AUBURN, Ala. – Kicking off his seventh spring as Auburn’s head coach, Gus Malzahn outlined the Tigers’ objectives for the next four weeks.
“Our coaches are really excited about it,” Malzahn said before Monday’s first practice. “Our players are, too.”
Auburn’s quarterback competition – a four-way battle between Malik Willis, Joey Gatewood, Cord Sandberg and Bo Nix – will be the top spring storyline.
“We’re going to start out spring rotating all four guys equally, at least starting out,” Malzahn said. “We’ll see where that goes – no timetable on narrowing things down or naming starters. We’re going to let those guys compete. It’s an open position. We’re looking forward to watching that competition.
“Once you figure out who your starting quarterback is, you’re going to build around his strengths. The good thing is we’ve got four guys and they’re all a little bit different. They’ve all got strengths.”
Whoever wins the starting QB job will benefit from an offensive line that returns all five starters.
“They played really good football in the second part of the season, they started to come together and gelling together — the big thing is to continue that,” Malzahn said. “We want to leave spring with more experience working together and getting those young guys ready. We are always trying to develop more depth, too. The twos and the threes are competing for playing time, too, and getting the guys ready to play.”
Like the O-line, Auburn’s defensive line also returns most of its first and second units.
“I think that’s the key in our conference, to have quality experience up front, offensive line and defensive line,” he said. “I think it’s very critical in our conference, probably more than any other conference.”
The Tigers are replacing three departed linebackers, including All-SEC standout Deshaun Davis.
“I think that’s a big key this spring with that group,” Malzahn said. “You look at two or three years ago, it feels exactly the same. And of course, with those three guys it worked out really well. So we feel the same way and I know Travis (Williams) is really excited about his bunch and showing what they can do. We’ve got some guys that can play; they just need the experience of getting out there, especially with that first group.”
Before talking football, Malzahn congratulated Bruce Pearl and the men’s basketball team for winning the SEC Tournament.
“It’s really fun to watch what he’s done in five years to get our program where it’s at,” said Malzahn, who attended the tournament in Nashville and was at Toomer’s Corner Sunday night with many Auburn football players for the Tigers’ triumphant return.
“It’s really unbelievable. Being here before he got here, just the way they played, a true team, knowing who they are, playing to their strengths and playing their best game in the biggest game says a lot. I’m really happy for him and his team. I wish them luck in the NCAA tournament.”
Malzahn also said…..
On the H-back position…”We’re going to do our best this spring to keep 11 guys on the field without changing a whole bunch of personnel. That’s a position that is in a little transition, but I think it’s a good thing moving forward. Now I will say this, with Chandler Cox, he’s a tough guy to replace — he was a four-year starter and like a coach on the field. He made things right when things weren’t right sometimes so that’s big shoes to fill. We’ll be doing it by committee as far as spring goes, but that will be a good position battle, too.”
On the approach on offense during spring practice …”So I think that in spring, we’re rotating four quarterbacks, so we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We’re going to be fairly bland with our offense, at least early, to give our quarterbacks a chance to get things going. And then there will be a point where we’ll start to add things. The thing about Kenny (Dillingham) is you always kind of have to stay ahead of things. Kenny will bring some really good, fresh ideas from his time with (Mike) Norvell at Memphis, but really, you won’t see a lot of that. At least the first half of spring, we’re really going to focus on the execution part, the foundation and be able to evaluate quarterbacks.”
On the challenges of a freshman quarterback…”The big thing is the experience factor. A lot of these guys start playing 7-on-7 a lot earlier than they used to. As you said, they have their own QB coaches, so things are a little more accelerated than they used to be at that position. But the big factor is the experience, especially the speed of the game at a conference like ours.”
On Wesley McGriff…”He’s got great energy. He relates to players. I think that is a key to a coach. He does not have any bad days, he brings in great energy and always a positive attitude to every meeting and every practices. That is contagious to players and players like to play for a guy like that.”
McGriff’s familiarity with Kevin Steele…”It is very important. You could see it; it did not take more than a day to give him back in the swing of things, the same terminology as far as understanding coaches and understanding Auburn. He knows our players, he recruited a lot of the guys too, and it was a really easy transition.”
On the early enrollees…”I think when you get the young guys, you have to make sure you try to catch them up as quick as you can, especially guys that you think can help not only on offense or defense, but also special teams. We have a lot of guys that we think are very talented and got here early. Getting them to help us on special teams I think will be a big focus during the spring. We’ve got to make sure they get enough reps and try to get them caught up and then later evaluate.”
On the running backs…”I think Cadillac (Williams) will have them competing. He is going to let those guys show what they can do and I want to see them impress their new running back coach. They will have the opportunity to get behind all three lines and we will see what happens.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer