AUBURN, Ala. — There have been only a few constants on Auburn football’s offensive line so far in 2017. One of them is change.
Austin Golson has started at three different positions in five games. Darius James suffered a neck injury, appeared to lose his spot in the starting lineup and then returned in a new-look group last weekend against Mississippi State. Left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho is now wearing No. 98 and playing tight end.
But through all the mixing and matching in Auburn’s 4-1 start, Mike Horton also has been a constant. The sophomore left guard from Atlanta has started every game in one spot, something only Braden Smith can say so far this season.
And in Week 5, when he played in his third different starting lineup, Horton put together a strong performance in a 49-10 rout of Mississippi State.
“I thought he played his best game last week,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “The experience around him — he was surrounded with two seniors on either side — and I just think that really helped.”
Horton entered the 2017 season as one of only two non-seniors on the starting offensive line. With Wanogho now at tight end, Horton remains the only underclassman in an experience-laden front five.
He now has a two-time FCS All-American in Casey Dunn beside him at center. Golson, who once held that center spot, is next to him at left tackle.
One might imagine Horton is behind his fellow starters up front, a sophomore surrounded by seniors. Auburn could start nothing but seniors up front, as former Florida State guard Wilson Bell pushed for a first-string job during fall camp.
But Horton’s teammates say that’s not the case.
“As a young guy, it’s always harder to catch up mentally,” junior running back Kerryon Johnson said. “Braden has been playing for however long, [Golson] has been playing his whole career. When you look at guys like that, they know every possible combination, blitz, look, twist and turn that a D-line or a defense can do.
“When Mike steps in, it might seem like he’s got to catch up. But Mike‘s already there.”
In Horton’s first career start, he played well enough to earn an All-SEC grade from Pro Football Focus.
PFF Week 1 SEC Team of the Week – Offense pic.twitter.com/Xdkez9K8ka
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) September 5, 2017
The next week against Clemson, when Auburn allowed 11 sacks, Horton experienced what offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey called “growing pains” alongside Wanogho.
“Those guys, obviously at those spots for sure, are a little bit inexperienced, so there’s going to be a few growing pains and then you play a team with what Clemson had up front,” Lindsey said. “There were some times they did very well, but enough times that you want to make a point of, ‘Hey, we got to get better at this technique or that technique.'”
Horton bounced back against Mercer, springing several big plays with his blocking and grading well in pass protection.
A week later, he had a key block on Kam Martin’s 47-yard run against Missouri and continued his improvement in keeping Jarrett Stidham’s pocket clean.
“Mike is what I call a mover,” Johnson said. “You want a guy moved, you just put Mike there or Braden there, and the guy gets moved. He’s very strong, and he plays with great pad level, and he’s very coachable.”
Horton’s physical gifts have kept him on Auburn’s offensive line through the first five weeks of the season, and that doesn’t seem like it will change anytime soon. Malzahn said he expected the Tigers to improve their output now that they have a solid front five in place — including the locked-in Horton.
On a line that covets experience, Horton is benefiting as the lone young guy.
“Like I’ve said before, there’s nothing better, especially in our league, than experience, especially up front,” Malzahn said. “The fact that he has two experienced guys on both sides, it definitely helps.”
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