The Auburn offensive line, and much of the team, took advantage of the bye week to get back to the basics in practice as the Tigers prepare to enter a grueling second half of the season that features a tough road matchup against LSU and home showdowns with rivals Georgia and Alabama.
"From my standpoint, what are we good at? What are we average at?" said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. "Let’s do the things we’re good at, let’s try to not do the things we’re average at. There’s a little bit of both, but it really comes down to execution, and just basic football 101. We really tried to go back to that, not just up front, but in all areas, and a lot of times when you do that you slow down and you really start to improve.
"I really look for that group to improve. We need to continue to stay healthy; we’ve been pretty fortunate up to this point minus a game or two. If that group stays healthy I expect them to improve."
Self evaluation was a big focus for the offensive line during the bye week, said senior center Kaleb Kim.
"That was kind of the main focus, just to really, uh, improve what it was we were struggling with the first half of the season," he said. "We had a whole week to work on that, so I think that was a good thing.
"It was really great to be able to step back and take a deep breath, you know, because the schedule can get pretty tough, as you guys know. That bye week really provided a lot of opportunity to improve, especially as an offensive line."
Task one for the Tigers heading into the road game against Arkansas on Saturday will be to open up more holes for a running back group that is without starter JaTarvious Whitlow, who injured his knee against Florida and will be out of action for four to six weeks.
The Tigers struggled running the ball against the Gators, finishing with only 124 yards on 34 carries, both lows on the season.
"First of all, you’ve got to be real. We’re not going to Arkansas with one of the best tailbacks in our league — that’s the reality of the thing," Malzahn said. "But we do have confidence in our other guys, and we’ve got confidence in our offensive line. What we’ve been talking about is opportunity; we’ve got some guys that have opportunities. We’ll see how they fare."
Senior running back Malik Miller said the mindset of the group is "next man up" now that Whitlow is out.
"Boobee was a, kind of, leader of the group. He’s, you know, a vital part of the offense," he said. "But we’re a very confident group. We have confidence in everybody in the room and we all know what we bring to the table. So we know we’ve got to step up, but we’ve been ready. We’re ready for the challenge."
Senior back Kam Martin in a known quantity and will likely get the bulk of the carries against the Razorbacks, although the coaches experimented extensively with true freshman D.J. Williams during the bye week.
"D.J. Williams, we talked about him, that this will be really his first time in prime time to see what he can do, but in the spring, he performed very well," said Malzahn. "He is going to get the opportunity to touch the ball. I think he has earned that and is healthy now, but we also have the other guys we are taking with us that will touch the ball, too."
Williams' only carries of the year came against Mississippi State, when he rushed seven times for 32 yards.
"He's just a really young, talented guy, so I guess the silver lining with Boobee being out is we have a lot of young guys who can step up and show what they can do out there. A lot of talent in the backfield," said Kim. "We know that all the guys have the ability to get the job done and really all we have to do is open up the holes for those guys and we're confident they'll be able to find them."
Kim added that he saw a lot of potential during practice last week out of the running back group, which also includes Shaun Shivers, Harold Joiner and Miller in addition to Martin and Williams.
"He’s an effective tailback; we just have to give him opportunities in space. He runs between the tackles well, too," said Malzahn of Shivers, who has 27 carries for 144 yards on the season. "Without Whitlow now, he is going to get more opportunities, but we are really high on him and I think he is capable of making explosive plays. I think it’s a little bit of a lot of things, what he does well, trying to get him in some one-on-one situations."
The running game finding success early against the Razorbacks is crucial for quarterback Bo Nix, who had his worst game yet as a Tiger against Florida, throwing three interceptions while only completing 41 percent of his passes.
"There are things that he feels comfortable with and you get on the practice field and there are things he can execute at a high level, that’s what you call," said Malzahn. "Things that maybe we need a little bit more time, we don’t call it. So, it’s really as simple as that — what he feels comfortable with."
The Tigers and Razorbacks will meet at 11 a.m. Saturday in Fayetteville. The game will be carried on the SEC Network.