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Auburn's Freeze: Thorne in 'pole position' to remain starting QB

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AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn Tigers have a new offensive coordinator, new wide receivers and renewed competition at quarterback.

Hugh Freeze & Co. are hoping that formula will be good enough to make big strides in the passing game next season. In fact, it's likely essential in improving on the 6-7 record from Freeze's debut season with the Tigers, who wrapped up their spring practices on Saturday.

Freeze says returning starter Payton Thorne will enter fall camp in “the pole position” at quarterback, but that he doesn't have a big lead over Hank Brown and Holden Geriner. The Tigers' coach, who hired longtime Mississippi assistant Derrick Nix as offensive coordinator, had indicated before the Music City Bowl that Thorne would retain the job next season.

Then Thorne struggled in a 31-13 loss to Maryland and both Brown and Geriner got into the game. Thorne passed for 1,755 yards and 16 touchdowns against 10 interceptions after transferring from Michigan State while running for 515 yards and three scores.

“I do think the gap's not very far between him and Hank and Holden,” Freeze said leading up to the A-Day scrimmage.

The Tigers are trying to improve an offense that ranked 121st of 130 FBS teams in passing, averaging just 162.2 yards per game.

They appear to have significantly upgraded the talent level at receiver, even with a handful leaving the program, including top wideout Ja'Varrius Johnson.

Cam Coleman headlines a group of new targets, including four freshmen and a couple of transfers. He was a five-star recruit rated as the No. 3 overall prospect according to the 247Sports composite rankings. And Freeze is expecting him to have an immediate impact.

Auburn didn't have that kind of big-play receiver last season.

"I think he changes us," Freeze said. "We need more. Just anxious to get the other signees here like Perry (Thompson) and Malcolm (Simmons) to join with that group. I am glad our fans got to see that. I’m quite sure that they were very excited to see that.

“He just tracks the ball and thinks every ball is catchable.”

Coleman produced the scrimmage's two biggest plays in his debut for Auburn fans. He sprawled out for a 49-yard catch from Brown in the longest play, then outbattled a defender for a 34-yard touchdown. It was the only touchdown of the day, though, and hardly evidence of a newly explosive offense.

Then he headed to his high school prom in Phenix City, Alabama. Trading Auburn's orange and blue for a black tuxedo and silver bow tie.

“He’s just going to keep getting better and better and I’m just excited to watch his journey,” Thorne said. “I’ll only be with him for one year but he’s going to be a special player.”

Freeze also brought in a couple of other four-star receivers along with transfers Robert Lewis (Georgia State) and Sam Jackson V (California). Auburn is banking on his most prized recruit especially to make an immediate impact, but the new receivers discussed their goal of helping revive the passing game even on a recruiting visit.

“We talked about it quite a bit, especially when we came together at the Alabama game,” Coleman said earlier in the week. “We talked about how we can really change the trajectory of the offense. So we really did talk about it quite a bit.”

After the scrimmage performance, that optimism held strong.

“It’s really like a preview of what’s to come in the future,” Coleman said.

Auburn's offense is counting on it.

A-DAY NOTES: Freshman Kicker Towns McCough made all seven of his field goal attempts, including a 58-yarder on the final play to give the offense a 28-27 win. Returning starter Alex McPherson missed the spring with a hamstring injury.


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