Malzahn Expects Stiff Challenge From Arkansas

Auburn head coach and former Arkansas high school and Razorback assistant coach Gus Malzahn was the first coach up at SEC Media Days and talked about some legal mistakes by his players and what he expects when the Tigers host the Razorbacks on Aug. 30.

HOOVER, Ala. – As the defending SEC Champion after a worst to first season, Auburn is set to start defense of that title at home on August 30 when it welcomes Arkansas to The Plains for both team's season opener.

The Tigers are some three-touchdown favorites over the Razorbacks, who were just 3-9 least season and winless in SEC under new head coach Bret Bielema.

But as someone who guided Auburn (12-2) from an 0-8 league mark to a national runner-up finish last season, Tigers head coach and former Arkansas high school head coach Gus Malzahn said he was not about to overlook the Razorbacks.

“Yeah, I tell you what, that's definitely a challenge, anytime you open up your season against a conference team,” Malzahn said Monday as the four-day SEC Media Days event opened. “We do have a lot of guys back. But we really expect Arkansas to be much improved. We know we are going to have to play well.”

Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright – who went through his team's 3-9 and 0-8 campaign in 2012 – echoed those sentiments about a 3 p.m. game that will be televised on the new SEC Network.

“I know what 3-9 feels like...there is no bigger motivation than that,” Wright said. “If you really have true athletes who give it their all, workouts, class, football, nothing else matters but those three things. We had high confidence and I am sure that is what is going on over there. They are going to come with some fire and it will be a good game.

Malzahn was not ready to set yet whether quarterback Nick Marshall would be playing in the opener after getting pulled over last week in Reynolds, Ga., for a window tint violation and eventually being cited for having 8-10 grams of marijuana in his possession.

Because it was less than an ounce, Marshall was not arrested and was instead cited for violations of two city ordinances. He will not have to appear in court on Sept. 10 if he pays $1,000 for marijuana possession and $100 for the window tint violation.

Malzahn did not bring Marshall to SEC Media Days after the quarterback had been scheduled to be on hand, but he did address the issue.

“It is a privilege and a reward to represent Auburn here at the SEC Media Days,” Malzahn said. “Last Friday, Nick lost that privilege. We have high expectations for our players, but specifically our quarterback – the face of our program.

“Up until last Friday, Nick has been a model student, teammate and citizen,” Malzahn continued. “Nick made a mistake and he'll have to deal with those consequences. I'm not ready to say what those consequences are at this time, but he will deal with it. I know he is regretful and feels very bad about it.”

Malzahn was then asked if a suspension for the Auburn-Arkansas game was a possibility.

“I'm not to that point yet,” said Malzahn, whose team beat Arkansas 35-17 in Fayetteville last season. “We'll see.”

Marshall is the first quarterback that Malzahn has had in his young head coaching career that will be coming back as a second-year starter. He is also blessed with a talented back-up in sophomore Jeremy Johnson.

“I think it means a lot,” Malzahn said. “The great thing is that we have got Jeremy Johnson, who could start for a lot of teams around the country, probably a majority of them. He has two games experience. He was a freshman SEC Offensive Player of the Week both games he played. We feel good about him.”

Malzahn also noted that senior safety Jonathan Mincey is also facing consequences for his arrest for second-degree marijuana possession in June.

The head coach was asked about his personal feelings about college athletes smoking marijuana and he deftly avoided answering the question.

“Well, we have school rules,” Malzahn said. “Of course, I have team rules. We abide by them.”

Auburn recently took a transfer in Georgia Tray Matthews, who was involved in a thef-by-deception scheme that also involved Uriah LeMay, who transferred to Louisville.

Ironically, Matthews was one of the two Georgia players that collided with each other and tipped Marshall's pass into the air and into the hands of Ricardo Louis.

It was dubbed the “Prayer at Jordan Hare” and came with 25 seconds left to rally Auburn to a win that kept their championship hopes alive.

“We do our homework on everybody we take into our program,” Malzahn said. “We got a chance to recruit Tray before he went to the other school. Then we have a coach on our staff that knew his family, knew them well. We feel like he will be successful in our program.”

Auburn will not have sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson, an All-SEC Freshman Team Selection last season, as he just had ACL surgery and is out of the season.

He also confirmed that redshirt sophomore Tyler Nero – son of former Arkansas player Norman Nero – was likely not going to be able to play again after collapsing during a practice in the spring.

“We played our best football at the end of the year when we needed to,” Malzahn said. “Some great memories that we'll remember forever. Winning the SEC Championship, going from worst to first in was definitely special. Then at the end of the year coming 13 seconds short of winning the national championship. That was definitely a tough pill to swallow. I will tell you our this, our players and coaches are extremely motivated going into this next season.

“...We lost some key players, some guys that are going to be hard to replace – Dee Ford, Chris Davis, Tre Mason, Greg Robinson just to name a few,” Malzahn continued. “We have a lot of experience back on both sides of the football, specifically big-game experience, which I think is very valuable.

“Another positive is that we have our entire staff back for the second year, which I think is huge,” Malzahn continued. “Same offense, same defense, same terminology for our players. They're used to it. I think that is very big.”

Malzahn, who was born in Irving, Texas and moved to Fort Smith with his mom after his parents divorced, noted that he loves coming back to visit Arkansas.

He did so for a celebration at Hughes and a memorial golf tournament that honors his former assistant and former Springdale head coach Kevin Johnson.

“My parents and (wife) Kristi's parents are from Fort Smith,” Malzahn said. “We try to go back during holiday times. Getting the chance to go back to Hughes, the very first placed I coached. It was special to see those former players, get updates on those guys. See a lot of friends and family.

“Then (the late) Kevin Johnson was one of my best friends that passed away a few years back with skin cancer, the memorial golf tournament – special to go back and see his boys, a lot of friends, talk about old times.

“Kevin Johnson was one of those guys that helped me get to where I am at today,” Malzahn continued. “He was a right-hand man for me when I coached at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High School and really deserves a lot of credit for what we did and really where I am at.”

During last year's media days there was a verbal dust-up between Malzahn and Bielema over pace of play and health concerns.

Bielema isn't due here until Wednesday, but Malzahn was asked about that relationship.

“I think it is real professional,” Malzahn said. “I've got a lot of respect for Bret as a coach. When we are in meetings, we communicate. Like I said, I got a lot of respect for him. I know he is going to get the program to where he wants it to go.”

Former Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith makes a play on Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall in last season's game in Fayetteville.

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