Auburn, Ala.--Spring football practice is a time for renewed energy for a program and that is absolutely the case for the Auburn Tigers as they hit the field on Tuesday.
While the need to get the program back on track would be enough to create a buzz, throw in the addition of five new on-field assistant coaches and you have a different atmosphere surrounding Gus Malzahn’s program. That starts with a head coach who noted on Tuesday that he is fired up about the chance to turn things around.
“There’s no doubt, there’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “That’s why I’m excited to get out there. It’s a new year. From a coach’s standpoint, especially a head coach’s standpoint, you evaluate the things from last year that you need to improve on. We know what they are and we’re going to go out there and redeem ourselves. Me personally, I’m excited to get on the practice field.”
The changes on defense are the most pronounced when you talk about adding a new coordinator and two new assistants, but it doesn’t mean the moves on offense will have any less of an impact. Gone are offensive line Coach J.B. Grimes and wide receivers Coach Dameyune Craig, replaced by longtime Malzahn confidant Herb Hand up front and former Tiger Kodi Burns at receiver.
Very familiar with both of those guys in terms of what they bring to the table, Malzahn said he will lean on each at their positions as Auburn works to get its edge back on offense the Tigers lost a season ago.
“As far as being comfortable and having guys that have been with you, I think there’s great value to that, guys that know how you operate and played in your system,” Malzahn said. “A lot of the guys have been with me for a long time. I think there’s something to that. It’s a comfort. Like I said earlier, our offense is unique. The more expertise that you have doing something is nothing but a positive. I’m very excited about this offensive staff and very comfortable.”
That starts and ends at the quarterback position where both Jeremy Johnson and Sean White return for the Tigers along with redshirt freshman Tyler Queen. All three will get reps along with junior college transfer John Franklin in a battle that Malzahn said will be an important one for his team to see which guy rises to the top between now and the season opener against Clemson.
“We’re going to start out and they’re going to have equal reps,” Malzahn said. “We’ve done that in the past. We’ll chart everything that they do in team settings and seven-on-seven settings. We’ll give them all a chance to compete.
“Competition brings out the best in everyone. My experience is the longer spring goes on and you put the guys in different situations. I’m not going to rule out the chance of going live in the spring. We did that two weeks before our season in 2013 and it cleared up things in a hurry. We’ll see and me and Rhett will evaluate that position on a daily basis.”
The biggest changes come on the defensive side of the ball where veteran defensive coordinator Kevin Steele takes over a group that took strides last season under Will Muschamp, but finished with its best performance of the season in its last game out in a bowl win over Memphis with Muschamp already gone.
Returning some key pieces in the front four and in the secondary, Auburn’s defense is going to need someone to step up at linebacker between now and when they wrap up spring drills on April 11. While that’s a big goal Malzahn said the biggest thing is for the coaches and players to get a good feel for each other and the concepts that Steele brings to the table along with linebackers Coach Travis Williams and Wesley “Crimedog” McGriff in the secondary.
“There’s going to be some differences but the foundation is from the same tree, which I think will be good for our players especially with the way the defense finished the year and I think that will be a good transition moving forward,” Malzahn said of the spring on defense.
“Coach Steele is a veteran guy,” he added of his new defensive coordinator. “There is quite a bit of carryover as far as the foundation of our defense last year, but from a coach’s standpoint there’s nothing better than getting out there and competing against each other, getting used to working together. All those guys are true professionals. They are all going in the same direction.”