Even though Auburn is opening the season vs. an SEC opponent for the first time since 1995, senior Jeffrey Whitaker and Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday the focus is not on the big picture. They noted the Tigers are squarely concentrating on just one thing this week--defeating the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Whitaker, who is expected to start at defensive tackle after missing the 2013 season with a knee injury, said the Tigers have respect for the Razorbacks. “Right off the bat it’s SEC play so it's a good test,” he said.
“Just watching the film from last year and with other teams, it was close,” Whitaker said about the Razorbacks. “They almost had a lot of teams (beat) and they went through the season we went through just two seasons ago--that 3-9 season. Now they are coming out and redeeming themselves, so looking up front with the guys I'm going to be going up against that is a talented group.
“I really feel like they have got that tough, hard-nosed football, go all day mentality,” the senior added. “The quarterback (Brandon Allen) was kind of banged up last year so we know we're going to see his best this year.”
Whitaker is one of four seniors scheduled to start on Auburn’s defense along with tackle Angelo Blackson, end Gabe Wright and safety Jermaine Whitehead. All of the other projected starters on defense have extensive game experience. Cornerback Jonathon Mincy is listed No. 1 on the depth chart, but is not expected to start due to a discipline issue. However, he is expected to see extensive playing time.
“I've been hearing a lot of people saying, ‘you should do this’ or 'you should do that,’ but if you watch the film from last year it should be a pretty good ball game,” Whitaker predicted.
Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. CDT at Jordan-Hare Stadium, a venue where Arkansas has traditionally played well. Auburn leads the series 12-10-1, but is only batting .500 vs. the Razorbacks in home games with a 5-5-1 mark.
Malzahn is coming off a season in which he was named SEC and national coach of the year. “We have got an extremely talented schedule and we are going to have the same plan we had last year-- we are going one game at a time,” he said. “That’s all you can do. We have got our hands full with this first one and that’s really the only thing on our mind.”
Auburn finished last year 12-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC while Arkansas struggled under the direction of its new head coach, Bret Bielema, as the Razorbacks were 0-8 in SEC games.
Malzahn said the Razorbacks had close calls last year against good opponents so he noted there are good reasons to take this game seriously.
“Offensively, they have seven returning starters, led by their returning starting quarterback Brandon Allen,” Auburn’s coach said..” He is a very quality quarterback who got a little banged up a little last year, but we know he can really throw it.
“The running backs are very deep,” Malzahn pointed out. “Collins, Williams, and Marshall, they are all three outstanding running backs. They run hard and they are all capable of making big plays.
Hunter Henry is a key blocker for the Razorbacks.
“Their tight end Hunter Henry is one of the best in the country and one of the best in the league. He had a very good freshman year last year and we know that he is an impact player.
“Defensively, they have six returning starters led by defensive end Trey Flowers, an outstanding player and impact player. He can really change the game. The safety Alan Turner is very aggressive and a very good player.
“In the kicking game last year they were very aggressive, and we expect them to do the same thing in this first game.,” Malzahn said.
“Overall we expect them to be much improved. They have an excellent coaching staff,” Malzahn added. “We know that they are going to present a lot of challenges.”