A recent report stated that 16 Auburn players have contracted COVID-19 and as a resulting, fall practice was temporarily shut down. It got me thinking. Who is the Tigers’ most invaluable player? Obviously Bo Nix is important, probably most important given the nature of his position. But other than quarterback, whose absence would hurt the the Tigers the most? It wasn’t easy to decide. First, I eliminated the players who I know Auburn could live without; second, the players whose absences would be survivable, but hurt the Tigers; and last, the man who, in every sense of the word, is irreplaceable.
These are three value rich position groups for Auburn. I’m not saying the losing a player in this group would fail to impact the Tigers. I am saying, however, that many of these players have the rotational value of a soap-opera actor. Their backups are reputable enough to produce in their stead.
1. Running Backs: D.J. Williams, Shaun Shivers and Harold Joiner all return with valuable experience from last season. Mark-Anthony Richards and Tank Bigsby are both highly rated recruits with jaw-dropping highlight reels. Even if one back were injured or ill, the workload would be spread out through one of the deepest running backs rooms of Gus Malzahn’s tenure.
2. Offensive Line: We can eliminate the blockers up front for a totally different reason than running backs. While the ball-carriers arguably have too much talent, the offensive line is worriedly inexperienced. The Tigers lost 4-of-5 starters from the 2019 unit, with center Nick Brahms returning as the only shoe in to start in 2020. To make up for the losses, the Tigers brought in three junior college linemen and signed three more as freshmen. In total there are 18 linemen on the Tigers 2020 roster; 17 are competing for a starting spot. Losing one, or even two, wouldn’t spell doom for the Tigers this year.
3. Secondary: The guys at the back of Kevin Steele’s defense are in a similar situation to the offensive line. Losing four starters from 2019, the unit has loads of production to replace. Still, the secondary has multiple players who saw action in 2019; Smoke Monday, Christian Tutt, Roger McCreary, Jamien Sherwood and JUCO transfer Marco Domio provide plenty of depth and possess sufficient ability to lock down opposing receivers this season.
Stings, but Survivable:
Big seasons from these two players could take the Tigers from good to great. Ultimately, however, the loss of their production would not be insurmountable.
1. Big Kat Bryant: A senior defensive end who returns as the lead pass rusher for 2020. Sequels are always worse – unless you’re Shrek 2 – so no one expects Auburn’s defensive line to repeat the dominance of 2019. However, Bryant does have immense pressure on him to get results as he had a team-best nine quarterback hurries, but only finished with 1.5 sacks in 2019. If the Tigers were to lose him, the defensive line would be dangerously unproven. Still, the defense under Steele has always remained solid and the youth behind Bryant could only be benefit from the opportunity of more playing time.
2. Seth Williams: Williams is a junior wide receiver who reminds me of my first car. Nothing too flashy, but man, he is reliable. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound pass catcher ranks 17th all time in career receiving yards and is looking to become Auburn’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Ronney Daniels in 1999. This one was hard because no one on Auburn’s roster has the combination of size, speed and hands – plus experience – that Williams has. If he were to miss time, Anthony Schwartz would be keyed on by opposing defenses and the rushing game would suffer from stacked defensive fronts. He is the ultimate safety net for Nix. However, the loaded tight end group and other experienced receivers like Eli Stove could potentially make up for Williams’ production if he’s out.
Mr. Irreplaceable: K.J. “Downhill” Britt
Britt is the leader for the entire Auburn defense. A young unit that needs guidance would suffer if Britt were to miss time. The linebacker group itself has already taken considerable loses with projected starter Chandler Wooten and John Marsh sitting out due to COVID-19. No doubt, Owen Pappoe would perform admirably as Britt’s replacement, but he most likely needs one more year before evolving into an elite SEC linebacker. Ultimately, Britt is an extension of Steele. He knows where to be and where everyone else should be. With an inexperienced defensive line, he can provide much needed explosiveness plugging the run and pursuing the quarterback. The common theme with everyone mentioned before is the room for growth. While Britt could always improve, he may already be the most talented player on Auburn’s roster. That makes him undeniably the most important.