By AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – It’s not a popularity contest. It’s not up for the fans, media or alumni to decide. It’s not even really up to Rodney Garner or the other coaches, when it boils down to it.
Auburn’s 2013 football starting lineup could easily look like a shell of its former (2012) self, and it’s all based on what happens in positional competition, starting with spring practices opening two weeks from Wednesday.
When guys like 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason aren’t guaranteed playing time – running backs coach Tim Horton’s assessment when assistant coaches discussed the team Feb. 21 – that sets the tone for a rebuilding Auburn program.
Garner obviously has a rapport with the incoming freshmen – Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson, to name three defensive linemen – and knows a few of the returning players from his recruitment attempts to Georgia.
“But they’re all starting at first base with me,” Garner said. “Obviously, it’s wide open, because I haven’t coached any of them. So it’s going to be based on how they perform in workouts, how they progress in spring practice. I have no preconceived ideals about any of them. I’m going to evaluate everybody on their body of work that they do under my watch.”
Special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Scott Fountain, who returns more continuity at those positions than most of his colleagues, is more apt to utilizing 2012 game tape.
Fountain was on Auburn’s support staff last fall, so he’s already familiar with tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse, kicker Cody Parkey, punter Steven Clark and the return and coverage squads.
“I’m going to go back and reevaluate those guys, see what they did last year, maybe even what they did the year before,” Fountain said. “But I’m not going to put a ton of stock into, ‘well, he had a bad year so he’s not any good.’ It’s more evaluating play on his effort every day in practice.”
Both the offensive and defensive playbooks will look completely different than last year’s systems, a big reason why head coach Gus Malzahn chose not to start spring practices until March 27.
“There has to be trust and respect that what you’re telling them is the right thing,” wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said. “We’re building that as a staff, and the kids are responding well to that.”
One of the biggest detractors to reviewing game tape of his players under another coach’s tutelage, Melvin Smith is presently concerned with getting to know his cornerbacks on a personal level.
“I’ve got to focus on trying to get my guys to have a relationship with me,” Smith said, “where they can come and tell me, Coach, you know, my dad is in prison and I’ve got that on my mind. How can you help me get that off my mind so I can focus?
“I don’t think I can develop that relationship overnight, and I don’t think I can develop that relationship chewing ‘em out when they did it right, or praising them when they did it wrong. I’ve got to teach them what I want, and grade them on what I taught them. I’m not going to grade them on what somebody else taught them.”
Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes plans to integrate game tape for Malzahn-led teams – i.e. Auburn from 2009-11 and Arkansas State from 2012. But Grimes isn’t completely burning the film from Auburn in 2012.
“I’ll watch it because I’m evaluating athleticism, and how they play in game situations,” Grimes said. “But as far as what they did offensively and what we’re going to do offensively, it’s not the same. So you can’t teach off of it at all.”