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Texas A&M Football

Hugh Freeze, transfer additions look to steer Auburn in new direction

July 16, 2023

It’s been three years of despair at Auburn.

The last three football seasons have produced a total of just 17 victories. To find a more futile three-year span, one must go back to the late 1970s when Auburn went 16-16-1 from 1976-78.

In hopes of righting the listing ship, Auburn replaced coach Bryan Harsin with Hugh Freeze, who previously resurrected mediocre programs at Ole Miss and Liberty.

Early signs indicate Freeze will rely heavily on transfers to transform Auburn.

He brought in 21 players from the transfer portal primarily in an attempt to bolster an offense that last season ranked 86th in the nation in scoring.

Three of the transfers — center Avery Jones (East Carolina) and tackles Dillon Wade (Tulsa) and Gunner Britton (Western Kentucky) — are expected to take on starting roles in the offensive line.

Another, tight end Rivaldo Fairweather (Florida International), is counted on to help upgrade the worst passing game in the SEC.

Still, another, quarterback Payton Thorne (Michigan State) will challenge incumbent Robby Ashford for the starting job. Ashford passed for just 1,613 yards and seven touchdowns with seven interceptions last season.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Freeze comes to Auburn after a 35-15 record at Liberty.

Perhaps the only dependable figure on offense is explosive running back Jarquez Hunter who, in a backup role last season, had 23 runs that covered at least 10 yards.

Except, Auburn might not be able to depend on Hunter. He was suspended in May for an off-field incident, and his status remains uncertain.

The outlook appears just as bleak on defense. The Tigers were merely mediocre last season. Yet, their top three defensive players were selected in the NFL Draft.

The transfer portal was also used to bring in prospects from Vanderbilt and Appalachian State in hopes of bolstering the defensive unit.

Maybe those newcomers will make significant impacts and immediately help reverse Auburn’s fortunes.

More likely, the Tigers’ stretch to despair will be extended at least one more season.

Auburn Tigers

2022 record: 5-7, 2-6

Returning starters (at least six starts)

  • Offense (3): QB Robby Ashford, G Kameron Stutts, TE Luke Deal
  • Defense (8): DT Marcus Harris, DT Jayson Jones, LB Cam Riley, CB D.J. James, CB Nehemiah Pritchett, Star Keionte Scott, S Donovan Kaufman, S Zion Puckett.

Primary Area of Strength: Tight ends might be the pick here by default. The offensive line is rebuilt. Quarterback play is iffy. Receivers are mediocre at best. There is uncertainty at running back, in the pass rush, at linebacker and in the secondary. Heck, even kicker Anders Carlson has departed.

Coach Hugh Freeze used tight ends effectively at Ole Miss and figures to try to do so at Auburn. Luke Deal returns after getting eight starts in 2022. Seniors Brandon Frazier and Tyler Fromm are also on hand. The Tigers brought in transfer Rivaldo Fairweather from Florida International. He had 28 catches for 426 yards last season. The other mentioned tight ends combined for eight catches last year.

Primary Area of Concern: Last year’s strength is this year’s concern. For all Auburn’s issues in 2020, at least the Tigers could rush the passer. Auburn posted 26 sacks in 2022, but only five were posted by players who remain on the roster. None were from edge players on the roster.

© Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK
A season ago, Auburn gave up 170 yards rushing per game.

Hope is that true freshman Keldric Faulk, a four-star prospect, and transfers Elijah McAllister (Vanderbilt) and Jalen McLeod (Appalachian State) can help. McLeod had six sacks last season — two coming against Texas A&M. McAllister had no sacks and was credited with five quarterback pressures in three seasons at Vandy.

Significant additions

  • Coach Hugh Freeze: After a successful four-year stint in Liberty, Freeze returns to the SEC. He previously posted 39 victories in five seasons at Ole Miss.
  • QB Payton Thorne (Michigan State): If starting quarterback Robby Ashford struggles, the Tigers can turn to Thorne. Last season, he passed for 2,679 yards and 19 touchdowns for Michigan State.
  • TE Rivaldo Fairweather (Florida International): Led Conference-USA tight ends in 2022 with 28 receptions. He had 426 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
  • C Avery Jones (East Carolina): Graduate transfer started in 2021 and 2022 at East Carolina.
  • LT Dillon Wade (Tulsa): Texas native played 16 games the past two seasons for the Golden Hurricane.

Significant losses

  • RB Tank Bigsby: Led Auburn in rushing in each of the previous three seasons, but was taken in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
  • Edge Derick Hall: All-SEC first-teamer posted 19.5 sacks and 135 tackles over the last three seasons. He was taken in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks.
  • DE Colby Wooden: Had 15 sacks over the past three seasons. Taken in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers.
  • LB Owen Pappoe: Leading tackler with 93 last season. Taken in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.

Top Players

  • DT Marcus Harris: Third-year starter, who began his career at Kansas, has posted 12.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and 57 total tackles in two previous seasons at Auburn.
  • RB Jarquez Hunter: Provides a big-play threat if he’s available. Last season he rushed for 675 yards and had 224 receiving yards as a backup to Tank Bigsby. However, off-field issues have created an air of uncertainty about his availability.
  • D.J. James, CB: Transferred to Auburn from Oregon last year. He broke up eight passes, intercepted one and posted 38 tackles.

2023 Auburn Schedule

  • Sept. 2 vs. Massachusetts
  • Sept. 9 at Cal-Berkeley
  • Sept. 16 vs. Samford
  • Sept. 23 at Texas A&M
  • Sept. 30 vs. Georgia
  • Oct. 14 at LSU
  • Oct. 21 vs. Ole Miss
  • Oct. 28 vs. Mississippi State
  • Nov. 4 at Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 11 at Arkansas
  • Nov. 18 vs. New Mexico State
  • Nov. 25 vs. Alabama
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Hugh Freeze, transfer additions look to steer Auburn in new direction

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