AUBURN, Ala. — The unofficial start to the 2016 football season couldn't have come any sooner for the Auburn Tigers.
Last week, Gus Malzahn's team hit the field for the first time since capping a disappointing 7-6 campaign at the Birmingham Bowl. Back on the Plains, Auburn's players and coaches alike are eager to begin the work to make sure 2016 will be much different.
"Our guys are extremely excited to get out there," Malzahn said last Tuesday. "They’ve done a super job up to this point with our mat drills, in the weight room. You can tell this is a very close group. You can also tell that they’ve got a chip on their shoulder from last year, which I think is very healthy."
It's also a new-look group for Auburn, as the Tigers break in several new position coaches and start to fill in some gaps on the depth chart from last year's departures. That could also include a new No. 1 at quarterback.
Auburn will start its second full week of practice Tuesday afternoon. Before the Tigers return to the field, let's take a look back at all the action from Week 1.
Eyes on the skies
It's another spring, another quarterback situation to watch at Auburn.
After Jeremy Johnson and Sean White struggled while splitting time as the No. 1 quarterback last season, the Tigers are opening things back up again with what is currently a multi-player battle.
Johnson and White are focused on bouncing back from the disappointment of 2015, while JUCO transfer John Franklin III is looking to take over the job as the electric dual-threat that Auburn lacked last season.
"He looks very athletic," left guard Alex Kozan said. "I saw he juked the daylights out of a defensive end—something I really haven't seen in a while."
Redshirt freshman Tyler Queen is somewhat limited but still throwing, and new walk-on Devin Adams is on hand to create more competition.
While Auburn was focused on protecting Johnson last season, the staff is looking to create separation among its quarterbacks by making them take hits at times this spring. In 2013, that method produced starter Nick Marshall ahead of an SEC title season.
"We’re able to go live this spring," Malzahn said. "Usually when you do that, things separate a little quicker. If we do that it will be after spring break. That's something we've talked about, especially if no one really separates themselves."
Of course, there's two sides to an effective passing game, and Auburn is also looking for answers this spring at wide receiver. New wide receiver coach Kodi Burns is stepping into a situation in which Auburn must replace its top two receivers this offseason, with his returners combining for only 575 yards last season.
"We have some experience, but overall I think we're inexperienced," Malzahn said. "That's what it is, but I think that can be a good thing. ... We've got a couple of guys coming in that we feel like will have a chance to help, too, but I really think the big thing is that we will have some talent to work with there."
In addition to Marcus Davis, Jason Smith and Tony Stevens—along with high-potential underclassmen such as Darius Slayton—Auburn has one of the top wide receiver classes of 2016 coming to campus.
One of the biggest stars of the class, Georgia native Kyle Davis, enrolled early and wasted no time wowing his new team with his skill set.
"He's got the ability," Malzahn said. "He's got that ability that could definitely help us next year. ... The 'earn it' attitude, he understands that."
Steele's stamp on defense
First-year Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele got right to the point when asked what he wants to see from his new unit.
In fact, he repeated the same phrase multiple times in the first answer of his Saturday press conference.
"What we are trying to create right now...is to be a physical, dominating group that plays with relentless effort," Steele said. "The thing that is the most encouraging at this point over the first three days is we’ve got a really, really good attitude, and we have really tried to play with great effort on every play."
It's a similar style to what former coordinator Will Muschamp sought to install during his one brief season on the Plains.
"That's what he's been preaching the whole practice: effort, and you build off of that," defensive tackle Dontavius Russell said. "Making sure we all got good effort to the ball and stuff like that. ... We're trying to build an identity as a team, and that's with effort."
And in order to make things easier on a defense that is going through its fifth defensive coordinator in six seasons, Steele is keeping the transition simple.
"We've tried to facilitate the learning curve a little bit," Steele said. "The dictionary is pretty similar. We've tried to keep as much of it the same as possible, which makes it friendly for the players."
For example, the pass-rushing defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid that Carl Lawson played last year is still called the "Buck." The Tigers will line up in similar fronts in Steele's scheme, too.
When it comes to the on-field coaching, Steele and Muschamp have different demeanors—most of the time.
Defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence has already seen firsthand that the Tigers' new defensive coordinator has some fire inside him.
"He's more calm [than Muschamp], but at the same thing you've got to realize he's still going to bite, too," Lawrence said. "He's got an edge to him, you know what I'm saying?"
In the trenches
The strength of Auburn's 2016 team should be found on the defensive line, where the Tigers return Montravius Adams, Lawson, Russell, Lawrence, Byron Cowart and other highly touted players.
Adams and Lawson both decided to stay in school for 2016 instead of enter the NFL draft early—decisions Adams said were made with some help from each other.
"We decided to come back so we could play a whole season together," Adams said. "We came in as freshmen and played together in the Under Armour game and Rising Seniors game when we were in the 11th grade. Now just coming here, we haven’t played a complete season yet."
Auburn could start up to four former 5-star recruits on the defensive line this season, with plenty of blue-chip names filling in the depth chart behind them, including 2016 signee Marlon Davidson. Right now, the newcomers are having to make the tough adjustment to life under veteran line coach Rodney Garner.
"I use the example as they meet Rodney Garner when they are a recruit," Adams said. "But when they get there—that's Coach G."
On the other side of the ball, Auburn should stay strong on the offensive line with the return of its entire interior and a couple of new leaders emerging on the outside.
Auburn returns left guard Kozan, center Austin Golson and right guard Braden Smith for 2016. The line also picks up the newly eligible Darius James, a transfer from Texas who has the ability to play anywhere on the offensive line.
"Darius James has impressed me so far," Kozan said. "He's been able to set the edges as an offensive tackle and keep up with those speed guys, which I wasn't really sure if he could do. But he's proven himself so far. ... He's got a great energy."
Longtime backup Robert Leff took most of the first-team snaps at left tackle during the first week of spring camp, but new offensive line coach Herb Hand is moving players around quite a bit in order to get a handle on his best five. Kozan said he was even taking snaps at center.
"I probably expect to stay at left guard, but at the same time, you never know," Kozan said. "[In] spring of 2014, everybody thought we'd be in our spots, and I got hurt. It's important to learn other spots for right now and long term for your career."
- Safety Tray Matthews (shoulder), running back Kerryon Johnson (shoulder) and cornerback Jeremiah Dinson (knee) will miss the entire spring. Safety Rudy Ford and JUCO defensive end Paul James III missed all of Week 1 with injuries, but Malzahn said Monday he hopes both will return this week.
- Malzahn announced four new graduate assistants—including former Auburn quarterback Jonathan Wallace and defensive end Craig Sanders—and four new analysts to the 2016 staff.
- Defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence has massive goals for himself in 2016. Lawrence told reporters Saturday he wants to win the Lombardi and the Outland this year, a feat which Tom Green of the Opelika-Auburn News noted has only been done 13 times since 1970.
- Malzahn's new BMW i8 sports car has made headlines recently, and the head coach revealed Thursday he bought it for himself as a 50th birthday present.
- Auburn will practice Tuesday and Thursday before taking next week off for the university's spring break.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.