Hugh Freeze has been searching for a second chance to coach in the SEC ever since he resigned from Ole Miss in the summer of 2017 amid a personal conduct scandal. Auburn gave him that chance last November when it hired Freeze following the two-year failed Bryan Harsin experiment. Freeze is more than halfway through his inaugural spring practice session, laying the foundation for what Tiger fans hope is an immediate turnaround.
For Freeze, that turnaround must include wins over rival Alabama. Freeze led the Rebels to back-to-back wins over the Crimson Tide in 2014 and 2015 despite having rosters that didn't match their depth and overall talent. Auburn hasn't topped Alabama since 2019, and optimism that Freeze can break that streak was undoubtedly part of the reason the former Liberty coach was so attractive.
Let's catch up on Auburn's progress, and what needs to be done prior to the spring game on April 8 to set the tone for the remainder of the offseason.
The head coaching change drew headlines, but the Tigers' two new coordinators also turned heads. Former Tulsa head coach Philip Montgomery has taken over the offense, and ex-Baylor defensive coordinator Ron Roberts will call the plays for the defense.
Montgomery cut his teeth under the famed Art Briles offense, and his play-calling prowess has never been in doubt. The Bears finished finished tops in the Big 12 in total offense over each of Montgomery's last four seasons in Waco from 2011-14 -- and led the nation during the final two seasons. That up-tempo, wide-open offense fits perfectly with what Freeze ran at Liberty and Ole Miss.
Roberts' 2021 defense in Waco led the conference and finished seventh in the nation in turnovers gained with 27. That played a big part in the Bears' run to the Big 12 Championship Game, which culminated with a win over Oklahoma State.
Names to know
- Robby Ashford, quarterback: You probably already know the name since Ashford started the majority of Auburn's games last season, but his second year on the Plains becomes more compelling with Freeze's arrival. Freeze made passing stars out of Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly in Oxford, and Ashford's 1,613 yards and seven passing touchdowns give Freeze at least a little hope that he can mold the speedster into enough of a passer to make him dangerous behind center. It's not like Ashford has to be Tom Brady out there. All Freeze needs to do is find a few things that Ashford does well as a passer, and that'll go a long way toward complementing his running prowess; his 709 yards and seven touchdowns last year were good for second on the team.
- Brian Battie, running back: Tank Bigsby is gone and Jarquez Hunter will likely ascend to the top spot on the depth chart, but Battie might be the most interesting offensive player on the roster in 2023. He rushed for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns last year for USF and added 659 yards on kickoff returns. If Hunter is Batman, expect Battie to serve the Robin role. He can become Auburn's version of a Swiss Army Knife.
- Marcus Harris, defensive lineman: It seems like Harris has been around forever, but he has never been asked to be the true leader of the Tigers defensive line. That has changed after Auburn lost multiple starters to the NFL. Harris, a 6-foot-3, 294-pound senior, has the strength to be a force in the middle, which will be huge for an overhauled defensive line that includes four new players out of the transfer portal.
Auburn has kept things under wraps for the majority of spring practice, so it's difficult to gauge how things are really going. When Freeze opens the doors for its spring game next month, however, don't focus too much on results -- especially on offense. Take a peek at what Freeze specifically asks of his offense, because that will give you an idea of what he feels could be the identity of this year's team.
There's no doubt that the rushing attack will benefit if Ashford retains the starting job. However, T.J. Finley is still lurking around, hoping to take back the spot he lost last season. He's more of a pocket passer, so his case to regain the top spot on the depth chart relies heavily on Freeze's ability to develop playmakers outside who simply didn't exist last season.
More than anything, this spring has provided -- and will continue to provide -- hope for the future. Auburn became stale under Harsin, but interim coach Carnell Williams generated hope when he took over during the final month of the season. With Freeze leading the way and Williams on staff, the future of Auburn football just needs a glimmer of hope. That seems to be shining bright so far.