Heading into the 2012 season, Auburn Coach Gene Chizik is hoping another bowl win will be the springboard for his program. Beating the Virginia Cavaliers in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in dominating fashion on New Year's Eve, Auburn went into the offseason with a lot of momentum. Chizik said his team carried that over to spring practice and with very good results.
"There is a lot of value playing in a bowl game and winning it," Chizik said. "We played a very good Virginia team and took a knee at the four-yard like three or four times so we wouldn't score 50 points. We did that without a starting tailback, without our starting quarterback, and defensively some of our young guys really came around in that game. That propelled us into having a really good and efficient offseason.
"Our guys are young, but they are eager. I feel like they understand the sense of competition that is really pretty fluent throughout our team. Their attitudes have been outstanding. I feel like they have embraced the new coaching staff with the new offensive and defensive coordinator and new secondary coach, so it has been a really productive offseason. We know we have a long way to go, but I think our kids understand that our future is very bright and the foundation has been laid. We'll continue to work in that direction. There is an urgency here to be a better football team than we were the previous year."
With new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder taking over their duties on the field for the first time in spring practice, Chizik said there was plenty of learning going on for the Tigers in the spring. While it was big for the players to get some practical learning of the new schemes they would be using, Chizik said for everyone it was a chance to learn from mistakes and grow as a team.
"It was certainly a great evaluation tool for us," Chizik said. "We have a new offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator and these 15 days were invaluable for our guys to really get a feel for what we have on this football team. We certainly have a long way to go in order to be ready to open up with Clemson in Atlanta in September, but I think we made some strides. I still feel like we have a young football team that is developing physically and mentally, but I think there were a lot of strides made in the spring."
Offensively is where the biggest question marks were heading into the spring. After playing in Gus Malzahn's Hurry Up/No Huddle offense for the last three seasons, Loeffler first had to get Auburn used to taking snaps from under center before incorporating his offensive system fully. That is just one part of Loeffler's scheme however as he's also a coach that is comfortable putting his quarterbacks in the shotgun.
Having a history of coaching both a physical and spread style of offense, Chizik said Loeffler brings a lot to the table and he feels like they got a good grasp of that during spring practice.
"I don't think there's any question that we have really closed the gap on our identity and what it is we want to be able to do," Chizik said. "There are 10 others out there that you really have to evaluate the skill level of each one of those guys as well as the quarterback. Certainly we're never going to put a quarterback out there in a situation where he's not going to have a chance to succeed. With our quarterback development, because of Scot's background and because of what I believe in philosophically, we're going to be able to do some different things.
"Scot's background is a little bit of pro-style," he adds. "It's kind of old school with Michigan and his days there with Lloyd Carr. Then going to the NFL and getting that flavor. Then being able to do at Florida, with (Tim) Tebow, some of the same stuff we did here. We're going to come up with our own package and our own identity. We're going to try to get good at just a few things, but we have moved forward in finding out what we can and can't do this spring. There is no question about it."
Frazier had a very good spring for the Tigers.
That quarterback development that Chizik mentioned is still a work in progress, but there is little doubt that sophomore Kiehl Frazier made some big strides in the spring. Playing mostly as a runner in 2011, throwing just 12 passes, Frazier didn't get the opportunity to fully show what he could do at the position until this spring. When he did get that chance, Chizik said Frazier performed very well.
"I think for Kiehl it was invaluable that he got a chance to play a good bit last year no matter what role we used him in," Chizik said. "I think for the development of a young quarterback, the guy that can in those games early on in their career, regardless of how much they play-- just being on the field in this environment and playing in this league and not having to do that for the first time the next year-- I think that's huge. Certainly we go that done with Kiehl.
"I don't think there is any question about it, he certainly improved in a lot of aspects this spring," he added. "He had a lot of opportunities. He's maturing as a quarterback, but he's learning a lot. He's still a young 19 year old kid that has a lot in front of him, but we're asking a lot of him. I thought he handled it very well. His best days are certainly ahead of him, but I feel like he made a lot of strides this spring."
While the quarterback race is far from settled with junior Clint Moseley and true freshman Zeke Pike both making strides in the spring as well, it's far from the only position battle going on for the Tigers heading into fall practice. With spots at wide receiver and at offensive line still open on the offensive side of the ball, and plenty of playing time available on defense, Chizik said he's encouraged by what he saw from his young players in the spring as they continue to work towards that goal.
"With a lot of positions still up for grabs I think the main focus of this spring was guys trying to win spots on our two-deep," Chizik said. "Some of those positions are still up there to be taken. We'll continue to have some battles as we go through two-a-days because it's not clear cut exactly who has become the starter at certain positions. I think that's one of the things that has been good to see this spring is we actually have some valid competition going on in different areas."
With summer conditioning and voluntary workouts a big part of the progression of a team, Chizik said it will be important for the Tigers to make plenty of progress on that front in the coming months. Playing preseason Top 10 Clemson on Sept. 1 at the Georgia Dome, Auburn won't have a chance to ease into the 2012 season.
Even with still very few upperclassmen to lean on, Chizik said he's happy with the leadership he's seen on the team to this point and he's counting on that to see them through the summer and into two-a-days next fall.
"I feel great about this team," Chizik said. "I love the kids. They all have a great ambition to succeed and a great ambition to lead. There are some guys that we have on our football team that take football very seriously. We're still young. 70 percent of our scholarship players next year will still be underclassmen. We still have, in the development phase, a long way to go, but I think our team is excited about where we are headed. Mentally they are into the game. They want to be better. As long as you have young, eager guys that want to succeed and better themselves, you always have a great chance to have a successful year."