Improvement The Key For Tigers

Coach Gus Malzahn talks about his team's focus during the bye week as the Tigers prepare for South Carolina.

Auburn, Ala.--One of the keys to Auburn’s run to the SEC Championship a season ago was a group that improved from the first week all the way to the final game of the year. That has not been the case for the Tigers so far in 2014 with up and down parts of each game the story, but Gus Malzahn says with the second bye week now behind his team and the second half of the regular season beginning this Saturday against South Carolina it’s time to take a step forward.

“We need to improve in all three areas, and we don’t need to improve just this next game, but we need to improve the game after that,” Malzahn said. “It’s kind of like I said last year. That was the key to last year’s team, we got better and we improved and it was evident. We need to do the same thing this year.”

One of the things that will help this Auburn team take steps forward on offense will be to have more success on first down. That is the key to getting the tempo started for the Tigers, but so far this season the offense hasn’t had the consistency Malzahn wants out of his team.

Something that could help will be getting true freshman running back Roc Thomas more involved in the offense. Carrying the ball six times for 42 yards in the loss to Mississippi State, he showed the ability to make plays against a top defense and Malzahn said that will earn him more playing time and he may not be alone in that regard.

“We got on the road and he got a chance to do some things and I thought he performed well,” Malzahn said. “This off-week has been good for us to catch our breath. Roc will be a part of what we’re doing and you could see Peyton Barber be more of a factor too.”

Seeing very little action this season, Barber has carried the ball nine times for 50 yards and has shown some burst when given the opportunity. He could give the running game a boost as well, but Malzahn said senior Cameron Artis-Payne will remain a key part of the offense because of the way he’s played and the work he puts in every day to improve.

“We’re very happy with Cameron,” Malzahn said. “You see him carrying the ball and all that, but he does such as a great job with his protections, his ball fakes, the little things that make a special player. It’s very important to him. He’s one of the hardest working players. He watches more film probably than anybody we have on offense. He’s just that type of player.”

Offensive Line Shake-up?

With several offensive linemen beat up following a physical game at Mississippi State and with Patrick Miller still healing up following an ankle injury against Louisiana Tech, Auburn used last week’s bye to get some good work up front to try to improve the running game. Even though the group was shuffling bodies in and out, Malzahn said overall it was a productive few days for Coach J.B. Grimes’ group.

“We were still a little beat up last week so we kind of had to mix and match still, but the guys that could go I really feel like they improved,” Malzahn said. “We worked real hard on our inside zone, our power, our buck sweep, everything we do. We just tried to really clean it up and coach the finer details. Coach Grimes felt good about the off-week.”

One of the players that got more work with the first-team offense was true freshman Braden Smith. Playing offensive tackle by trade, he saw some action as a extra tight end in Auburn’s offense against Mississippi State. Impressed by what they saw the Auburn coaches moved him inside to guard last week to get a glimpse of him at a new position and it could be something that gets more looks the rest of the season.

“First of all he’s very talented and he’s versatile,” Malzahn said. “This past week was very good for him. You will see him be more of a factor the second half of the season. We’re very happy with him.”

Carl Lawson Update

A key area of improvement for the Tigers in the second half of the season needs to be rushing the passer. Too many times Auburn has been forced to blitz in the first six games to get pressure on the quarterback, something Malzahn is hoping they’ll be better at down the stretch.

Injured in the spring, Carl Lawson was expected to be the main player rushing the passer for the Tigers in 2014, but so far he’s still on the injured list with no sign of returning. Malzahn said they are still monitoring the situation for the sophomore, but first and foremost they’re going to be in the business of doing what’s right for Lawson when and if the time comes to make a decision.

“Rehab is going good,” Malzahn said. “We haven’t got to the point yet where he’s good enough to talk about coming back and all that. Like I have said before, he’s got a bright future. I want to make sure he’s 100 percent for sure ready to go when that time comes.

“We have great doctors and once they say he’s 100 percent ready to go then we could have that conversation. Until then, I’m not really going there.”

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