Pushing for Improvement, Coach Likes Practice

Gus Malzahn talks about his football team's preparations as the Auburn Tigers prepare for game two in this report on the Tigers that includes notes and quotes.

C.J. Uzomah is a senior tight end for the Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.--Gus Malzahn said he liked what he saw at his team’s Wednesday evening practice despite the Tigers having to spend the session at their indoor facility because of lightning in the area.

“We had a solid practice again today, which is very encouraging,” Auburn’s second-year head coach said. “Guys had good energy, good focus, very comparable to last week. We feel like we are in a good spot.

“Obviously, we have said we have got to improve from week one to week two. So far the guys have really been attentive and done a good job in practice to try to get that done.”

The Tigers are preparing for their first-ever football game vs. San Jose State from the Mountain West Conference. Kickoff time is set for 6 p.m. CDT on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“Usually practice equates to a game, but you have got to prove yourself during the game and be able to adjust, and everything that goes with that, but the good thing is we do have a veteran team,” Malzahn said. “The encouraging thing is when our coaches ask them to respond, they have responded.

“We have just got to carry that over to the game field on Saturday,” he added. “We are playing a team we expect will come in here and give it their best. We need to play well.”

Despite being pleased with his team’s overall play in the effort, Malzahn said week two of the season is a time for the Tigers to improve in all aspects of their performance. The coach noted that the video from the opener is very useful to his staff.

“Even though we had a lot of guys coming back we have some that moved positions, and all of that, so there are things you learn in the first game that you don’t know and can’t learn in the spring or can’t learn during fall camp. That is why we have really been focusing on the mistakes we made and really worried about us--getting better at what we do and try not to make the same mistake twice.”

Despite the Tigers being a heavy favorite to improve their record to 2-0, Auburn’s head coach said that doesn’t change how the Tigers are approaching practice this week. “We are approaching it exactly like we did last year. We are concerned about us getting better and improving each week. It doesn’t make any difference who we are playing.

“Last year our team was able to do that,” he said. “The challenge is this year, we’ll see, but so far our these guys have responded in practice and I expect them to be ready to play.”

Asked what he tells his players before a game in which they are expected to win, Malzahn said, “You try to be honest with them--it is about us getting better, and you challenge them as a group and as individuals.

“You have to find a way to improve from what you did last week if you want to have a chance to play good football at the end of the year. Last year one of our keys was consistency, which is extremely hard to do in college football. This is a new year and a new team, and you just challenge them.”

Tight end C.J. Uzomah was one of seven Tigers who caught passes in the opener. His 26-yard reception over the middle set up a short run for a touchdown by Cameron Artis-Payne.

Uzomah said the Auburn aerial attack is difficult for opponents to defend while also keeping enough players near the line of scrimmage to stop the running attack. “We have so many passing threats--Duke (Williams), Sammie (Coates), Melvin (Ray). People are going to be like, “Mel is in the game so we have to account for him.

“We still have Ricardo (Louis) and Marcus Davis,” Uzomah pointed out. “We have a plethora of receivers that anytime they are in the game you have to be like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ I definitely think that we will spread the ball out for Brandon (Fulse) and myself because they will be looking more at the receivers and we can slip out and make some big-time catches. Until our number is called we’re just going to keep blocking and wait for our opportunity.”

The Tigers did most of their damage through the air in the first half vs. Arkansas when Jeremy Johnson completed 12-16 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. In the second half Nick Marshall took over at quarterback and only threw six times. He completed four for 50 yards, but should have had more yardage because Coates dropped a perfectly thrown pass that would have been a touchdown.

“I definitely think we have complete faith in his passing ability,” Uzomah said of Marshall, who ran the football eight times for 19 yards and one touchdown in the opener. “He is able to do incredible things with his feet to open up passes. I think you will definitely see a little more of his arm.”

The Tigers featured one of the nation’s top offenses last year and Uzomah said that Auburn’s flexibility on offense gives his group the opportunity to attack the entire field. “I think once we start to get a feel for the game, once we know what is working for us, that is what we go to,” the senior explained.

“There are no real major adjustments that go on from our game plan,” he added. “We just start running what we know is working and we start putting the pace on them. The second is where Coach Russell (strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell) and all of the offseason stuff and work we have done really plays into effect.”

Malzahn said that Uzomah “performed pretty good” in his tight end role vs. Arkansas, something that the senior has been doing since spring training even though the head coach was not happy with Uzomah for missing a block on third down play in the first half vs. Arkansas that forced a punt.

“C.J. is a champ and his M.O. is that he may make a mistake, but he's (not going) to make the same mistake twice,” the coach said. “We had him do something a little different right there, but he knows the mistake he made and the thing about him is that he feels worse than the coaches so he'll recover. He won't make the same mistake twice. We have a lot of confidence in C.J.”

In other news and notes:

*Johnson’s half of football at quarterback produced an impressive pass efficiency rating for the sophomore who goes into the second week of the season ranked No. 2 nationally in that statistic with a rating of 243.8. Johnson’s yards per completion average of 20.25 was the fifth best nationally in week one.

*Johnson’s favorite target vs. Arkansas, D’haquille Williams, had the ninth highest receiving yardage total in week one at 154. The transfer from junior college caught nine passes in his first Auburn game, which ranks 20th.

*Artis-Payne’s 177 rushing yards vs. Arkansas were his highest total while playing for the Tigers. It was also the 10th most by any player in the country last week.

Cameron Artis-Payne made his second Auburn start in the season opener vs. Arkansas.

*Malzahn said there is a possibility that the Tigers will have both Artis-Payne and Corey Grant in the backfield on the same play at times this year. “We feel very good about both those guys with our main tailback position,” Malzahn said. He added that freshman running back Roc Thomas, who did not player in the opener, could see action on Saturday night.

Malzahn said it is not an issue splitting the reps at the position this year with Artis-Payne and Grant rather than featuring one back like the Tigers did last year with Tre Mason. “I am fine with playing both,” he said. “We have had success with two running backs before.”

*Saturday’s game will be televised on ESPN2 and an AU official told Inside the Auburn Tigers on Wednesday night the contest is closing in on being a sellout. San Jose State opened its season last Thursday with a 42-10 home victory over the University of North Dakota. Two days later the Tigers defeated Arkansas 45-21.

Carl Lawson is shown at Auburn's 2014 Fan Day.

*Carl Lawson, who has been rehabbing since undergoing knee surgery following spring training, is continuing to make progress, Malzahn said. “His rehab is going very well. He's worked extremely hard, but, of course, we knew that. He's the type you worry about working too hard to come back, but he's doing good. He's on schedule so we'll just see what that means later in the season.”

Asked if Lawson will be cleared to play this season, Malzahn said. “The main thing is he's got to be 100 percent healthy, whenever that is. We'll see how that goes.”

Asked if he feels better about Lawson’s chances of being cleared to play than he did earlier in the year, Malzahn said, “I'm really not letting my mind go there. We're planning on playing without him, and if it works out, we'll go from there.”

*San Jose State will be trying to make school history by putting together back-to-back wins vs. Top 25 opponents. In their last game vs. a ranked opponent the Spartans defeated No. 16 Fresno State 62-52 last season. Auburn goes into the game ranked No. 5.

*By hitting 23-26 passes in the season opener, SJSU quarterback Blake Jurich and his backup, Joe Gray, tied the school record for completion percentage for a single game at 88.5. Despite returning just two offensive linemen who had any significant game experience, the Spartans did not give up a sack vs. North Dakota.

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