because we know exactly what we’re getting from Day One,” Malzahn said. “He’s one of the best teachers that I’ve ever been around in my 28 years of coaching. I know our players are excited. We’re really happy to have him back for that reason.”
Woodson, who will be assisting Auburn’s secondary players, was named as Auburn’s 10th assistant coach shortly after the Peach Bowl after he spent the last two years as an on-field assistant coach at the University of Memphis.
“He’ll be in the secondary and we’re excited to have him,” Malzahn said. “He’s a phenomenal coach and was a phenomenal player. With him and Greg in the secondary, we feel good about where we are with that.”