The Auburn football team is just over the midway point of its first spring practice under new head coach Gus Malzahn.
With a totally new coaching staff, this is a very important spring for many players to make a good impression on the new staff. Along with the mantra of it being a "new day," the coaching staff has also preached that every position is wide open.
"Every position is wide open. Everybody has a clean slate," said Malzahn prior to spring practice beginning. "I've tried, even though I was here before, not to have any pre-judgments on any of the players. We're moving forward." (h/t auburntigers.com)
The Tigers are preparing for the annual A-Day game on April 20, which is expected to have a large turnout.
Auburn Football (@FootballAU) April 9, 2013
A new energy has been injected into the program since Malzahn took over in early December. He has helped lift up a program that has had little to cheer about in recent days.
Like the Tigers did last Monday by taking a day off practice, let's hit the pause button and take a look at five things we have learned about the 2013 Auburn team in spring practice with just over a week before the spring game.
With a new coaching staff, change is in the air this spring on the Auburn football team.
You will see some new faces in new places in the spring game.
Most of the noteworthy position changes in the first half of practice have occurred on the defensive side of the ball. For example, Ladarius Owens.
Owens served as a defensive end under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his 4-3 scheme. Under new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, Owens will be a linebacker, the position he was recruited for.
“We just wanted to give him a shot, see if he can do it,” Johnson told Ryan Wood of the Opelika-Auburn News. “He looks comfortable there. I don’t know how many plays he’ll make once we go live, but he’s picking up coverage and drops, things a defensive lineman wouldn’t normally have done. We’ll let him fight for the two-deep.”
Other notable position changes include Robenson Therezie moving from CB to the Star position, Chris Landrum from H-back to LB and T.J. Davis from CB to safety.
Don't be surprised to see even more position changes throughout the spring and summer.
It's hard to mention Malzahn's name without putting the adjectives uptempo or fast-paced somewhere near it.
So it's no surprise that he is instilling an uptempo mindset about everything the Tigers do, including workouts and shifting from session to session in practice. It would not be a surprise if there was a speaker in the Tigers' locker room with a familiar "Hurry up!" blaring over the speakers.
Auburn still has some work to do in making that mindset a way of life during practice.
"The big thing is we've just got to learn how to practice with the pace. The Xs and Os will come. We've just got to get our minds right and play fast," Malzahn said after the first spring practice. "We've got some work to do, but I know these guys will respond. We'll come out the next practice and be faster." (h/t auburntigers.com)
Don't be fooled by the uptempo style and think that it lacks physicality. Anyone who followed Malzahn's offense in his time as Auburn's coordinator knows better than that. It's no different now that he is the Tigers head coach.
Since putting on full pads, being physical has been as much of a theme as being fast.
"Well, we're being very physical and we're straining their bodies physically. We're asking a lot of them and that's the good thing," Malzahn said after practice last week. "We're getting them out of their comfort zone and a lot of times when you do that you find out a whole lot of information. That's the point we're at in spring right now." (h/t AL.com)
It is important to not put too much stock into spring performances, but it does give fans a good idea of who has breakout potential once fall camp opens up.
Last spring, it was RB Corey Grant. His excellent spring translated into very few chances in the 2012 regular season.
This spring, it is WR Jaylon Denson and Justin Garrett, who is auditioning to be the first player for Auburn to start at the "Star" position.
"Right now, if you said who do I know that I can count on, I know I can count on [Denson], six days in," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told Brandon Marcello of AL.com on Wednesday. "So we're moving him around a little bit. Putting him in a few different spots. He's smart enough, he can handle it, and he's making plays."
Garrett has caught the eye of his defensive coordinator and has proven to be the most consistent tackler on the defensive side of the ball for Auburn.
Malzahn said that Garrett continued his strong spring on the defensive side in the scrimmage last Saturday. "He made a couple of big hits again. He's setting the tone for the defense," Malzahn told Charles Goldberg of auburntigers.com.
Will these strong performances continue on into fall camp? No one knows, but after opening eyes this spring, it would be a disappointment to not see the two crack the playing rotation.
Last fall was a nightmare for all of the three quarterbacks who took snaps as Auburn's QB last fall.
Kiehl Frazier was in a scheme that he was not meant to be in. Growing up in a Malzahn-style offense, he was uncomfortable from the outset in former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler's pro-style scheme.
Jonathan Wallace's limited success came against New Mexico State and Alabama A&M.
With three newcomers expected to arrive in the fall, it was never expected that a decision on the QB race would be made in the spring. However, this spring is an important one for both Frazier and Wallace to possibly go into fall camp with a leg up on the competition.
Junior college transfer Nick Marshall, as well as high school signees Jason Smith and Jeremy Johnson will all be sharing snaps with Frazier and Wallace in the fall. The best chance to stand out is now.
The fact that Malzahn is bringing back a more familiar offense is helping the signal callers.
“This is an offense that I’m a lot more comfortable with,” Frazier told Aaron Brenner of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. “Really, when I got recruited, this is what I was expecting to run what I got to Auburn. So it’s good to get back to it.
An early concern coming out of spring practice is the lack of quality depth on the defensive side of the football. Along the defensive line, in particular.
"Our first unit is way head of our second unit," Johnson told the media after Monday's practice. "There's a huge drop off. That would be a point of concern right now. I don't think we've got four tackles. I don't think we've got four ends who play at a level we've got to have. Hopefully by the end of spring we will." (h/t AL.com)
After ranking 65th in scoring defense (28.3 ppg), 100th in rushing defense (197.58 ypg) and 81st in total defense (420.5 ypg) that is not what Auburn fans wanted to hear.
The last two years have seen an unproductive pass rush from the defensive line and with Corey Lemonier opting to play on Sundays this fall, the Tigers need a leader to step up among the front four.
Youth can no longer be an excuse on the defensive line. Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker, Kenneth Carter and Gabe Wright have had plenty of experience.
Having the need for only two true LBs in the 4-2-5 scheme, depth is not as much of a concern at the position. Still, LB play has been mediocre at best the last two years. Jake Holland, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost all plan on being the leaders and getting the bulk of the playing time at the two LB positions.
The defensive backs have earned the most praise on the defensive side of the ball, specifically the cornerbacks.
Still, the Auburn defense needs an impact playmaker to emerge at each level of the defense, and so far this spring, that has not happened.