With just over three weeks until the season-opener against Akron, the Auburn football team is working hard to forge an identity and knock off the offseason rust in the first fall camp under head coach Bryan Harsin.
The first-year head coach wants to instill toughness in his team over the next few weeks, while opening up every position to competition and focusing heavily on fundamentals and technique.
"The physicality, you want to have that at every practice," said Harsin. "As a coach, you've got to balance it. You've got to put your players out there where they can practice the techniques, they can do it properly and they can get better at it, and then there is that component of being physical in there."
Bringing a physical mindset and toughness to every practice is essential leading up to the season-opener, especially because of recent NCAA rule changes that reduced contact during fall camp, including new rules that limit a team to two preseason scrimmages, the first of which will take place Saturday for the Tigers. Other rules limit full-contact practices to no more than two consecutive days, with contact sessions capped at 75 minutes, and reducing the number of contact practices to 18 from 21.
The biggest thing Harsin is looking for from his players during fall camp is consistency, regardless of position.
"If you want to play on this team, be consistent and go out there and play good football every single day," he said. "Be consistent, be a guy that we can count on, we can rely on. Be a guy that when things get more challenging throughout practices, he shows some toughness."
The Tigers have lost a little bit of toughness and a huge presence on the interior defensive line, as veteran defensive tackle Tyrone Truesdell is no longer part of the team, Harsin confirmed on Tuesday. Truesdell finished the 2020 season with 22 tackles.
"He's not on our team," said Harsin in response to a question asking if there was a chance Truesdell could rejoin the team at some point.
While the Tigers will be missing a big piece on their defensive line, they will be returning one of college football's most explosive players on the offensive side of the ball in running back Tank Bigsby, who earned a preseason All-SEC first-team nod from the media.
Bigsby said the biggest difference in the offense under coordinator Mike Bobo is that the Tigers will be going more "downhill" this season.
"It will be different, but I'm excited about Coach Bobo and I'm excited to work with him," said Bigsby, who led the team in 2020 with 834 rushing yards on 138 carries (6.04 ypc) and five touchdowns, while also finishing fourth on the team in receptions with 11 for 84 yards.
Bigsby will be the featured back in the Tigers' new-look offense, which will feature plays run from the I-formation.
"When you hear the word downhill run game, and that's something we preach to our guys, everybody thinks you're lined up in the I-formation and you're just running straight downhill," said Bobo. "I think it's a physical attitude. It's not just the running back, but it's the offensive line, the tight ends and it's the receivers. I believe that you're going to have to be able to run the ball to get where you want to go, and that's ultimately to win a championship.
"Downhill physical running game to me is a mentality. Are we going to have plays that run on the perimeter? Yes. We got plays that run between the tackles? Yes. But it's a mentality."
If the Tigers want to have a successful, downhill running game, the offensive line will have to perform at a higher level than it did last season and get a more consistent push at the line of scrimmage. Auburn finished in the middle of the pack in the SEC in rushing offense last year, averaging 163 yards a game on the ground. The Tigers were able to string together four-straight games with more than 200 rushing yards, but also had poor outings, including a 39-yard rushing effort against Georgia and a 61-yard rushing performance in a bowl loss to Northwestern.
Another big question for the Tigers entering the season is whether quarterback Bo Nix will take a significant step forward under Bobo. In his first two seasons, Nix showed flashes of the potential that earned him a five-star rating by recruiting services, but his first two years have been largely defined by inconsistency.
Nix hasn't had much competition at the position since he arrived at Auburn, but he will now be pushed by TJ Finley, who transferred to the Tigers this summer after getting some playing time at LSU.
"They get in the (quarterback) room, they prepare, they push each other. They're both competitive, and I think that's something that we've been able to see," said Harsin,
How many Auburn fans will be able to see the new-look Tigers in Jordan-Hare Stadium remains to be seen, with the coronavirus re-emerging and spreading through the community. Auburn planned on opening the stadium at full-capacity this fall, but those plans may change if the situation worsens. The University has yet to address if there will be changes to that plan.