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CFF Targets - Auburn: The Freeze Man cometh
Mr. Freeze's track record with rushing QBs has my attention on this Auburn QB
Ah yes, Auburn. The other team from Alabama. Sandwiched between two college football (CFB) death stars, this program is widely considered to be the toughest job in the Power Five (P5). While they call the state of Alabama home, the Tigers can just as easily be considered a GA football program by the roster composition. Auburn hits the state of GA hard (and for good reason), particularly west GA around the Columbus area, and they’ve had periods of tremendous success establishing pipelines throughout the Peach State.
I suppose one thing they have going for them right now is that the Bulldogs have adopted a more national (Florida) recruiting strategy lately, allowing other programs like Auburn, Tennessee and Clemson (shoutout Gwinnett County) to capitalize on the spillover in-state. In fact, few people know this, Auburn’s campus is closer to Atlanta than UGA’s is. When Auburn is doing well on the field, this program tends to see tremendous success pulling players out of ATL, the Columbus area, and south GA, in addition to the kids that they have access to in the Yellowhammer state — that’s a pretty filthy recruiting base.
The problem is they’ve been relegated to collecting the leftovers lately, as two programs in particular — the Crimson Tide and the back-to-back defending nation champion Bulldogs — absorb virtually all of the elite athletes in these regions. UGA’s made a killing under coach Smart in the rural areas of the state in particular, middle and south GA specifically have been good to the Dawgs. Saint Nick has had tremendous success with the Atlanta metro. Clemson comes in and takes a few every cycle, usually around the northeast Atlanta metro. A few other programs come in and get theirs. And before you know it, there are not enough elite players to go around for poor old Auburn.
In many instances, the elite players they do get (e.g., Tank Bigsby) are players who were simply not recruited or slow played by UGA.1 Indeed, at this point it feels like the days of Auburn pulling five-star prospects like DT Derrick Brown out of Lanier, or LB Owen Papoe from Grayson were of some bizarre, distant universe.
It doesn’t help that they frequently miss out on kids in their own backyard, either. In 2020, the Tigers made an odd hire bringing in Mountain West stalwart, Bryan Harsin from Boise State. It was an odd choice from a ‘fit’ standpoint. Harsin made a lot of mistakes, but one bright spot for this regime was bringing in Hoover, AL native Robby Ashford out of the transfer portal. The Tigers missed out on him during the first go-round, but were offered a second chance to redeem themselves in early 2022 and jumped at the opportunity.
Ashford began his CFB career as an Oregon Duck in 2020, but did not see the field in either the 2020 or 2021 season. Like… at all. He literally has no stats from those seasons according to ESPN (Fantrax has him completing a pass in 2021). He transferred back home to Auburn in January 2022 with hopes of competing for the starting QB position.
Although he wouldn’t win the starting spot to open the season, he would eventually take over in late September. He accounted for over 200 yards total in three (came close in two other games) of the remaining nine games on Auburn’s schedule. Ashford finished 2022 with 1613 pass yards, a 7/7 TD/INT ratio and 710 rushing yards with 7 more scores on the ground. He had is best game of the season in the finale vs. cross-state rival Alabama, putting up just over 31 fantasy points (four point passing TD scoring).
Auburn would go on to make a major change late in 2022, and by extension, changed the CFF outlook of the QB room headed into 2023.
Coaching & System
Mr. Freeze — not to be confused with Schwarzenegger's disturbing character from Batman and Robin — has returned to the SEC after a short hiatus with Liberty. Rumour has it, by the way, that Liberty actually has some of the best facilities in the entire FBS. That fact would be odd if true, and yet, it would fit Hugh Freeze.
Freeze knows how it’s done in the SEC. In his time at Ole Miss, he saw tremendous success on the trail (pulling 247 #1 rated player Robert Nkemdiche out of GA in 2015) and managed to take down the once-considered dynasty Alabama football, twice. As with Jimbo Fisher and his staff in College Station, the logical conclusion of Ole Miss’ sudden recruiting prowess during Freeze’s tenure is that these recruits simply really liked the coaches and the vision they laid out for their families, right?
That being said, what Auburn does on the trail isn’t really my concern, or the focus of this article. Rather, I am intrigued by QB Robby Ashford’s CFF outlook under the new CEO. Freeze has had some elite CFF QBs in the last decade, and Ashford has the physical profile (6’2, 215) of many of them.
Liberty QB Malik Willis (2020-2021)
We are now at the part of the article where I should say something witty relating to the line “everything comes full circle eventually”. Willis began his career at Auburn, committing to the Tigers in the 2017 class out of Roswell, GA, before transferring to the Flames. Willis (6’1, 215) is not quite as big as Ashford, but he did present a similar skill set as dual threat QB for Freeze.
In 2020, Willis averaged 33 fantasy points per game (FPG). He threw 2260 yards passing and produced an additional 944 yards on the ground. He was money all season, scoring a total of 34 TDs in only 10 games for the Flames.
In 2021, Willis was no longer the under-the-radar commodity he was the year prior, as many CFF managers selected him 1.01 in their drafts. Willis would have a harder time in 2022, throwing 12 INTs, however, he would still manage to score a total of 40 TDs and cross 3600 total yards. Sure, he didn’t live up to the 1.01 (few do), but he still had an elite CFF campaign with Freeze calling the shots.
Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly (2015-2016)
Freeze’s productive track record with transfer QBs spans back to his stint in Oxford, Mississipi. Freeze was head coach of Ole Miss from 2012-2016. He would have some success early on with former Rebel QB Bo Wallace, who was a serviceable player but was not deadly enough on the ground to unlock Freeze’s offensive genius.
Then came Chad Kelly (6’2, 215), who began his career at Clemson before spending a year at the OG Last Chance U — East Mississippi C.C., where he lit up the NJCAA throwing 47 TDs in 13 games. During his rookie season at Ole Miss, he immediately began pumping numbers under Freeze that would make even Mathew McConaughey blush.
It’s an understatement to say Kelly had a fantastic 2015 season with the Rebels, as he amassed over 4500 yards total and 41 TDs. His 2016 stat line was a little more humble, and like Willis’ second season, Kelly struggled with turnovers. Lucky for us, 2023 will be Ashford’s first season under Freeze, which seems to be the money year (that’s a joke, by the way). Nonetheless, Freeze’s offence has me wondering about what Ashford could do in his system this season.
As it happens, Kelly now plays for the Toronto Argonauts (CFL), who play football about 30 mins from my current apartment up here in igloo land.
Willis and Kelly are essentially Freeze’s last two multi-year QBs. Between 2017 and 2019, there was that whole Ole Miss scandal thing that likely prevented him from coaching. One would assume that if he was, he would have had a dual threat QB putting up filthy numbers, though.
There’s no doubt, Freeze’s track record with dual threat transfer QBs is nice (that's an oddly specific line to write). Lucky for Freeze (and perhaps us too) it just so happens that he inherits another dual threat transfer QB in Auburn. However, Freeze has been clear so far that there is no favourite to win the starting job. Here is a quote from March 15th:
I think they love our approach to coaching them, we’re rotating them, giving them all the same equal opportunities . . . There were some good things and there were some not so good things, and it’s the not so good things. Can we get more consistent at doing the better things and three practices is really not enough, but I’ve seen some good things from all three…
At the same time, much like the situation I’m following at UGA currently, there are no incentives for the coaches to declare a favourite to win the starting QB job. So I take what Freeze says with a grain of salt.
Given that you are reading this article, I assume you have an interest in CFB; many of you will know of popular CFB content creator Josh Pate, who provided a pretty complimentary quote on Ashford earlier this month:
I happen to think Robby Ashford has winning football inside of him. I don’t know whether it’s seven wins or 10 wins, I think he got the right head coach at the right time. My suspicion is that we will be watching the SEC come November if he’s healthy and say ‘I had no clue Robby Ashford was this good.’ …I think Robby Ashford is going to be a pretty good football player this year. He’s still going to have to prove it.
I agree with Pate, I think this is Ashford’s job to lose. He fits the profile that Freeze has had success with in the past.
TJ Finley is his primary competition; he may be a more polished passer (if he is it’s not by much), but he offers little-to-no value as a runner. He was the starter to open Auburn’s season under the previous regime, but would eventually lose his job due to injury in 2022. Still, it’s an encouraging sign that Ashford managed to hold onto the job even when Finley returned later that season.
My take: Ashford will end up winning the starting QB position for 2023 and will offer some sneaky CFF upside. In particular, I think he could provide value in September during the out-of-conference schedule (Auburn plays UMass, Cal and Samford). He’s a last-round flyer or an early waiver wire play, so he offers a low risk profile. While on principle I would prefer to not acquire any Auburn Tigers for my squads, I will be keeping a stray eye on the QB situation down there.
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For those who don’t know, Bigsby desperately wanted in with the Bulldogs’ 2020 class. UGA slow played him waiting for Houston North Shore’s Zach Evans, who would ultimately be let out of his NLI at the 11th hour. In the end, UGA landed neither player, serving as a reminder that recruiting is a delicate business!