The availability of Auburn starting center Nick Brahms is up in the air with two weeks to go until the Tigers’ season opener against Mercer.
Brahms, a sixth-year senior who chose to return for an additional season, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury this preseason. He has been held out of practice for the last week, including two scrimmages and Saturday’s practice at Jordan-Hare Stadium that was open to the media.
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“Still just kind of waiting that one out a little bit, see where he is at,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. “At some point we’ll figure out what his situation is, but just kind of let him settle in a little bit, heal up and then figure out what the final decision’s gonna be.”
Brahms underwent knee surgery in December that kept him out of the Birmingham Bowl and limited him during spring practices. He was cleared to return this summer and opened fall camp as Auburn’s first-team center.
The Navarre, Fla., native is a former four-star prospect who has appeared in 40 games after redshirting as a true freshman. He has 33 career starts at center, including 28 consecutive starts spanning the second half of the 2019 season and running through last season’s Iron Bowl.
If Brahms is unable to go when Auburn takes the field Sept. 3 against Mercer, it would represent a difficult blow to the Tigers’ veteran-heavy offensive line. Since the 2019 season, Brahms has allowed just two sacks in 1,081 snaps at center, according to Pro Football Focus. ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay also recently ranked Brahms as the No. 6 center prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Auburn has replaced four other players at center this preseason, including seventh-year senior Brandon Council, redshirt senior Jalil Irvin, junior Tate Johnson and sophomore Avery Jernigan. Council, who started a couple games at center in 2019 at Akron, has also worked as Auburn’s first-team left guard, where he has been competing with Kam Stutts for the starting job.
Irvin is the only other player with starting experience at center, having stepped in for Brahms in the Birmingham Bowl last season. Harsin said Saturday he has been pleased overall with the progress of Auburn’s backup centers, especially after some center-quarterback exchange issues early on in fall camp.
“The worst thing that can happen is you have quarterback-center exchange issues when you’re trying to compete as a quarterback, right?” Harsin said. “And it gets to a point, too, where we mess it up, those guys are out, well you lose reps. So you’ve got to get with your centers and the centers have got to understand like ‘This is really important that we are able to make this exchange happen like it needs to.’ But I think Coach Friend’s done a great job with those guys, just center-wise, getting them to understand what we’re trying to accomplish, how to communicate, that’s really the biggest thing.
“At center, you’ve got to have some confidence now, because you’re going to bark out something and you might be wrong, but hey, if we’re all wrong together, you know, we might have a chance. And we don’t want to be (wrong), but you’ve got to say things. You’ve got to go out there and lead.”
While Auburn has rotated multiple players at center, it’s Johnson who has seen the most work with the starting group over the last week. The junior has appeared in just one game as a reserve in his Auburn career, but he has progressed well since the spring, dropping 27 pounds from his listed playing weight last season and reshaping his body in an effort to become an SEC contributor.
“The biggest difference from where he was to where he is now is that he’s physically changed, which changes his mentality, as well,” Harsin said. “Now he can go out there and hold his own; his mindset is different. I think he’s been really good at being coachable. The center position is no fun sometimes, just at the end of the day…. So, I think from his standpoint, he’s more coachable in a good way. He’s physically better; he’s able to handle the pressure out there of playing that position. We move him to guard; we bounce him around if Jalil comes in there and other guys are moving to guard. So he really knows that center-guard position area.
“And he’s just taking it upon himself to show up every day and try to make sure he does his job so that everybody else around him — quarterback included — can do theirs. That’s where the next step is going to take place. He’s taking ownership in what he’s doing.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Thomas_Verde.