Much of Auburn’s collective attention shifted off the field last week towards university alum Selena Roberts, a web site called Roopstigo (which is not a herb for a chili recipe, as one may have guessed), and its nearly-wholesale whiff of a haymaker clumsily thrown in the football program’s direction.
The more-concrete news is that actual football is still happening here, and the Tigers are slowly getting their second wind in head coach Gus Malzahn’s all-uptempo-everything system.
Depending on whom you ask, progress is coming at different speeds. The players in general, think it’s coming along. They think they’re catching on, maybe not as rapidly as the coaching staff would like, but they’re learning and they’re energetic about the process.
For the Tigers right now, with a little over a week left of spring ball before A-Day, it’s about ingraining ideas through repetitions on the practice field. The schemes, for the most part, have been laid out by the coaches. The next step? Second nature; thinking less, rather not needing to as much, making intuitive reactions instead.
Take, for instance, Justin Garrett. Emerging in the spring as Auburn’s best fusion of safety and linebacker, or the “Star” position in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 system, Garrett’s collegiate career now appears to be on a new, higher, trajectory. To date he is one of the biggest early beneficiaries of a new scheme that complements his skills.
“Garrett made a couple of big hits again,” Malzahn said when discussing the recent scrimmage. “He’s setting the tone for the defense. We need more guys playing like him.”
That is high praise not because Malzahn doesn’t enjoy throwing out compliments; he’s been largely positive about the Tigers’ efforts so far. But he hasn’t minced his frustrations over groups of players or shoddy techniques either —no single position group stood out to him in Saturday’s scrimmage—and he hasn’t made many individualized statements like he did with Garrett. Malzahn hasn’t held back regarding the gap between where he wants his Tigers to be after the spring and where they are now. In Garrett, he’s found an example where the fruits of labor are coming a little ahead of schedule.
Offensively, running backs Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne took a majority of Saturday’s scrimmage snaps. They held on to the ball, an important, basic feature for Malzahn to see, and began to show an understanding of Auburn’s blocking strategies. The wide receivers and quarterbacks are still learning this delicately-timed dance of an offense.
“Of course the coaches said it’s not where they want it to be, but it’s definitely a lot faster pace than the last scrimmage was,” quarterback Kiehl Frazier said after Saturday’s workout. “It hasn’t been tough; it’s been learning, getting in the playbook and knowing where we need to go on each play.”
That knowledge is essential, but offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee also needs to make certain that all of the moving parts in this high-voltage offense flip on at the same time.
“Their attitudes are great, they’re trying to do everything they can to the best of their ability, trying to lead their guys. But it’s tough when you’ve got a lot of things moving fast and you’ve got to be on every little detail and you’ve got to also process that information quickly,” Lashlee said of his quarterbacks. “I’m not frustrated at all; I’m just determined to get them where we need to be at the end of Day 15.”
Jonathan Wallace sounded sort of like his coach: “There’s a lot that I’ve got to work on for us to be a threat on the offensive side of the ball. I think I’m doing well. I just have to continue to work.”
The coaches want better, faster decisions. But in the madness there’s a steadying patience to the task at hand. They want these systems to feel like things one does in everyday life without thinking about. Before that, however, intense concentration is required. That’s easier than it sounds, and Malzahn and company are more realistic than that, but not by a whole lot. The head coach, Johnson, and Lashlee have all been vocal about a lack of attention being paid to the smaller details that so often mean the most in a football game.
“The number one thing we’re looking for as coaches is attention to detail and discipline,” Lashlee said before the scrimmage. “Here we are, now six days in, and we’re still way too inconsistent.”
Johnson added to that sentiment from the defensive side of the ball: “We probably are pleasantly surprised on the way they’ve picked up new things they’ve not done before, or things we’re calling a little differently. On the other hand, I think we’re a long, long way, especially when we’re doing the fast-tempo operations, a long way from cleaning up enough missed assignments and other things that are hurting us.
“I know we’re physically in condition, but mentally right now we’re not staying focused through that.”
After breaking routine Monday, opting for film study and a reset, of sorts, heading into spring’s second act, the Tigers may take the practice field one more time following A-Day on Saturday, April 20. There will be no practice left off the calendar if the staff feels the team needs it.
And the coaches and players know there’s so much more left to commit to memory. More will be demanded as the staff sharpens its focus on shaping a depth chart by the end of spring. Players need to react smarter, quicker.
This spring, any spring but this one especially remains a lot about thought process. Making good practice habits translate to real football. It’s the same as any other offseason but this year, the pace of the action matters just about as much as the execution. And you really can’t have one without the other anymore at Auburn.