AUBURN, Ala. — Earlier this week, Herb Hand gave reporters three first-team offensive line looks Auburn football used at practice.
The player in the same position in all three lineups wasn’t All-American candidate Braden Smith. It wasn’t fellow senior Darius James, either. Austin Golson, a returning starter at the all-important center position, also didn’t have that designation.
Instead, Hand’s constant in those three looks was sophomore left guard Mike Horton. Through all the mixing and matching up front, Horton stayed mostly locked into one first-team spot in the second week of what has been a strong camp for the Georgia native.
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“I think I’m doing pretty well,” Horton said Saturday. “I just try to take it one day at a time. You can’t let anything that happens affect how you perform on the field. If you have a bad day, you have a bad day. You’ve just got to pick it up the next day. I think I’ve been doing pretty well, though.”
According to a source who watched Auburn’s second fall scrimmage, Horton was back at first-team left guard again Saturday. He lined up next to fellow sophomore Prince Tega Wanogho at left tackle, while Golson, Smith and James finished the line from left to right.
That falls right in line with what Hand said earlier this week, as he mentioned Horton early when asked about his “best five.”
“Right now, it would obviously be Braden, it would be Austin, it would be Darius,” Hand said Thursday. “Those guys obviously have a lot of starting experience. Tega has really shown up. Mike Horton has really done well.”
Although Horton doesn’t have a start to his name at Auburn, he’s far from a fresh-faced newcomer. Horton redshirted for the Tigers in 2015 and earned plenty of buzz on the scout team as a top performer. Two years later, that familiarity stands out to Hand.
“Guys like Mike Horton, Marquel Harrell, Prince Tega, Tyler Carr, Bailey Sharp — those guys have been around,” Hand said. “They’re going into their third year. They’ve taken a lot of reps. Maybe on game days, Saturdays, they haven’t taken a lot of reps. But they’ve taken a lot of reps in practice. And all that experience is cumulative. That’s where you feel good about your depth.”
For Horton, a move to the starting lineup would be the natural next step in his progression.
Horton spent the 2016 season as Auburn’s “sixth man” up front, coming into games when the Tigers used a jumbo offensive package. Under Gus Malzahn, that role has been a great signal for future success as a starter. Smith did it in 2014, and Robert Leff held the spot in 2015 before becoming first-team right tackle in 2016.
“I think being that sixth lineman last year, it helped me to have more confidence in myself,” Horton said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, transitioning and trying to earn that starting job. It’s like I kind of know what to expect now.”
Horton has the trust of his teammates, especially the ones who followed a similar path to the starting lineup.
“He came in last year on some very big situations [on] third downs,” Smith said earlier this month. “He’s gotten some time at guard. I definitely have full confidence in him.”
Horton said he’s worked at left guard and right guard during fall camp. However, as Hand narrows the field down to the rotation he wants up front, it’s mostly been Horton on the left side as older players shuffle around him.
The ultimate goal of all that movement is finding the optimal starting lineup — and it’s looking more likely by the day that Horton will be part of it this fall.
“I think the sky’s the limit [for the offensive line],” Horton said. “I really do. … We have veterans on the line that have done this before. Right now, we’re just concerned about getting better each day and putting the best five on the field right now.”
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