Chad Slade (above) is scheduled to start for a four consecutive year.
Auburn, Ala.--Gus Malzahn said he liked what he saw on the practice field Wednesday evening as his Auburn football team puts the finishing touches on preparations for Saturday’s season opener vs. the Arkansas Razorbacks.
“Very solid practice today,” Malzahn said. “Really what stood out today to me was our kids’ focus. You can tell it is getting closer to the game. There was a high level of intensity, a high level of focus. They were excited about practice so that is definitely encouraging this close to the game.”
The Tigers worked out in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts as the temperatures climbed into the low 90s at the football complex. One of the areas of emphasis was special teams and the head coach noted he feels good about those units despite having to replace two three-year starters, kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark. Redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson will fill both of those spots. Quan Bray is taking over for Chris Davis as the punter returner.
“There are a lot of new people out there and because of that we tried to get better around those new guys,” Mazahn said. “That has kind of been our focus. I believe last year we returned a kickoff (Tre Mason) the very first game. Special teams is usually a huge part. We have been preaching that to our kids. They have worked extremely hard and had a very good day of special teams today and they are usually big factors in first games.”
Quan Bray is a senior wide receiver for the Tigers who has experience returning punts.
The coach said his staff feels good about Bray returning punts and the same is true of the backups, sophomore receiver Marcus Davis along with true freshman safety Stephen Roberts, a player who the coach said could get a chance to return punts later in the season. However, for game one the Tigers are going with Bray, a senior. “Quan is a guy who has a lot of experience and you are opening up with an SEC team, and Marcus is a guy we really trust, too,” Malzahn said.
He also pointed out that the Tigers have practiced with a wet football in preparation for the possibility of rain at Saturday’s 3 p.m. kickoff, something that forecasts list as a possibility. “You do everything as a coach to prepare your guys,” Malzahn said. “There is nothing better than experience and the fact we went through a couple of those situations last year in the rain. The guys know how to handle it better, I would assume, this second time.”
Malzahn pointed out that offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and special teams coordinator Scott Fountain have worked “extremely hard with wet balls and those type of deals” during practice.
Auburn heads into the game with most of the players expected to see action on Saturday having either started or played extensively in past seasons. Asked if that is a plus in preparation before an opener, Malzahn said, “The fact that we do have a lot of veteran guys helps with that. You have to bring yourself along throughout the week. You have to focus on your job--the little things offensively and defensively.
Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes made the call to move Slade to left guard after the returning starter at the position, Alex Kozan, was lost for the season with a back injury. Another reason for the move was lining up the veteran player next to first-time starter Shon Coleman, Auburn’s No. 1 left tackle.
“Playing beside Shon is a great thing,” Slade said. “Him being my roommate and everything, it’s great to see all that he has been through and all he has accomplished in the past since his treatment.”
Shon Coleman (left) is shown with his backup, freshman Braden Smith.
Coleman has made a strong comeback from cancer treatments that delayed the start of college for the former high school All-American. Fortunately for the big tackle, he has made a strong recovery. Fortunately for the Tigers, Coleman’s eligibility clock was reset so he is a redshirt sophomore this season.
“It’s great to see him back out there and it’s going to be great to play next to him,” Slade said. “I have told him that we’re going to be a great team. We learn from each other, we teach each other, we do everything we have to do to get better.”
Coleman is taking over for Greg Robinson, who left early for the NFL. Robinson was drafted by the St. Louis Rams as the second player in the first round, but Slade contends that Auburn is in good shape at the position with Coleman taking over the spot.
“He is a great player,” Coleman said. “He works hard. He wants to learn. He is one of those players that during the summer he tells me to come out there and work on stuff on Saturday and Sunday. He wants to get better each and every day. He works on his technique every single play.”
Slade pointed out that Coleman is a great role model. “He teaches me how to be a great person inside,” the senior said.
“You see all he has been through and he has never given up, and you know you don’t have any right to give up,” Slade said. “It inspires you to go harder each and every play. I know I’ll go 110 percent for him and he’s going to go 110 percent for me. It’s one of those great things where we work with each other and bond a good bit.”
Chad Slade earned his AU degree in August.
Last season Slade started every game at right guard, but he has started previously at left guard. When he was a redshirt freshman Slade started four times at left guard.
“I have transitioned to every position on the O-Line but center, but it’s just something I have to get back used to switching again,” he said. “It has been going pretty good so far. I’m working on my technique. I’m not perfect, but nobody is perfect on their technique.
“I’m working with Shon trying to be that good double-team on the left side that Malzahn wanted. We lost a great tackle in Greg and we lost Kozan. Me and Shon have some big shoes to fill so it’s going to be a good year trying to get me and him back the way it used to be.”
Asked about what he expects from the offensive front group as a whole, Slade said, “We have a great potential to be one of the best offensive lines in the SEC. That is what we work hard to do every day.”
He pointed out that the focus with the linemen is playing with the proper technique. “That is what Coach Grimes bases everything off,” he said. “We just go based off that and take it one day at a time, one practice at a time to get better. Eventually it’s going to come up to be the best offensive line in the SEC like we were last year.
“We have a lot of people coming back and a lot of experience like Pat (Miller), Avery (Young), me, Reese and Shon,” Slade said. “We have all bonded. We don’t play as five, we play as one.
“It’s something great to have that brotherhood with each other that we can trust that person next to us to get better,” he added. “It’s something we worked for all day this summer. We had extra practices with the O-Line and extra film work. It’s just getting everything back like we were last year. We are working to be better than we were last year.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is set for 3 p.m. and the contest is listed as a sellout by AU officials. The game will be televised on the SEC Network with Brent Musburger doing the play-by-play and Jesse Palmer the analyst.
Radio coverage on the Auburn Network features Rod Bramblett doing the play-by-play with Stan White the analyst and Quentin Riggins the sideline reporter. Paul Ellen is the studio host and Andy Burcham will have the postgame locker room report.
Auburn won last year’s game vs. Arkansas 35-17 in Fayetteville and has a 12-10-1 lead in the series.