Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said his team has come a long way from this time last year.
He addressed the media Wednesday at the Wynfrey Hotel saying even though the Tigers were coming off a national championship last year, their depth and development since then has put them in a much stronger position to start the 2012 season.
“We have 16 returning starters, and then there are guys in many cases right behind those guys that have been considered starters pushing them for a starting job,” he said. “We still have some question marks at a few positions, but we’ve got guys right now that are pushing for jobs, and the depth and experience is the reason we have that.”
The Tigers closed the 2011 season with a win on New Year’s Eve against Virginia at the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Chizik believed several young players stepped up in that game and contributed to the victory.
“That was a big win for our team, and I think that gave us momentum as we propelled ourselves through the offseason,” he said.
Conveniently, Auburn will return to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic to start upcoming season. This will be the team’s third meeting against Clemson in the past three years. The game was close in 2010, and Auburn won 27-24 in overtime the following season, but Clemson won the 2012 meeting by a 38-24 margin.
This is the first time in Chizik’s four years as head coach that Auburn has opened with a big opponent. However, Chizik made sure to note that playing in big games is nothing new to his team.
“For playing a team that’s not in your conference, the Auburn Tigers versus the Clemson Tigers makes sense,” Chizik said. “To have that game at the beginning of season is interesting for our guys. This is a big game against a great team. It’s going to be a great test for us early. We’re going to have play extremely well.”
Senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen said the team was very excited to open against a tough opponent, particularly because of last year’s loss.
“Losing to them last year and being able to look at that and all the other games we’ve been watching and how we lost to them, it motivates you and makes you want to work harder and do everything you can possible to prepare for them,” he said.
But even after the Clemson game, the rest of September is still going to be tough. Game two is a road trip to Mississippi State, and then the Tigers host LSU at the end of the month.
“It’s going to be big that we start out fast, and we’re going to keep practicing to makes sure that happens,” Chizik said.
Both the offensive and defensive coordinators are new to Auburn, with Scot Loeffler coming from Temple and Brian VanGorder coming from the Atlanta Falcons.
Chizik appreciates that they both have experience in the Southeastern Conference. VanGorder was a defensive coordinator at Georgia from 2001-04, while Loeffler spent time at Florida as a quarterbacks coach from 2009-10.
Loeffler has a different strategy than former offensive coordinator Gus Malzhan, but Chizik is a fan of his quarterback-development skills.
“Quarterback development was a huge emphasis in who we hired,” he said. “That’s his forte. Even though he’s young, that’s what he’s been known for.”
Lutzkenkirchen said Loeffler is planning on using his skill players regularly.
“He came in and said from the get-go he’s going to make it an effort to get me the ball as much as he can,” he said. “Any player wants to hear that, so I’m excited.”
As far as the new playbook is concerned, Lutzenkirchen said this is a multiple-set offense, so they can both speed up the game and slow it down.
“Having multiple sets causes everyone to know every single position out there because you could line up at full back, wide receiver, it just depends on the personnel group and the formation,” he said. “Both playbooks were tough to learn. It’s tough to go from one playbook because it’s all very similar schemes, but different verbage.”
Of the returning starters Chizik referenced, the seniors have a lot of history filled with success. He mentioned players such as wide receiver Emory Blake, running back Onterio McCalebb and Lutzenkirchen.
“Those seniors that have been starters in the past, their leadership is key,” Chizik said. “They’ve had a lot of success. We’ve been undefeated in postseason play. They have a national champ ring. It’s important they step up to the plate and continue to lead.”
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