By Jake Winfrey
The Cullman Times
Ever since Gus Malzahn burst onto the college football scene back in 2006, the offensive guru has sought to instill a single quality in each one of his offensive units.
That quality, you ask?
Speed, speed and more speed.
So, it should come as no surprise the first-year Auburn coach was quick to defend his offensive philosophy in the wake of recent comments made by coaches — including Alabama's Nick Saban and Arkansas' Bret Bielema — that hurry-up offenses increase the risk of player safety.
"When I first heard that, to be honest with you, I thought it was a joke," Malzahn said during his Q&A session at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. "As far as health or safety issues, that's like saying the defense shouldn't be able to blitz after a first down because they're a little fatigued and there's liable to be a big collision in the backfield.
As a counterpoint, Malzahn said rule officials should instead look at the growing number of players who fake injuries in order to slow down fast-paced attacks.
"That's where college football is going," Malzahn said of high-octane offenses. "You see more and more teams using pace. I think you'll see it more at the next level also."
With a firm plan in place for his offense, Malzahn is now tasked to come up with an answer to a very important question — who's going to play quarterback?
Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace return as two of three starters from a year ago — Clint Moseley left the program in the spring — and will be joined by JUCO transfer Nick Marshall and incoming freshman sensation Jeremy Johnson.
As for who'll get the nod when the Tigers hit the field for their season-opener against Washington State, it's anyone's guess at this point.
"Our biggest challenge this year is going to be quarterback," Malzahn said. "We don't know who it is. We have four guys, and we're going to give them an equal shot. Figure out who gives us the best chance of winning.
"Ideally, we figure that out sooner rather than later in fall camp, but we won't make a decision until we are 100-percent sure."
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson takes over what was, conservatively speaking, a very broken group last season.
However, Malzahn remains optimistic, praising Johnson's coaching abilities, as well as pointing out the number of returning experienced seniors for the Tigers.
"Ellis is one of the best defensive coordinators in all of college football," he said. "He's fundamentally sound. We do have quite a few seniors on defense that's played a lot of football. They need to be on the field. I'm telling you, they need to grow up and grow up in a hurry."
The one thing most Auburn fans will be looking for when their new-look Tigers take the field in the fall will be just how much of last season's failures carry over into the 2013 schedule.
According to senior fullback Jay Prosch, that won't be an issue.
"It was completely different as soon as Coach Malzahn came," Prosch said. "It was a new attitude. He started a fire in everyone. The guys came out with a fire and intensity to work hard in practice. It went viral. It's really good to see and exciting."
As for Malzahn, he told his players back when he first arrived to forget about last year and to look ahead at the new day that's coming to Auburn.
Although it'll be a long road back for Malzahn and company, he's positive his team has taken the necessary steps to get back to winning football sooner rather than later.
"We're putting it (last season) in the rearview mirror," he said. "We're looking into the future. I feel good about our team. The big thing from my standpoint is we need to improve each practice and we need to improve each game. If we can do that, we have a chance to have a successful season."
% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at email@example.com.