Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn football Tigers returned to the practice field on Sunday to resume preparations for their season opener vs. Arkansas with a workout in shoulder pads, helmets and shorts getting ready for what they expect the Razorbacks will be doing on Saturday.
The coaching staff gave the players Saturday off before getting back to work on the game plan for the first season opener by an Auburn team vs. an opponent from the SEC since starting the 1995 season against Ole Miss.
“It was good,” Coach Ellis Johnson said of the practice. “I think it was more about being game week than having that day off. We’ve had some days off over the previous eight days--I think we had two or three days off, but you could kind of tell they were getting tired of preparing for whoever it was going to be, that ghost opponent down the road.
“They are finally going to get to play somebody this weekend, a real opponent,” the defensive coordinator added “It’s just human nature they are much more excited, much more tuned in, much more alert and ready to play somebody. The preparation seemed to be a little better.”
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said he looks for Johnson’s defense to be improved this season. Last year the Tigers finished 12th in the SEC in yards allowed per game at 420.7.
“I think we are faster and they are deeper,” Lashlee said about the defense. “Just playing them we seem to play faster both in speed and just in knowing the scheme with how our guys get lined up and make adjustments, and don't bust, so that is something they have really done a good job of is playing fast physically and mentally.
“Up front, Rodney (defensive line coach Rodney Garner) does a great job,” Lashlee said. “I think Coach Johnson has got those linebackers showing some leadership and really they understand the scheme. I think they have been a handful for us in fall camp.”
One of the questions about Auburn’s offense has been how the playing rotation will work out at the running back spot where the Tigers are replacing SEC Offensive Player of the Year Tre Mason. Lashlee said the Tigers feel good about their situation, especially with the return of Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant.
“The good thing is with Cameron and Corey you feel like you have got two quality senior every-down backs in our league,” the coach said. “Corey, I think, has definitely developed into an every-down kind of back. I definitely feel the same way about Cam.
Cameron Artis-Payne is looking to become the main man in the Auburn running attack.
“I think Cam is faster than he was last year,” Lashlee pointed out. “They are both really good in pass protection. They are seniors and they come to work so you can trust them.
“After that I have been really pleased over the last two weeks the way Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber have prepared and practiced,” he said.” Neither one have ever played a live game. Peyton redshirted last year and Roc is a true freshmen so you never know how those guys will handle themselves.”
Commenting on those freshmen, Lashlee added, “Just in terms of the game slowing down for both of them, and feeling like they are going to know the game plan enough to play, they have done a good job in ball security so you feel good about those guys, but there is just a lot of unknown until they play.
“Really, with freshmen, when their time comes you’ve got to throw them in there and let them figure it out. Having two senior backs that have been there and done that is a big safety net for us.”
Auburn’s other true freshman running back, Kamryn Pettway, is the No. 5 guy on the depth chart and is a candidate for a redshirt season, although that has yet to be determined.
“Talking with Tim (running backs coach Tim Horton) with both Roc and Peyton we feel like, hey, if they go in the game they are going to play. They are probably going to make some freshman mistakes at times.
“We feel like they are as prepared as they can be to hold onto the football. That's the No. 1 thing you worry about. How many pass protections situations you put them in might be different as opposed to the older guys, but they have done it a lot.
“We feel good about them and so it will just be a matter of, ‘hey, take your lumps a little bit when you're young,’ but I think they both have confidence. We have confidence in them so we have got no reservations about playing them.”
In other news and notes:
*In the offseason Head Coach Gus Malzahn has mentioned he wants to run the offense at a faster pace than last year. Asked if he thinks that will happen, Lashlee said, “If we can get enough first downs. We are always looking for ways to play fast and even try to play faster. I think our guys having a good concept of the offense, kind of like I was answering about our defense, will allow us to play faster.
“There is less thinking and more reacting going on,” he said. “At the end of the day, you have to stay on the field and get first downs to get tempo going and play fast. If we are able to do that and keep moving the chains, hopefully we will go as fast as they let us go.”
*Auburn leads the series vs. Arkansas 12-10-1, but only has a 5-5-1 record vs. the Razorbacks in games played at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Kickoff for this year’s matchup is set for 3 p.m. on Saturday and the game is a sellout. It will be televised on the new SEC Network.
*The Tigers head into the opener with 30 players on the roster who have started games for Auburn. Senior center is the leader with 37 followed by guard Chad Slade, who is one behind Dismukes.
Lashlee said it is “very comforting” going into the opener with veteran offensive linemen returning. Avery Young and Patrick Miller also have starting experience. “Having a guy like Reese, especially for us at center when you play fast and all the things that we do, boy he’s huge for our offense, he’s huge for the quarterback, he’s huge for everybody.,” the offensive coordinator said.
*Defensively, Johnson noted the Tigers are planning to play both Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams at end vs. the Razorbacks, although he added that both players, who were tackles last year, will probably line up at both positions vs. the Razorbacks.