For Auburn football fans and alumni, last year’s disappointing 3-9 season couldn’t end quickly enough.
Fast forward six months later, however, and that same group can’t wait for this season’s new-look Tigers to take the field.
Leading the 2013 regime is head coach Gus Malzahn, who was hired as Auburn’s 26th head football coach back in December. Malzahn spoke for about 30 minutes in front of a crowd of more than 500 people at this year’s Cullman County AU Club Scholarship Banquet at the Civic Center on Thursday.
The offensive guru wasted little time in stating how excited he was about the direction his program was heading.
“We have a lot of momentum right now, and it’s a lot of fun,” Malzahn said. “We had one of the best academic semesters we’ve ever had at Auburn, and the staff has done a great job of recruiting and coaching.”
Malzahn had three simple but very big goals to accomplish heading into and out of spring practice — getting the Tigers’ edge back, understanding basic schemes and comprising a two-deep depth chart.
After the Blue and Orange’s worst season since 1998, Malzahn is eager to get back to what has made Auburn a traditional powerhouse over the past three decades.
“What I mean when I say get our edge back is toughness,” he said. “That blue-collar, hit you in the mouth type of football. We aren’t completely back yet, but we are going to get there.”
One thing that got the crowd riled up was the mention of the Tigers’ practices, including a skill that’s seemingly been lacking the past couple of seasons — tackling.
“We worked on that every single day of spring,” Malzahn said to a rousing applause. “I know I’m an offensive guy that likes calling plays, but I believe we only had one missed tackle in the open field during the whole spring. That got me more excited that anything else.”
Malzahn discussed in detail the status of every position on the team, including the biggest concern heading into the offseason — who’s going to play quarterback?
“Y’all want to know the starter?” Malzahn asked the crowd. “I have no idea who it’s going to be. We want to be 110 percent sure we have the right guy. Once we do, we can build our offense around his strengths.”
The Tigers will return Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace to a position that left much to be desired last season. Joining them in the competition will be newcomers Jason Smith, Jeremy Johnson and JUCO transfer Nick Marshall.
While Malzahn touched on his entire offensive unit, he made it clear that deciding on a quarterback will be the most important factor moving forward.
“The bottom line for us offensively is figuring out who’s going to be our starter,” he said. “I think we’ll have a real good chance to grow as a group when that happens.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers return a bevy of starters and bring in some of the top-rated players from this year’s recruiting class. The first-year coach is hoping for substantial improvement from a unit that surrendered 150 points in its last three conference games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama.
“You’re going to see a lot of new guys out there,” Malzahn said. “Coach (Ellis) Johnson has been working with them hard. We also have some good guys coming in like Carl Lawson, Montravious Adams and Elijah Daniel. I’m excited about those guys and their characters.”
As most coaches know, with new players comes a process of getting them up to speed at a higher level of play, especially in the SEC. Although Malzahn likes what he sees so far, he asked for patience from the Auburn faithful in getting back to it.
“There’s probably going to be some growing pains,” he said. “But I’ll tell you this. Hang in there. We are going to get it turned around. That I can promise you.”
Malzahn went on to field some questions from the audience before calling it an evening.
One particular question drew a laugh from the fast-paced coach, as a woman stood and asked bluntly, ‘When do you sleep?”
Responded Malzahn: “I don’t need much sleep. I go to bed late and wake up early. I waste time when I am sleeping.”
Following a few more questions and answers, another woman stood up and with pride proclaimed, ‘I just want to tell you how excited I am about Auburn football!’
Malzahn readily agreed with the woman and gave a short, but well-versed departing message to the Cullman/Auburn crowd.
“It’s been a blessing to be here,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect, although I heard this was a special place. I love Auburn and make no mistake about it, we are going to get our edge back. War Eagle!”
‰ Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.