AUBURN, Ala. — A team that returns 14 starters and picked up several of the nation's top junior college players shouldn't be having a youth revolution.
That hasn't stopped the defending SEC champions.
Auburn's first two-deep depth chart of the season featured a surprising six true freshmen from a 2014 recruiting class that finished sixth nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings.
|True Freshmen on Auburn's Two-Deep Depth Chart|
|Name||Position||247Sports' Composite Ranking|
|Stanton Truitt||WR||3-star, No. 53 ATH nationally|
|Braden Smith||LT||4-star, No. 3 OG|
|Tre' Williams||WLB||5-star, No. 2 ILB|
|Nick Ruffin||Star||4-star, No. 14 CB|
|Stephen Roberts||FS||4-star, No. 11 CB|
|Roc Thomas||KR||5-star, No. 5 RB|
Although the Tigers returned experience at every position on offense and defense, the coaching staff opened competitions for key spots on the depth chart, and several talented newcomers took advantage.
"They've earned it," head coach Gus Malzahn said Wednesday in his final press conference before Saturday's season opener against SEC West foe Arkansas. "We've put the ball down and given everybody an opportunity and those guys have earned the right to be there. There's nothing like true game experience, but we think all of them that are in the two-deep are talented enough and mentally tough enough to do it, too."
None of these true freshmen will be among the first on the field against the Razorbacks, but their places on the depth chart suggest they will play some role Saturday and in the weeks to come. Here's a look at what you could see out of these highly-touted newcomers this fall.
Smith took the Plains by storm this fall and received universal acclaim from everyone associated with the program. He also received a handful of unique nicknames—"The Terminator," "The Hulk" and "Drago," to name a few—for his massive 6'6", 299-pound physique.
"That's a huge dude," senior defensive end LaDarius Owens said. "When I first saw him on his recruiting visit, I thought he was someone's dad."
But Smith, who was called "one of the strongest guys on the team" by sophomore guard Jordan Diamond, brings more to Auburn's veteran offensive line than raw power.
His position coach, 30-year collegiate coaching veteran J.B. Grimes, sees a complete physical skill set that has drawn comparisons to the Tigers' top offensive lineman from last season, No. 2 overall NFL draft pick Greg Robinson.
"He’s in the 99th percentile, maybe the 99-point-ninth percentile of guys who are strong enough, at the right size now, have the ability to bend—all of those things," Grimes said. "There might not be but 10 freshmen in the country who have what he has."
Smith will start the season as the backup to Robinson's successor, sophomore Shon Coleman, and he could see playing time in any lopsided games Auburn might play this season. He could serve as an extra tackle with an eligible-receiver number on certain running plays, a position Coleman played several times in 2013.
Thomas also is an offensive star the Tigers want to get into the open field this season.
"We have Roc Thomas," Malzahn said in his Tuesday press conference. "He has a chance to be in the game [at running back], and he also has a chance to play kick returner."
The 5-star running back will back up Corey Grant and Ricardo Louis on special teams, but he will also play a role not clearly defined on Auburn's depth chart: reserve running back.
With Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne serving as running backs "1A and 1B" on the roster, Malzahn confirmed Wednesday that Thomas will have a chance to be a valuable substitute for the seniors, along with redshirt freshman Peyton Barber.
"He's really good," Artis-Payne said. "Explosive, he's quick, he has good speed, he's everything he's advertised to be. He'll be a real good player here, I know that."
Thomas stood out to his new team this fall with his quickness and elusiveness—Malzahn referred to him as a player with those video game-type "B-button moves"—and he will be a key member of the running back committee and special teams unit in his first season.
Another true freshman adjusting to a new role is Truitt, who arrived at Auburn in the spring as an early enrollee.
A former high school quarterback, Truitt took full advantage of extra practice time to lock down a backup slot receiver spot behind Marcus Davis, who made a similar move last season.
"He’s tough," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "He’s smart. He played some quarterback in high school too so he really wants to do well. There is a chance Stanton could have a good role for us."
Auburn's coaching staff is already drawing up ways to play the young speedster in the offense this season.
"Here's the deal with Stanton: He is super-fast," Malzahn said. "He's got electric speed. So finding ways to get him the ball in space or maybe in the return game or something like that, he's capable of taking it the distance anywhere on the field."
Truitt might not get a chance to catch a pass or grab a reverse handoff against Arkansas because of the veteran players in front of him, but he will be one to watch against teams like San Jose State and Louisiana Tech.
Auburn's top recruit on the defensive side of the ball will also get a chance to make an instant impact this season.
Williams' quickness as an all-around linebacker stood out to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson this fall. The Tigers are looking for added depth behind starters Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost, and the veteran coach feels like he found it in the talented Mobile native.
"If I graded him out, he's probably about the fourth-best linebacker I've got," Johnson said. "Tre’ had two really good scrimmages, very good production picking up the scheme pretty quickly. He just seemed real comfortable out there."
Williams was one of the nation's top inside linebacker recruits last year, but he debuted on his first Auburn depth chart as the second-string weak-side linebacker behind Frost. He has been able to make that move, according to his teammates, because of how fast he has picked up the Tigers' defensive system.
"They just want to learn," McKinzy said about Williams and fellow true freshman De'Shaun Davis. "As far as them being physical...those guys are headhunters. Football, 90 percent of it is mental and the other 10 is physical. They've caught on real fast, and I've been very surprised."
Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts
The position switches continued on defense with Ruffin and Roberts, two highly-rated cornerbacks out of high school who have found backup roles in new spots on the secondary.
Ruffin was one of the tallest secondary players in Auburn's 2014 recruiting class, and he brings the physicality the coaches want to see out of the hybrid Star position. With senior Robenson Therezie still out indefinitely with "an eligibility issue," Ruffin will have to step up fast to provide depth behind junior Justin Garrett.
"He’s got a lot of the same skills that Therezie has," Johnson said. "He’s a natural DB. The biggest thing he’s had to improve on right now is the big receivers stock blocking him out in space or coming off the edge and having to take on a running back on a blitz or an outside run play. He’s kind of got DB skill sets and he’s looked very comfortable out there."
Roberts, who also played some quarterback in high school, will back up senior and longtime starter Jermaine Whitehead at free safety. The freshman from nearby Opelika will have chances to showcase his athleticism in the secondary and on special teams, as he practiced at punt returner during fall camp.
"Stephen Roberts is another guy that we felt good about, and I think as the season goes on you could possibly see him back there [at returner], too," Malzahn said.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.