BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – Care to see Gus Malzahn bristle? Call his system a spread offense.
Want to see the head coach glow? Seven touchdowns spread out to seven different players in one half ought to light him up.
It’s only a simulation, but if Auburn’s new-look offense comes anywhere close to replicating A-Day’s effort this fall, the Tigers will enjoy a new day indeed.
Two running backs, two wide receivers, a quarterback, a tight end and a “star” linebacker produced the scoring in Saturday’s enamoring scrimmage, won 35-14 by the “orange” squad made up mostly by the Tigers’ first-team players at Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed by an A-Day record 83,401 fans.
Squeezing in 111 plays, Auburn’s offensive players combined for 548 yards – including 425 yards on 77 snaps in the 24-minute first half, which contained all the scoring. A running clock was employed in the second half.
“It wasn’t just trying to window-dress it as far as making it nice for a spring game,” Malzahn said. “We tried to go fast and use our pace.”
The misconception in some circles is Malzahn-led teams – including three as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-11 – is his lightning-fast tempo is dictated through the air, but he prefers the label “run-first, playaction offense.”
Those words are music to the ears of running backs Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, who handled all the significant carries out of the backfield as Corey Grant was held out with a high fever.
Mason, Auburn’s leading 2012 rusher, and Artis-Payne, a 2,000-yard juco transfer, combined for 177 yards on 29 carries (none for a loss), which computes to a 6.1 rush average.
Along with his 18 rushes for 137 yards and a 27-yard TD, he was the media’s easy pick for Lionel James Offensive MVP – a welcomed treat for the California juco standout’s family, making the 15-hour trip from Pennsylvania to the Plains.
“We feel like as a backfield we can be really explosive,” Artis-Payne said. “Coach Malzahn’s offense produces wherever he goes; I’m just excited to be a part of that.”
Mason wasn’t shabby himself, logging 60 yards on 11 carries and a 4-yard score after missing most of spring with a bad ankle.
“I’ve actually gotten excited. I love seeing them do their thing and ball out,” said Mason, who voiced the 2013 goal of three 1,000-yard rushers along with Artis-Payne and Grant. “We want to do this thing together. We are looking to do something.”
About those quarterbacks: a starter won’t be named until the three incomers have their chance, but junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace were mostly efficient in their most pressurized job interview of the offseason.
Wallace’s day dawned with disaster, when crowd noise crossed up communication between him and second-team center Tunde Fariyike. The shotgun snap zoomed over Wallace’s right shoulder, scooped up by breakout junior Justin Garrett for the game’s opening points.
To his credit, Wallace collected himself – his combined statline read 18-of-26 for 191 yards and two touchdowns, with one bad read on an interception by safety Ryan Smith.
“Of course, the biggest thing (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) told us: if you mess up, go to the next play, and we were able to do that,” Wallace said. “That next drive that we had, we scored. It’s just a matter of putting those things behind you and fighting through the adversity.”
Meanwhile, Frazier was more even-keel: the 2012 opening-day starter completed 10-of-16 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, plus a 7-yard scoring scramble, but lost a fumble on an exchange with walk-on tailback Patrick Lymon.
“I can run around a little bit more,” Frazier said. “Plus we’re going fast paced and that’s something that I grew up in, so I’m definitely feeling comfortable.”
Garrett was named Mark Dorminey Defensive MVP, justifying why he’s been called the “brightest spot” of the spring repeatedly by players and coaches the past three weeks.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Garrett, who hadn’t scored a touchdown since high school. “Can’t really explain the emotion that was going on, but I saw the ball on the ground, tried to pick it up and go as fast as possible to the end zone.”
Receivers Trovon Reed and walk-on Dimitri Reese and tight end Brandon Fulse each caught TD passes. Sammie Coates made four catches for 84 yards on the second-team “blue” squad.
Holder Ryan White earned Lewis Colbert Specialty MVP honors, since kicker Cody Parkey was 0-for-2 on field goals and there were no punts or kickoffs. But White did lead both defenses with five solo tackles.
Defensive end Kenneth Carter and linebacker Kris Frost each recovered fumbles, making for four turnovers on the afternoon.
Free safety Demetruce McNeal was still not with the team, attending to off-field issues. Malzahn reiterated his status is day-to-day.
In the game’s most bizarre moment, cornerback Jonathon Mincy was assessed a 15-yard personal foul for laying out Reese, and ejected by the new rule barring defenders from hitting a defenseless receiver above the shoulders.
After getting the training staff’s attention, Reese walked off under his own power. He was the day’s only notable injury.
Auburn has two final spring practices scheduled for next week. The 2013 opener is Aug. 31 against Washington State.