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February 13, 2013

Pre-spring Q&A: Malzahn mystique, the QB duel are big storylines going into late March

Photo by John Reed

During the season, I conducted Q&As with beat writers with Auburn opponents to take their temperature going into each Saturday’s matchup.

Here in February, The Saturday Edge (@SaturdayEdge), a sports blog encompassing college football around the country turned the mike around. It’s still a long wait of six weeks before Gus Malzahn blows the whistle on his first practice, but here’s what we’re looking at going into spring ball.

The Saturday Edge: 2012 review – How’d Auburn do last year vs. how you thought they’d do? Was Chizik the main reason for Auburn’s disappointing season last year?

Brenner: There’s no way anybody thought whatever … that … was in 2012 could possibly happen on the Plains. The program’s first 0-8 SEC season ever. And that ignominious record doesn’t tell the whole story; Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama were playing the backups by the third quarter in utter destructions of the Tigers. Just three wins – one over an FCS foe, one over a 1-11 WAC team, and one that would’ve been a loss to Louisiana-Monroe if its kicker was halfway capable. Without question, the worst season since a winless 1950 campaign.

Gene Chizik had to go, regardless of what happened in 2010. The program was in dire need of a new direction – we’ll get to that in a minute – and while there were many culprits for last fall’s disaster (poor gameplanning, underachieving stars, a slew of strange injuries, etc.), the responsibility sure landed at the feet of a man who hoisted the BCS crystal ball just two years prior.

The Saturday Edge: What are Auburn’s main strengths heading into spring practice?

Brenner: We can start with Tre Mason, who rushed for his 1,000th yard on the final merciful snap of Auburn’s 2012 season. Let’s just say Adrian Peterson isn’t the only tailback who faces nine-man fronts play after play after play. A junior-to-be, Mason will have some help, too, in the form of highly-touted junior college back Cameron Artis-Payne and a couple of top incoming freshmen Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford. The offensive line and secondary are young, but those positions bear some experience thanks to some growing pains.

Defensive end Dee Ford, if healthy, gives Auburn a bona fide quarterback disrupter. Punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey will be seniors, and they’re both rock-solid. Finally, this is a top-notch coaching staff Gus Malzahn crafted, and the assistants should be counted upon to whip this squad into shape in no time.

Jonathan Wallace

The Saturday Edge: What are Auburn’s main weaknesses?

Brenner: We’ve all heard it said: when you have two quarterbacks, you have none. How about five? Auburn will let Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace duke it out at quarterback in the spring, before three freshmen join the fray this summer. There’s no clear-cut Cam on this squad, so that’s Gus Malzahn’s top task. Calling wide receiver a black hole in 2012 is an insult to black holes – the Tigers must develop some trusted talent there.

The front seven will look much better in the fall than the spring – because recruiting prizes Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel are still wrapping up high school. Just because the new coaches have impressive credentials doesn’t guarantee their schemes will work immediately – the veteran players are now learning their third playbook in as many years.

The Saturday Edge: Your thoughts on the coaching change?

Brenner: Even before the hire was made, you could find a decent amount of Auburn fans who credited the mastermind of Gus Malzahn (Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11) more so than Gene Chizik’s genius for the 2010 national championship. We’ve all seen the seismic shift in college football (and now NFL) offensive philosophies – faster is better. Chip Kelly perfected it, Kevin Sumlin erupted with it, and now it’s Malzahn’s turn to prove to the nation he can manage an entire football program while terrorizing defenses with his hybrid, hurry-up-no-huddle attack.

Malzahn is an absolute machine with his work habits – he will outwork just about anybody else on the recruiting trail, in the film room and everywhere else. Malzahn cleaned house upon his arrival, making it clear this is his program and the past is the past. Throw in the addition of seasoned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, and an army of position coaches with recruiting coordinator experience, and Auburn has most certainly won the offseason. Soon enough, we’ll see if Auburn can win the regular season.

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