Previewing Auburn football’s offense for the 2023 season

This is the staple of a Hugh Freeze football team.
Freeze is an offensive-minded coach. He has developed NFL quarterbacks and produced high-paced schemes that produce big numbers on the scoreboard.
But a new job, a new school and a team roster gives him a challenge he hasn’t seen in his head coaching career. He is combining a roster that is roughly half returnees and half newcomers. Those new faces are especially seen on offense as Freeze tries to mold his own scheme with new offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery.
The tempo of the offensive scheme has been a key talking point throughout August, and something Auburn believes will give it a big advantage this year.
With the season set to begin against UMass at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, AL.com will preview both sides of the ball for Auburn, starting with the offense. We’ll break the offense down by each position group. First up, the most important one.
Quarterback
In some ways, this position is simple: Payton Thorne is the guy.
Auburn brought him in from Michigan State where he started nearly 30 games and won a New Year’s Six bowl game. He was an entrenched starter at a historically successful program in one of the Big Ten East, one of the nation’s more difficult divisions. And even though Thorne didn’t get to Auburn until the summer, he became a leader on the team so quickly that Auburn picked him as a team captain.
Thorne won a quarterback competition that centered on himself, sophomore Robby Ashford and sophomore Holden Geriner. Ashford is Auburn’s incumbent starter and Freeze called him the best athlete he’s ever coached at the position. He also called Geriner the most talented thrower of the three.
So why did Freeze pick Thorne?
It appears to be the safe pick. Thorne may not have the highest ceiling of the three, but he does have the highest floor. As Freeze settles into his new job, a quarterback who is generally reliable is the best way to ease into the season. Freeze also said Thorne was the best leader, and the one his teammates trusted the most in the huddle.
Thorne’s largest question remains if he can be successful without a dominant rushing game.
Thorne threw for 3,232 yards in 2021 along with 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with now-NFL starting running back Kenneth Walker III to hand the ball off to. When Walker left, Thorne had 2,679 passing yards in 2022. He threw eight fewer touchdowns than 2021 and threw one more interception.
Which quarterback is the real Thorne? How much pressure does that put on Auburn’s running back room and offensive line?
Though Thorne may not be the only quarterback to see valuable snaps for Auburn. Freeze has suggested that Ashford is still going to have a role on this offense because of his ability with the ball in his hands. What that role will be? That’s not going to reveal itself until the season itself. Plus, Freeze and Montgomery will have to figure out a role that doesn’t telegraph Auburn is running the ball with Ashford in. Freeze said Ashford had his best practices after Thorne was announced as Auburn’s starting quarterback.
And maybe Auburn’s running game isn’t something Thorne or Freeze will have to worry about too much.
Running back
A tumultuous offseason in the running back room appears to be resolved, though with still many unanswered questions. Top running back Jarquez Hunter allegedly was shown in a sex tape that was released on social media over the summer. Soon after the video was released, Auburn gave a statement that multiple football players would be receiving indefinite suspensions. But Auburn did not say who those players were or why the school was giving suspensions.
When asked about Hunter’s status, Freeze and other Auburn officials have declined to comment, and stated that it was an internal matter.
Hunter missed the opening days of preseason camp, but returned after the first weekend of August.
There are still off-the-field unknowns, but on the field, it looks like Auburn will have Hunter and putting him in position to be one of the most productive players on the team. Hunter was Auburn’s third-leading rusher last season behind Tang Bigsby and Ashford. Bigsby is gone, and Ashford is going to have a smaller role.
That leaves a starring role as a ball carrier for Hunter. He is widely regarded as one of Auburn’s best players and could be in line for a breakout on a national scale.
He also has a deep pool of talent behind him.
Sophomore Damari Alston has shined in fall camp with his speed and long runs. USF transfer Brian Battie may be Auburn’s best pass-catching running back. Freshman Jeremiah Cobb has been highly regarded for his potential by his teammates, but he could be in line for a possible redshirt give the other depth of the room.
Auburn has options to run the ball. Is there a star like Bigsby? Unclear. Auburn hopes Hunter can be that.
Offensive line
In one of the more interesting position groups on the roster, Auburn’s first depth start shows Tulsa transfer Dillon Wade as the starting left tackle, junior Jeremiah Wright at left guard, East Carolina transfer Avery Jones at center, sixth-year Kam Stutts at right guard and Western Kentucky transfer Dillon Wade at right tackle.
In an attempt to see the types of options it has barring injuries, offensive line coach Jake Thornton has tried different combos — including using Britton at all five positions and in one period of practice open to media, slotting junior college transfer Izavion Miller as a starting right tackle. Freeze said Miller has been too good in preseason camp to keep off the field.
It would not be a shock to see multiple offensive line groups on the field against UMass, depending on the score of course.
Throughout the preseason, offensive linemen have talked about a strong chemistry built in a group that has so many new faces — and three of them set to start come Saturday.
But why did Auburn need so many new guys?
The 2022 offensive line was, well, bad. Auburn expects the new group to “bring the juice.”
What that means is the offensive line on paper is much more talented. Defensive tackle Justin Rogers said the pace of the offense and the ability for the offensive line to keep pace made play difficult for the defensive front.
Without any games having been played, on paper only means so much.
Tight end
Another position, another transfer.
FIU transfer Rivaldo Fairweather is Auburn’s clear cut top tight end. He has the body type of a tight end at 6-foot-4 251 pounds, but the skill set and athleticism of a wide receiver that is so valuable in a modern offense that wants to create big plays.
Fairweather has dominated at times in Auburn practices, and he could pose a huge mismatch, especially over the middle of the field.
Luke Deal is a team captain and also listed as a starter for Auburn. He isn’t the same pass-catching threat, but he is a clear leader for Auburn and a strong blocker
While much of the preseason talk about the pass catchers as centered on the wide receivers, if there is a player to beg as a breakout figure for Auburn, Fairweather seems like a good bet. And he could be a top candidate for a breakout season.
Okay, but speaking of those wide receivers.
Wide receiver
One theme has surrounded this group: Auburn may not have a star wide receiver, but it has a lot of them and plans to use them all.
Auburn has five receivers listed as starters on the depth chart for three spots: Jyaire Shorter, Omari Kelly, Jay Fair, Ja’Varrius Johnson and Shane Hooks.
And Auburn still expects contributions from backups like Caleb Burton, Nick Mardner, Koy Moore and Camden Brown.
That is a lot of hands to make sure get their fair share. So this doesn’t look like likely to be the year Auburn breaks its drought of 1,000-yard wide receivers. If anyone is going to become the go-to guy, it is likely to be Hooks, who has had an impressive fall camp working on the outside.
Fair and Kelly have also generated buzz during the preseason while other receivers like Johnson, Moore and Mardner deal with injuries.
Johnson was Auburn’s leading receiver last year with fewer than 500 yards. Though Auburn is a program historically known for running the ball, a Freeze offensive is going to air it out. If Auburn’s leading receiver in 2023 has numbers like what Johnson had last year, it is because Auburn had spread the ball around so much. That would seem to be a positive because defenses can’t key in on one guy, but Auburn also doesn’t have much consistency at the position.
Like the offensive line, because of transfers, this unit on paper looks to be much improved compared to a year ago. Shorter arrives from North Texas after leading the nation in yards per catch last season, Hooks comes from a high-energy Jackson State program under Deion Sanders, Burton comes from Ohio State and had some of the best high school tape Freeze said he had ever seen. Mardner comes to Auburn from Cincinnati.
It has taken time for Freeze to mold the receivers. The group has generally practiced well other than the first scrimmage where lots of players were “loafing.” Freeze has stated multiple times that the whole group needs to do a better job of giving high effort every route they run, even if the ball isn’t coming their way.
Can this group be what Freeze needs to make his run-pass-option scheme effective? We’ll see. We’ll see too who, if anyone, emerges from this group to help Thorne.

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