Beset by injuries, Auburn remains a mystery this spring

Put those Auburn championship hopes on hold for the time being.

Maybe they’ll be ready for pickup by the start of preseason camp, but not now. Not after the way the spring has played out for the Tigers thus far.

When you have a head coach defending his strength and conditioning program, as Gus Malzahn did over the weekend, you know things aren’t going well. A quick scan of Auburn’s inactive list reveals at least one linebacker, one defensive end, two receivers and a pair of centers dealing with injuries. And that’s to say nothing of star quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who had surgery on his left shoulder earlier this offseason and appears unlikely to participate in Saturday’s spring game in a meaningful way.

If there was ever a time to deal with a rash of injuries, of course it’s now. It might even help develop depth over the long term, if you’re looking for a silver lining in all of this. But that in itself doesn’t make this an ideal spring. Not when you’re a team that many consider to be a threat to come out of the SEC as a preseason top-15 pick, and especially not when you open the season against another top-15 team in Washington.

Keep in mind that Malzahn’s offense had issues to work through even before the injury bug hit. Replacing four starters on the offensive line was difficult enough before center Kaleb Kim suffered a sprained ankle, according to AL.com, and the challenge of bolstering the receiver corps was only exacerbated when starters Eli Stove and Will Hastings were sidelined with ACL injuries. It would have been helpful to see how Stidham rebounds from a bad couple of games to end last season, in which he committed a combined three turnovers in the SEC championship game and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, but that will have to wait until he’s cleared to participate fully again.

Meanwhile, there’s a running back battle that needs to play out. Without former starters and 1,000-yard rushers Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, the competition is wide open. Former Baylor transfer Kam Martin, who led all returning backs with 410 rushing yards last season, could step into a bigger role, but at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds he doesn’t exactly have prototypical size. Rising sophomores Malik Miller and Devan Barrett and freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin look like options as well, but Tuesday brought another wrinkle when Auburn Undercover reported that Barrett will move to receiver full time.

So, yeah, there are a lot of things for Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to sort out in the coming weeks and months.

Don’t be surprised if the spring game is fairly one-sided as a result, but the good news for Auburn is that it might say as much about what’s missing on offense as the quality of the defense. Whereas the offensive line is replacing four starters, the defensive line welcomes back three key figures in Dontavius Russell, Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown.

Clemson’s defensive line will get plenty of acclaim this offseason, and rightfully so considering how well it performed last year and how much it returns, but don’t sleep on Auburn up front. Throw in sophomore defensive end Nick Coe and pass-rushers T.D. Moultry and Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant, and the Tigers should be able to get after the quarterback this season.

Tre Williams may be gone, but the linebacker corps is in good position as well with returning starters Darrell Williams and Deshaun Davis. The one thing on defense to pay close attention to during the spring game will be the secondary, which lost star cornerback Carlton Davis as well as veteran safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts.

Taking a step back, the whole dynamic of the passing game will feel different come Saturday afternoon -- different quarterbacks, different receivers, different defensive backs.

With so many new faces on the field and so many familiar faces sidelined by injuries this spring, it’s hard to tell exactly where Auburn should fall in the SEC pecking order.

Maybe the Tigers are the best threat to defending champion Alabama. Maybe they can beat Washington during the first week of the season and open eyes nationally.

For now, though, Auburn remains a mystery.