Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof said they both saw good things as the Tigers worked out for more than two hours at the stadium on Friday. The football team had a change of venue for practice with the Hutsell-Rosen Track and Field being set up for this week's opening home competition of the outdoor track and field season.
"The kids worked hard today and flew around pretty good," Roof said. "We are starting to install at a pretty rapid pace. We just have to make sure we focus on the level of execution. That has got to improve."
One of the big experiments of the spring looks like it is going to be a permanent change for the Tigers with senior-to-be Neiko Thorpe playing free safety instead of cornerback, the position he has started at in every game the previous two seasons.
Neiko Thorpe has 28 career starts for the Tigers.
"I am pleased with him," Roof said about Thorpe. "I will tell you, I am 100 percent convinced this is going to be a good move for our football team and it is also going to be a good move for Neiko as well.
"He looks like he is a lot more natural at safety," the coached added. "His range shows up where sometimes at corner his range didn't show up because he was locked in on one-on-one battles so I think that has helped."
Another Tiger dealing with a position change is linebacker LaDarius Owens, who played defensive end in high school. Last fall he redshirted while learning to play standing up at linebacker. Roof said on Friday following the practice in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts that the linebacker in making progress.
"LaDarius Owens is getting better every day," Roof stated. "That is a tough transition going from basically being a guy who plays with his hand on the ground as a defensive lineman in high school to a linebacker in the SEC, but he is really, really working at it and improving. There is no doubt in my mind if he keeps working like he is working now that he is going to be an awfully good football player here."
Owens is practicing as a backup weakside linebacker behind Jonathan Evans.
Last fall Roof noted that Owens needed the redshirt to learn the position. Owens said he spent a lot of time in the video room studying how to play the position and he also got plenty of pointers from veteran starter Craig Stevens. After practices he works out on his own drilling on keeping a low, athletic linebacker stance.
"He is so much better now than he was last year," said Roof. "He is absorbing the information and I am able to see improvement day by day."
Owens noted that he is looking forward to Saturday's scrimmage. "This is my chance to make some plays and show the coaches what I can do," he said.
Asked what he hopes to see from the defense as a whole during the scrimmage, Roof said he wants to see the defense play "more physical" and "play with lower pads."
Malzahn said watching how Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley direct the offense from the quarterback position will be one of the areas he will be focusing on for the scrimmage. The offensive coordinator said Trotter is the most knowledgeable player on the team in understanding the offensive system. He said that Moseley wasn't ready to compete for the starting spot the past seasons, but that has changed as the former Leroy High star has improved his game both mentally and physically.
Malzahn noted that the Tigers are "very basic" in what they are doing at this point of the spring with eight starters and key backups missing from last year's group that led the SEC in total offense.
A stickler for crisp execution with no mistakes, Malzahn said avoiding missed assignments and running plays smoothly will be of prime importance at the scrimmage on Saturday along with the development of a rebuilding offensive line.
One of the players hoping to win a starting spot on the offensive front, 6-6, 330-pound right guard John Sullen, said he believes he is making progress. "I have come light years since my freshman year," Sullen said.
In other news:
*Former Tiger player Steve Gandy, who coaches linebackers at Wayne County, Miss., High, visited Auburn's practice on Friday. He noted that he stopped by for some advanced training from the AU coaching staff.
*Auburn was host on Friday for a meeting of SEC football officials that was held at the football complex.
*Early in the practice Cody Parkey had mixed results kicking field goals as he made five of eight from varying distances as the coaching staff tried to simulate game-like conditions for the rising sophomore who is trying to replace 2010 senior Wes Byrum.
*On Friday the Talladega Superspeedway announced that Auburn head coach Gene Chizik will serve as grand marshal for the Aaron's 499 race. Also, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Michael Waltrip will compete in an Auburn-themed No. 15 Toyota Camry.
Ken Butler of Aaaron's said, "Our company and this race team believes it takes dedication, team work and enthusiasm to achieve dreams. What better place than the Aaron's Dream Weekend at Talladega to recognize Auburn for making their dreams a reality. We will be thrilled to see Michael in the blue and orange Aaron's Dream Machine leading the pack on race day."
Waltrip said he is looking forward to representing the Tigers. "It's great to partner with Aaron's and celebrate Auburn's national championship," he said. "I get to be in an Auburn car to let the fans cheer as I race towards the front. If the Alabama fans want to boo, that's cool too because that means they are taking notice of the Aaron's car."
*Former Tiger player Steve Gandy was at Friday's practice. A teacher and linebacker coach at Wayne County, Miss., High where he was a star, Gandy's Auburn career was cut short by an injury. He noted that he was back on campus to get more training on his assignment as a coach. "It's always great to be back in Auburn," he said.