A pair of coaches and a veteran player all note they are seeing signs the Tigers are improving as a football team.
Junior safety Zac Etheridge says he sees progress on both sides of the football. "We are making progress on defense and we need to continue doing that," he says. "We are working on being aggressive. The coaches talk to us about the importance of all 11 guys getting to the football on every play."
Looking at the other side of the line of scrimmage, Etheridge says he has higher expectations for the 2009 offense with new coordinator Gus Malzahn calling the shots. "Their confidence is so high, it is great to see our offense doing that," the safety says. "They throw the ball well, they run the ball well."
Etheridge is well aware of how the offense struggled in 2008, but he predicts those troubles won't resurface in 2009. "I think they are going to surprise a lot of people this year," he says.
Etheridge notes the Tigers are looking forward to playing somebody other than themselves in practice and Malzahn agrees. "It has kind of been a breath of fresh air," the offensive coordinator says. "I can tell our guys have kind of raised their level as they know it is getting close to a game and we are actually game-planning specific for a team. That has been good for our players and our coaches."
Both Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof they have yet to finalize their plans on the playing rotations for opening night. Malzahn also notes that he hasn't picked a number two quarterback yet. The competition features true freshman Tyrik Rollison and redshirt junior Neil Caudle. Also, junior Kodi Burns will likely see action at QB in the wildcat formation.
"We are getting closer, but we have not decided that yet," Malzahn says of the decision on who will back up starting quarterback Chris Todd. "Me and Coach Chizik will get together, put our heads together and I am sure that will come fairly soon."
Rollison was ill and missed Tuesday's practice, but Malzahn says that changed on Wednesday. "He's fine and he's 100 percent to go."
Malzahn points out that there is a lot of youth and inexperience that will be on the field this season. "The youthful guys, it is a work in progress and each day you see some improvement."
The offensive coordinator has praise for a pair of freshmen who are very likely to see significant playing time.
Commenting on tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, he says, "He is a football savvy guy and he has got some football knowledge. He understands things. We already knew he had great hands. We are asking him to do some things he didn't do a lot of in high school...He is one of those guys that each day you see him improving and getting more confidence, but he is capable of making plays."
Freshman running back Onterio McCalebb, who participated in spring training, is also making progress, Malzahn says. "He is a burst. He can be a one-play drive type of guy if we can get him the right situation. He has gotten better and better. He is tough. Coach Luper (running backs coach Curtis Luper) has really strained and stretched him to really try to be ready. He has responded and shown a lot of toughness. He is really not a physically, big type of guy, but he is pretty tough."
In other news:
*Defensive coordinator Ted Roof notes the Tigers are trying to be physical in practice despite concerns about depth. "We're always going to have fundamental time because no matter who you're playing, the fundamentals don't change," said Roof. "And then you get the speed work. You always want to go against your offense and see things coming at you full speed. You don't want to sacrifice the speed of the game, but you have to balance that time and the time from a schematic and awareness standpoint."
*Offensive tackle Lee Ziemba says the Tigers face a challenging schedule with no breaks until late in the fall. "Eleven straight weeks--that's interesting, but I am ready to get started," the junior says.
Chizik agrees with Ziemba and notes that the coaching staff has to be smart how the Tigers practice and prepare for games this fall to not wear out the team physically and mentally.
*Freshman offensive tackle Aubrey Phillips is spending time with the team, but has still not been cleared to practice. He has been going through a series of medical tests and Chizik has said that it is not known when the lineman will be cleared for action.