The dark days of the college football offseason are upon us.
With a successful ending to the 2013 recruiting class, Auburn is currently engaging in offseason workouts and making sure that everyone on the roster is caught up academically.
For Auburn and college football fans in general, the time between national signing day and spring practice is probably the most boring part of the year.
For the team, this part of the year is arguably the most important. Like the old sports adage says, championships are won and lost in the offseason.
It is now that chemistry is developed, expectations are set and when the leaders emerge from the pack of followers.
The Auburn football team is being pushed to the limit mentally and physically in offseason workouts. It's all for the hope that on Aug. 31 and the 11 other Saturdays that follow, they can walk off the field as winners.
That only happened three times in 2012.
The coaches are busy as well.
Recruiting never ends and a lot of the new coaching staff are being able to evaluate the current players on the roster for the very first time.
While there is plenty to do, here are five things that must be on head coach Gus Malzahn's offseason checklist...
The first item on the checklist has to be for the Tigers to stay hot on the recruiting trail.
Malzahn and the rest of the Auburn coaching staff had a couple of days to breathe after landing the No. 12 class in the 247Sports composite rankings.
It wasn't a deep breath.
Auburn has sent out 70-plus scholarship offers for the 2014 class.
The 2014 recruiting cycle began in earnest for Auburn last weekend when it hosted a large contingent of the top high school junior prospects in the country for its first junior day on the Plains.
With so much focus going towards the 2013 class once the staff was completed, Auburn is playing catchup on establishing relationships with the top 2014 prospects.
Along with honing in on the obvious playmakers at the skill positions, the Auburn recruiting strategy will likely have a focus on linebackers and offensive linemen. Auburn signed only two offensive linemen and linebackers in the 2013 class. There was only one high school prospect signed at each position.
If the 2013 recruiting class is any indication of what this staff can accomplish on the recruiting trail, then Auburn fans should be excited for what the staff can do with a full recruiting cycle in 2014.
Just had great visit with prospects' parents. They love our staff. Can't wait to see what they will do w/ full year to recruit. #WarEagle— Jay Jacobs (@jayjacobsauad) February 23, 2013
Expectations dipped to an all-time low during the 2012 season that saw the Tigers suffer a winless season in SEC play.
Jordan-Hare Stadium seats were empty after halftime in games against Georgia and Texas A&M.
It was as if fans were hoping that Auburn would only keep the game close and avoid embarrassment instead of hoping to win.
For the players, it was as if they were playing not to lose and were expecting the worst to happen. Auburn entered the first seven games of the season with a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, only to see the other team pull away.
That mindset needs to change in the offseason. Malzahn has promised the players and fans alike that "it's a new day."
That mindset is developed in offseason workouts, spring practice and "voluntary" summer workouts. It's about being confident in other teammates. It's about having confidence in your coaching staff and knowing that if each person does his job, good things will happen.
One thing former head coach Gene Chizik said after the 2010 BCS national championship is that a lot of Auburn's players now know what a great team looks like.
For the first time since that championship season, Auburn will have a healthy amount of senior leadership and upper classmen.
Auburn lost leaders like Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Onterio McCalebb and Corey Lemonier from last year's group.
Unless there is more attrition, Auburn will have 16 seniors and 31 juniors on the roster for the 2013 season.
Many of those seniors got their fair share of playing time in the Tigers' national championship run. Defensive end Nosa Eguae, DE Craig Sanders and defensive back Demetruce McNeal all contributed on defense or special teams.
Those players have seen the highs and lows of Auburn football. They have seen what it takes to be the best team in all of college football and they have seen what the worst team.
Coaches cannot be around the team 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The coaches' time with the team is very limited in the off-season. That is why the coaching staff will be counting on the experience and leadership of the upper classmen.
Auburn will need leaders from all classes to step up and become leaders in the locker room during the off-season to hold their teammates accountable.
One of the most frustrating issues with Auburn under coach Chizik was the Tigers' perceived lack of fundamentals.
Talent can get your foot in the door for a win in college football, but without solid fundamentals, the chances of getting a win are slim.
Poor tackling, poor routes by the receivers and mental mistakes occurred on the field far too often for Auburn fans.
Auburn has to get back to the basics in spring practice.
According to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, part of Auburn's issues on defense in 2012 could have been due to focusing more on assignments than on fundamentals (via Aaron Brenner, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer):
“I think what happens sometimes, you get caught up in being an assignment football team and you don't work on fundamentals,” Johnson said. “What’s changed about college football is it's a more spread-out game now with faster athletes. Tackling used to be more of a physical (attribute) committing strength-vs.-strength when I first got into coaching. Now, it's about angles, it's about speed, it's about a lot of different factors to get into it to be a good tackling team.”
There is a chinese proverb that says "He who sweats much in times of peace, will bleed less in war."
While the game of football is nothing close to a war in which the proverb was referencing, the principle remains the same. The Tigers' hard work in the weight room now, will pay off when the lights of Jordan-Hare Stadium come on in the fall.
It was evident to anyone who followed Auburn throughout the 2012 campaign that the Tigers were undersized and were not in the condition required to finish out games.
SEC rivals ran around, over and through the Tigers each Saturday.
Auburn was outscored 69-36 in the fourth quarter of games last season. It was outscored 55-6 in the fourth quarter in SEC contests.
Included in Malzahn's ouster of Chizik's assistants was Auburn icon and long-time strength and conditioning coach, Kevin Yoxall. He had been at Auburn since former head coach Tommy Tuberville hired him in 1999.
Malzahn brought in Ryan Russell, who was mentored by Yoxall in a couple of stints at Auburn, to take over Auburn's strength and conditioning program. Russell was with Malzahn at Arkansas State in 2012.
With the Auburn offense moving at a hurry-up, no-huddle pace and the Auburn defense likely to be on the field for a lot of each game in 2013, conditioning will be a major part of Auburn's rebound.
Russell and Malzahn have implemented a shift in Auburn's training program. "No-huddle training. That's kind of our philosophy," Malzahn told the Greater Birmingham Auburn Club (via Charles Goldberg, al.com).
Russell is considered one of the innovators of strength and conditioning at the collegiate level. That perfectly fits Malzahn's style. Malzahn is considered one of the biggest innovators of offensive football in the past decade, himself.
There may not be a more important piece to Auburn's attempt at returning to prominence than being mentally and physically conditioned to take on the rigors of an SEC season.