AUBURN — Nick Brahms is by no means a veteran. He’s going into his third season as a member of Auburn’s football program, but he’s still only a redshirt sophomore. He has a few years more to go to before he reaches the level of a Prince Tega Wanogho, Marquel Harrell, Kaleb Kim, Mike Horton or Jack Driscoll.
But when it comes to the Tigers’ second-team offensive line, Brahms is, in a way, the elder statesman. He’s not the oldest — that would be fifth-year senior Bailey Sharp — but the Navarre, Florida, native started five games at center last season.
Sharp; sophomores Brodarious Hamm, Tashawn Manning and Alec Jackson; redshirt freshmen Jalil Irvin and Kameron Stutts; and newcomers Keiondre Jones, Justin Osborne and Kamaar Bell have started zero games between them.
“It starts with me,” Brahms said. “I have got to get those guys going.”
That was among Auburn’s chief concerns entering fall camp, outside of settling on a starting quarterback, of course. Not because any of them are competing for starting roles — returning seniors Wanogho, Harrell, Kim, Horton and Driscoll are locked in as the first five from left to right — but because, at some point this season, some of them are probably going to be needed.
It’s not often that any college football team can make it through an entire season with the same five starters on the offensive line. That’s especially true in the SEC West, which is as deep, talented and physical as any division in any conference in the country. It hasn’t happened at Auburn since head coach Gus Malzahn first arrived as the offensive coordinator in 2009, and the streak stretches back farther than that.
Last season, the Tigers ended the season with the same five they started with, but they had to make two injury replacements along the way — Brahms for Kim during a five-week stretch, and Calvin Ashley (who has since transferred) for Driscoll in a loss at Mississippi State. There was even more shuffling in 2017, when Austin Golson made at least one start each at left tackle, left guard, center and right tackle.
The closest Auburn has come to a perfect season (in terms of the same five starting every game up front) over the last decade was 2010, when Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Ryan Pugh, Byron Isom and Brandon Mosley started the final 11 games next to each other on the way to a BCS National Championship.
Number of Auburn offensive line combinations by season:
2018 — 3
2017 — 7
2016 — 2
2015 — 4
2014 — 4
2013 — 2
2012 — 5
2011 — 4
2010 — 2
2009 — 3
So while that all-senior group makes up an unquestioned starting five going into the 2019 season, the odds are against making it through every single game together.
And when Austin Troxell suffered a torn ACL in April that is expected to cost him the entire year — “a tough blow,” Malzahn said, because the sophomore “was like a starter” and was expected to be the first tackle off the bench — it seemed to leave the Tigers with precious little depth.
Brahms would no doubt fill in for Kim, as he did last season. Without a healthy Troxell, Sharp appeared to be the top option at tackle because he’s a senior, because he spent the early part of fall camp repping on both the left and right sides of the line, and because the fourth tackle during the spring, Alec Jackson, moved over from the defensive line just this year. After those two, the list of options became muddled.
The good news, though, is that the outlook for that second group seems to have improved considerably through a week and a half of practices. A big reason for that is the emergence of Hamm, a player the coaching staff has long believed possesses plenty of potential despite being short on experience.
The Griffin, Georgia, native had played almost exclusively guard since joining the football program in 2017 — he didn’t play football during his first year at the school in 2016 as he underwent cancer treatments — but this fall Auburn has tried him at tackle, too.
“Brodarious is a monster, man. I don’t know what he is, about 6-7, 300-something?” linebacker K.J. Britt said (Hamm is listed at 6-foot-5 and 312 pounds). “When he was at guard, me and Brodarious probably had about five licks, and I remember after about two or three of them of those licks. I remember going back to the huddle like, ‘Where am I at?’ He has that effect on everybody. When you go in the locker room and say Brodarious, everybody just starts looking around because he’s instilled time after time, if he catches you pulling, he’s going to make sure that you feel him.
The hope, of course, Auburn’s all-senior starting five of Wanogho, Harrell, Kim, Horton and Driscoll will remain healthy all season, and that Brahms, Sharp, Hamm and the rest of the reserves won’t have to play any time other than during the second half of lopsided wins. But they will need to be ready to play in case of injury this year, and — in the case of Brahms, Hamm and Troxell (if he can get healthy) — ready to become starters in 2020 after those six seniors have moved on.