The Auburn Tigers are 3-0 and are now shifting their focus to College Station, Texas.
Auburn will travel to Texas A&M to face the Aggies on Saturday morning at 11 a.m. CT for the SEC opener. SEC Nation will be on hand to preview the game between two of the top teams within the SEC West.
One of the biggest areas of concern for Auburn through three games is the quarterback rotation of Payton Thorne and Robby Ashford. In last week’s win over Samford, head coach Hugh Freeze elected to use Thorne more. Thorne used the opportunity to gain 402 yards of total offense.
How will Auburn use their quarterbacks this week? Freeze addressed the rotation during Monday’s press conference.
“That’s the plan, as long as we are playing well. Look, this is like life. You got to do your job well, and if you do your job well, things usually work out and if you don’t, things usually don’t work out. We have confidence and I thought he (Thorne) threw it really well the other night. He made one bad decision, I thought, but the others, we kind of shed on as coaches, and so I hope he continues to build on that. The guy was 18 yards from doing something that an Auburn quarterback hasn’t done in a really long time, maybe ever. So, I hope we build on that and gain confidence from that. At the same time, I’ve been clear about Robby (Ashford) having a role and I do believe that, particularly against the level of athleticism we are about to see. I think there is a role for him, too. He threw it well when he came in the other night, but you can’t be ‘herky-jerky, in-and-out’ and that’s something we all agree on.”
The head coach covered everything on Monday from injury concerns, red zone woes, and setting up to battle Bobby Petrino’s offense. Here’s everything Hugh Freeze said ahead of this Saturday’s game at Texas A&M.
“I’m excited to be 3-0. Another great crowd at Jordan-Hare, and I’m thankful for our great fans, students, band, and cheerleaders. I just continue to be amazed by the support that you receive here at this place, and I’m excited about any time we get to play at home. Obviously, we’ve gotta go on the road this week but thrilled to be 3-0. There were some good things and then some things we’ve got to improve on, for sure. We played a lot of kids, which is good, but a lot of young kids tend to make mistakes, and we had quite a few of those also. We’ve got to continue to work on not turning the ball over, particularly in the red zone. Out of our possessions we had offensively, outside of the two turnovers, we were pretty efficient offensively. Defensively, I thought we were solid, particularly with the older guys, and there was a lot thrown at them. They had a good plan to try to stay close and shorten the game, and I thought our older guys did fairly well with it, but the younger guys made some – a lot of mistakes, truthfully, and we’ve got to bring them along, because we’re going to need them as the season progresses. But I’m excited to be 3-0 and head into conference play.”
The run game
“We really didn’t run the ball as well as I had hoped in this past game, but some of that, they were committed to stopping the run. I mean, they were really anchored in there, and bringing the safeties down to the box with us. We got some explosive pass plays. We’ve said all along that we feel good about that room, and I think it’s important that we keep them fresh and rotate those guys and try to play to some of their strengths, all four of them and Sean (Jackson) too. So, we’ll continue to keep rotating them and trying to use them in different packages. Jeremiah (Cobb) really gives us some flexibility. I think he can do a lot of things that we haven’t even gotten to yet, even in the pass game. He’s dangerous with the ball in his hand, so we’ll continue to explore ways to get our best guys on the field.”
The status of Keionte Scott
“We were actually down (two), (Ja’Varrius Johnson), our second (returner). He couldn’t play, so we were down to our third guy, and we’ve got to get some reps in this week. Unfortunately, Keionte did not get a good report, and that hurts us a lot. He’s our leader back there, and he’s going to have surgery today. It just hasn’t been a good year for us with injuries. Losing him and (Austin) Keys on the defensive side stings. It hurts, and our prayers are with him for quick healing for sure, but we’ll be without him for a considerable time.”
“That is a great challenge. We have to get some young guys ready. They are going to get baptized into the SEC pretty good in front of A&M’s crowd and the talent on that team. You know Keionte (Scott) he is down, Izavion (Miller) and (Kam) Stutts didn’t finish the game the other night. So I don’t really know where they stand right now. I think (Donovan Kaufman) will be fine. We need all these guys on Saturday, so hopefully we will have a good week of rehab and they will be ready to go. It is concerning right now that list that they gave me this morning.”
Jaylin Simpson's role on special teams
“He is going to be really valuable with his presence in the back end right now. We will start catching punts with a lot of different people today. Koy Moore has done it, Caleb Burton has done it. We will get on the Jugs twice this week and make sure we feel comfortable with who that is, and Jaylin may be one of them too.”
“That would be a blessing if we could continue that trend. To get some turnovers in these games, particularly on the road, would be extremely helpful. Particularly if we can take care of the ball. We have to continue to work on that. Turnovers would play a huge role if we could pick off a few of those in this game.”
The first red zone appearance vs. Samford
“I was disappointed in that a little bit. Truthfully, I don’t mind the first one, but I did not like the second one. I think we have to approach that differently, and I think I have made that clear. Sometimes you put it in your quarterback’s hands, and he needs to know, but I think we should put it on us for something like that. And don’t give him that option if we are not okay with him throwing it.”
The progress of the passing game
“We are still learning who we are, truthfully, in the wide receiver room. So, I think that will continue to be a rotation. The biggest goal for this week against such a talented team and one that is good on third down is you got to keep yourself in third-and-manageable. You can’t survive in the third-and-longs. You’re not going to drop back and win a lot of routes against them. So, we have to keep it in third-and-manageable, hopefully short, to where we can run or pass.”
The play of Caleb Wooden
“He’s solid, but he has a lot to learn. That star position has to help get us lined up a lot. They threw a lot at you though, I’ll say that. Stuff that we really haven’t seen. That was a difficult challenge. Truthfully, we met this morning, and we were just toying with all the different combinations with our current injuries back there. On what’s best and hopefully DK can play and move into the star position. Also, maybe move J.D. (Rhym) there, play the younger corners, and leave Caleb at the high safety. We are not sure. We got to have two deep to function, and we are just trying to figure out what the best combination is. We are not real sure just yet, but Caleb will be a part of it. Either at the star or one of the safeties.”
How often will the Tigers run RPOs?
“A lot the other night. I’m not sure how many completions Payton (Thorne) had, but I bet 10 or 12 of them were on runs. It’s really a box count issue – if you have six guys to block in the box and there is a seventh (defensive) hat that is present, then the ball should be thrown. That’s about as simple as I can put it. The other night we were efficient at the RPOs. Robby was also efficient. He was 2-for-2 on RPOs.”
Keldric Faulk's progression
“He had his best game on Saturday and he started to learn obviously. They’re just young. I like all these young guys. I think our young DBs will be good too. But they are still swimming a bit. Learning everything that can get thrown in a game at you at this level. But he had his best game for sure. And we’re going to need him moving forward to continue to improve, but he’s got the ability to do that.”
Defensive line's performance
“We haven’t done really well rushing the passer with just the front. Jalen McLeod has been hurt two of the three games and hasn’t been able to perform. He’s probably our best pass rusher and we’ve missed having him healthy for sure. We’ve had to create it in other ways; they present a great challenge. Their quarterback has thrown for 900 yards and eight TDs. They have great receivers, One of the best I’ve ever seen in (Evan) Stewart. He’s really talented and I think they’re doing some really good things offensively. They’re going to be a great challenge for us to try to keep them under. Hopefully keeping them from having explosive plays, particularly ones that lead points.”
Offensive line vs. Samford
“Not our best game. Though our pad level was high. Again, they were really committed to stopping the run. Their backers were two yards deep. And their safeties were down in a hurry, but we could’ve have played more physically. I did believe that. So, it wasn’t our best. It wasn’t as good as the Cal game or the UMass game. I think (Kam) Stutts kind of sets the tone and to losing him; he’s kind of the leader and the bell cow of that group.”
Getting Jeremiah Cobb more action
“Draw up a play that we want to run with him and get him on the field. That’s usually the way it works. Let’s go with these personnel and put him here and let’s see if we can get him a touch or two, because I think he’s the fastest kid we have in that room and speed is a good thing. I like all of those guys, but they are just a little different. With the ball in his hands on the perimeter is a little different than the others. It’s just a matter of us figuring out what we can handle within the scheme of what we are doing, what he can handle, and the understanding that we have within it. We’ll always be trying to find a few ways to get him some touches.”
Playing more young players
“Well, two of the three games, we have played a lot of kids and that is helpful to get live reps. Do we want to be different at A&M? Yes. It is a different skillset they are going to play against, a different environment and I don’t know exactly how they’ll respond but we are forced into it at some spots, truthfully, and they’re going to have to grow up pretty fast.”
Preparing for Bobby Petrino's offense
“He’s very good schematically, very good at scheming. Obviously checks a lot of his runs based on the looks that you have. That makes it difficult and he’s usually right. I think we have to do a great job at disguising things. He’s going to make you stop 12 personnel and spread sets and everything that makes it challenging. And then you combine the talent level he’s coaching with his balance of offensive play action and passes and runs and a quarterback that can extend his legs when he needs to. It’s a very difficult task.”
Not showing every scheme
“Every game you are going to have an idea that something is advantageous for you to do, some of it you’ve done, some of it you haven’t. That’s pretty normal from game to game. You pick up on a few things you see on tape and think, ‘Hey, we have this, or we might use it this week.’ There will be some things but obviously if you are going to be really good at something, you have to practice it. So, you can’t do too many other things than what your kids have already done – particularly, us with our young receivers and they are just now feeling their way around with all this. I would hate to change too much on them but you’re always going to look for a few things that can help you compete in the game.”
Texas A&M's defense
“It is a great concern. I want to be really clear; we are getting ready to play three teams that have – over the last four to five years – ranked in the top seven to five in recruiting. You are playing the best recruits in the nation. We are going to be there soon. That doesn’t mean you can’t compete. There is a reason they are third in the nation on third-down defense. They have a bunch of five-stars in the defensive line, linebacker and that safety, and that corner. They are really talented. When you put on the film you see that. Their closing speed is incredible. They are physical up front, and it is a tall challenge for us in year one to stand toe to toe with A&M and Georgia next week and LSU the following week. It is our goal to get there. But that is what reality is, we have had about eight months to recruit about half a class and these others have been stacking it, and that is why they are ranked third in the country (on third-down defense).”