Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Kyle Ngo, football beat writer at The Daily Californian, and Jacob Waters, head sports editor at The Auburn Plainsman, Auburn University’s independent student newspaper. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Kyle Ngo: You have a new head coach in Hugh Freeze. How do you think the players are adjusting to him and are you liking what you are seeing from his coaching?
Jacob Waters: It definitely seems like the players are buying into Freeze’s philosophy, and it seems like the guys are really passionate to play for him, which is a lot different than last year under Bryan Harsin. I think part of that is because there are 41 new players on the team, so new players and a new coach (are able to) build a whole new culture.
KN: Auburn played two main quarterbacks this past week. Coach Freeze named Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne as the starter, but Robby Ashford also got many touches as a rusher. What did you see out of both of them and do you think it will be a similar type of dual action next week?
JW: Thorne came out a little slow, which is what I expected (from his) first game with a new team. But as the game went on, he got a lot better — he didn’t have any really bad throws. I don’t think he’s a game-changing quarterback, but he’s not going to put the offense in bad positions.
As for Ashford, he was the starter last year. His throwing ability has always been not great, but on the ground, he’s special, and we saw that (this past week) against UMass where he had three rushing touchdowns. When asked about him postgame, (Freeze) said “Robby Ashford is vital to this team winning football games,” so I would definitely expect to see this again on Saturday.
KN: Auburn’s top running back, Jarquez Hunter, did not play on Saturday. Is there any news about him, and did you like the committee they employed?
JW: It’s hard to say, because any time Freeze is asked about Hunter, he says “I can’t comment on it.” In the case Hunter doesn’t play against Cal, I think the committee was pretty good against UMass, led by Damari Alston.
KN: The defense only gave up 14 points and forced two turnovers this past week. What part of the defense was especially effective?
JW: The secondary was really good in coverage and tackling, which it was expected to be since everyone in the secondary is a returner from last season. The defensive line, however, was a little shaky. UMass had a good amount of big runs — on the first drive they went 89 yards, and 76 of them were on the ground.
KN: Shane Hooks was projected to be the top wide receiver, but it was actually Jay Fair that had more targets and catches. Is that something that might stick, or do you see it evening out against Cal?
JW: I think it’s a little bit of both. Thorne committed after spring training, and over the summer he practiced a lot with Fair, so that just might end up being his favorite target because they had so many reps over the summer. Hooks also wasn’t there over the summer, so I think there will be a little bit of a learning curve for him. I would still expect the targets to even out eventually.
KN: Who is one player to look out for?
JW: I would say Jaylin Simpson. He plays safety, and against UMass, he was really good with a fumble recovery and a pick-six. He’s a guy who’s a senior now and ever since he switched to safety last year due to injuries, he’s been really good.
KN: What is your final score prediction?
JW: I’ll go 31-20, Auburn. I think Auburn will come out kind of slow and it will be a close game at halftime. After halftime, Auburn will start pulling away a little bit, but I think it will be a competitive game the entire way.