As the new season begins next week, we take a look at some of the newcomers that will have an impact on the 2014 Auburn Tigers football team. Yesterday, we discussed five breakout players for this year, and today we put the spotlight on five others that will have an opportunity to contribute as true freshmen.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee recently spent about 20 minutes with the media discussing a lot of things, but the freshman class in particular. He brought up Jakell Mitchell, an athletic but undersized tight end, diminutive wide receiver Stanton Tuitt, who could factor in on special teams, and 6-foot-3 receiver Myron Burton, who could also help on special teams and perhaps on offense.
Quarterback Sean White has received a lot of attention in the last week for his ascention to the third-string quarterback position behind Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson, but the coaching staff hopes to redshirt him. Redshirting also appears to be the plan for Chris Laye, a tight end/fullback type.
So who will have the biggest impact? We count down the top five Auburn Tigers impact true freshmen.
5. Raashed Kennion 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, Defensive End
One of the biggest concerns for Auburn this fall is the need for a pass rusher. If it wasn’t such a desperate need, Kennion might not make this list. However, the raw, unheralded true freshman from Jacksonville, Florida may wind up with a pretty important role.
“He can rush the quarterback,” defensive line coach Rodney Garner told the media early in fall camp. “The problem is he needs to get stronger and the problem is you need to redshirt him. The problem is I don’t know if we can. There are a lot of problems, but I really think he can really be a good outside pass rusher.”
Kennion was a three-star recruit in the most recent class and signed with the Tigers after originally giving a verbal commitment to Cincinnati. He has been clocked in the 4.6-second range in the 40-yard dash, and should be able to use time in the weight room and campus dining halls to fill out his lanky body over the next few years.
At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Kennion is built slightly bigger, but still reminds me of Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. Floyd is one of the best at his position in the SEC and is poised for a huge breakout year, and Kennion could be that kind of player.
The only issue is that the standup outside linebacker role that Floyd plays for the Bulldogs doesn’t exist as part of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s standard 4-2-5 defense. However, Johnson will turn to a “cinco” package in obvious pass situations in which Kennion could play that role.
“I really think that the ‘Cinco’ package is really tailor made for a kid like Raashed,” Garner told reporters. “He can be that outside overhang guy to go along with those three (down linemen) and then you don’t have to sub personnel. I think our whole staff sort of sees that with him. The kid’s just so athletic, he can run, he can flat fly.”
4. #14 Stephen Roberts, 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Defensive Back
Roberts is one of six new faces in the secondary for Auburn this fall. The Opelika, Alabama native was ranked as the 120th player in the country by 247Sports, and was considered to be a top ten free safety prospect by the site. And while he has impressed as a defensive back, Roberts should play a bigger role on special teams – particularly as a punt returner.
“The kid that’s been impressive as a freshman is Stephen Roberts from Opelika,” special teams coordinator Scott Fountain told AL.com early in fall camp. “He’s very comfortable catching the ball, because he did that in high school. It’s kind of wide-open.”
We haven’t heard much about the punt return battle over the last two weeks, but Roberts appears to be a good bet to see time as a returner and on coverage teams. He suffered a hip pointer last week, but appears to be back at full speed. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Roberts get snaps on defense either as the season progresses.
3. #30 Tre’ Williams 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Linebacker
Aside from the need to find a pass rusher, the Auburn Tigers also need depth at the two standard linebacker spots in Ellis Johnson’s defense. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are the unquestioned starters in the middle and on the outside, respectively, but from there, the depth chart is unclear.
That means five-star recruit Tre’ Williams will have an opportunity to show what he can do as a true freshman.
Williams was one of the highest rated players in the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class. 247Sports ranked him as the best linebacker in the nation as well as the 22nd player overall, and Williams appeared on the Under Armour, Parade and MaxPreps All-American teams as a high school senior.
The talent is obviously there, but he’ll have to adjust to the speed of the college game, as well as the demands it places on players mentally.
“I thought that Tre’ Williams did enough that I’ve got to keep him battling for the two-deep,” Johnson told the media after a scrimmage during fall camp. “But like I’ve said before, he’s one of the guys that doesn’t have a grasp of our system yet, so he makes typical freshman mistakes. But he’s shown some good playmaking ability.”
Expect Williams to ease into playing time in 2014 before emerging as a star in later years.
2. #9 Roc Thomas, 5-foot-10, 193 pounds, Running Back
You might not realize it if you’ve been watching the SEC Network, but the Auburn Tigers are loaded at running back. Therefore, it may be surprising to see Racean “Roc” Thomas so high on our list. But, because of his talent, and the way the Tigers run the football, Thomas should be a major factor this season.
Right now, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are splitting reps with the first team offense, and for good reason. The pair combined to rush for more than 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns as backups to Tre Mason last season. They are likely to do a great job running the football this year as well, particularly with more carries because of Mason’s departure to the NFL. But, don’t be shocked to see Thomas make an impact.
Roc Thomas came to Auburn this fall as a five star running back. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alabama, and was considered the second best running back in the nation among high school seniors last season by Rivals.com. So the talent is obviously there. His durability, on the other hand?
“He’s like any freshman, he’s not going to be as physically fit now as he will be in a year or two years,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said to the media last week. “So is he physically ready to carry it like Tre did 30 times in a game? Well, no.”
He’s not huge – listed at 193 pounds – but should gain weight and muscle after a year in the strength and conditioning program. He’ll play a role as a change of pace, and should he provide a spark for the offense, Thomas’ responsibilities will increase. Expect to see Thomas return some kicks as well.
1. #71 Braden Smith, 6-foot-6, 299 pounds, Offensive Lineman
It usually takes a while for a nickname to catch on – but not for Braden Smith. “Drago,” “The Hulk,” and even “Paul Bunyan” or “The Terminator” can be used to describe the true freshman offensive lineman from Olathe, Kansas.
The reason? He’s as strong as they come.
“He’s in the 99th percentile, maybe the 99-point-ninth percentile of guys who are strong enough, at the right size now, have the ability to bend — all of those things,” offensive line coach JB Grimes told the Ledger-Enquirer. “There might not be but ten freshmen in the country who have what he has.”
What he has is a chance to play early. It will come, in part, from his talent as well as his ability to provide valuable depth to an offensive line that lost Greg Robinson to the NFL as a first round pick and Alex Kozan to a season-ending injury. Smith may also have a chance to play because Malzahn learned a lesson after redshirting Robinson a few years ago.
“Three years ago I thought I was doing the right thing for Greg,” Malzahn told the media during camp. “He was talented enough to play, but you always want to do what is best for the player. I thought that was best for Greg. Looking back, obviously we should have played him. I think now if you get a guy who physically can play and you feel like he can get better throughout the year and really be quality, I think you can play him. I’m not saying for sure he is going to play, but we are leaning that way.”
He’ll play. And perhaps not only on the offensive line. There is a rumor circulating on Twitter that Smith has seen time in the backfield as a goal line fullback. If that happens, watch out.