AUBURN, Ala. – When Auburn kicked off preseason camp Aug. 5, most of the cameras focused on the Tigers’ quarterback competition.
Transfers Zach Calzada spirit Robby Ashford joined returning QB TJ Finley and true freshman Holden Gerinerwith Auburn head coach Bryan Harris telling reporters at SEC Media Days the Tigers would “name a starter when it’s right.”
Finley started Auburn’s last three games in 2021 after an injury to Bo Nix. He directed a 98-yard touchdown drive to lead the Tigers to a comeback win vs. Georgia State, and nearly quarterbacked the Tigers to an Iron Bowl victory.
Calzada, who started at Texas A&M last season, led the Aggies to home victories vs. Alabama and Auburn before being limited in spring practice on the Plains after injuring his non-throwing shoulder while playing the Tigers in 2021.
“Every day he’s been there, the work ethic, the focus, the attention to detail, the little opportunities to do more when he has a chance to do that, has really become his foundation,” Harsin said of Calzada. “We appreciate that. We appreciate his leadership. We appreciate his work ethic. He has experience. He’s played.”
Ashford, who transferred from Oregon, was the offensive MVP of Auburn’s A-Day game.
“Every single one of those quarterbacks, they bring something to the table,” Harsin said. “They’re all pushing themselves. They know it’s really about them, when they get their opportunity to make it count, but also support each other and be great teammates.”
Whoever wins the job will benefit from a seasoned offensive line and talented backfield.
“The O-line is stronger, they’re bigger, they’re moving better. Coach Friend has done a really good job,” Harsin said. “We’re advanced in our strength and our knowledge of our system. Now we’ve got to go show it. We’ve got some really good tailbacks behind them.
“If you’re playing offensive line for us and you’ve got Jarquez Hunter spirit Tank Bigsby behind you, that should be motivation enough, because those guys can do some really good things if we can take care of business up front.”
Taking care of that business up front begins with center Nick Brahmswho has started games since his redshirt freshman season of 2018. Austin Troxell, Brandon Council, Keiondre Jones, Kilian Zierer spirit Alec Jackson have all started in the trenches for the Tigers, and senior Cameron Stutts is another seasoned candidate, giving O-line coach Will Friend experienced options to employ.
“We’re building something special here and I wanted to be a part of that,” said Troxell of his decision to return for a sixth season. “We’re a confident group. We have a lot of depth. There’s a lot of things we need to work on. We’re building the camaraderie of the unit and we’re going to get better every day.”
Bigsby enters his junior season ranked No. 20 in program history with 1,933 career rushing yards, needing 67 to reach the 2,000-yard mark.
The SEC freshman of the year in 2020, Bigsby rushed for 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2021.
“You’ve got to come to play,” said Bigsby, who has rushed for 15 career touchdowns. “You can’t come in like a high school game and think you can take over the game by yourself. You need other guys. It’s a team game. That’s what I’ve learned while I’ve been in college.”
Bigsby and Auburn running backs coach Carnell Williams are in their third season together, with Cadillac expressing appreciation for Bigsby’s leadership, maturity and commitment to detail.
“That’s how my game developed,” Bigsby said. “Knowing about the little things and letting the big things take care of themselves.”
If there’s one position group that rivals Auburn’s O-line for experience, it’s the Tigers’ tight ends. Sixth-year senior John Samuel Shenker set program season records for tight ends with 33 receptions for 413 yards in 2021.
Shenker helped Auburn win at LSU last season, making five catches for 102 yards, the first 100-yard game by an Auburn tight end since 1994.
Taking advantage of positional depth, Auburn frequently utilized multiple tight ends last season. Shenker, Luke Deal, Tyler Fromm spirit Brandon Frazier have all played together for at least three seasons.
“We’re so close,” said Shenker, who’s made 45 career receptions for 540 yards and two touchdowns. “We’ve played together for so long now. To have that bond, it’s really special. We know when each guy is on the field, they’re going to make plays. That’s something we have a belief in. It’s a confidence we have knowing what we bring to the table and to the team. It’s really exciting to have a room like that.”
First-year offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau took over as receivers coach during the 2021 season, then earned a promotion to play caller before spring practice.
“We work really well together. I think we mesh well,” said Harsin, who previously hired Kiesau at Boise State. “He can organize people. He can align people. He can get his vision and message across very clearly.”
“I’m excited about where we are and where we’re going,” Kiesau said. “When you walk on that field, you are competing because camp is short. We don’t have time to ease into it.”
With Kiesau calling plays and coaching quarterbacks, Harsin hired former SEC and NFL standouts Ike Hilliard to coach Auburn’s receivers, bringing with him 11 seasons of NFL coaching experience.
“Immediate impact,” Harsin said of Hilliard. “Ike is one of those individuals that when he walks into a room, there’s a presence about him. You know he knows what he’s talking about. Ike has been there. He’s done it. Everything those guys want to do, he’s been a part of it.
“As far as his knowledge on the football field, in the staff room, second to none. This guy is phenomenal. We’re very fortunate to have him. I love working with him. I love his energy, love his enthusiasm, love everything that he brings to the table. This guy is a difference maker.”
Hilliard leads a group that returns Shedrick Jackson as its most experienced receiver, hoping to develop the timing and teamwork required to frustrate SEC defenses this fall while providing leadership for younger teammates.
“I’m grateful for it and I just love it,” said Jackson, Auburn’s leading returning receiver with 50 career catches for 657 yards.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer