BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
HOOVER, Ala. — It was easy to find Dee Ford at the end of last season.
He was sitting in front of a television, somewhere, watching a bowl game. And not just the BCS National Championship Game. Not just the other games considered “major” bowls. No, Auburn’s defensive end watched all of them.
That’s right — all 35 of them.
“I accepted the fact I wasn’t there,” the senior said at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. “I still evaluated every pass rush and I tried to get better every time I watched something. That’s how I am. I want to be the best at everything.”
And not being in a bowl hurt. That’s why he has refused to forget about the Tigers’ 2012 season. He wants to remember every moment of the 3-9 meltdown that led to the firing of Gene Chizik.
He wants to remember because through the disappointment, Ford believes it will lead to a resurgence.
“I’m not going to forget that at all,” he said. “Because I look at a lot of those guys who are young, and for your first year to be here and go through that, I feel for you. That’s why I came back (to school). I feel for you. I understand and I definitely didn’t want for an 18-year-old guy to go through that type of pressure.”
When asked what went wrong last season, Ford was forthright: For one reason or another, the Tigers lost cohesiveness as a team. Most weeks, the team had great practices, Ford recalled. The problem was carrying that over into games.
“We’d get into a game and slowly lose confidence,” he said. “And that was more so younger guys not knowing what to do in different situations and (not) knowing how to adjust. Coaches can prepare you for every type of situation, but they can’t go out and play for you.”
Much like Ford, senior fullback Jay Prosch can’t get last season out of his mind, either. At first, he tried to move forward, or hit the “reset button,” as it were. But try as he might, that 3-9 record kept nagging at him.
It’s something he has come to terms with.
“Now, it’s a motivator for me, and I think it is for other guys, too,” he said. “That’s definitely part of the fire that we have right now.”
First-year coach Gus Malzahn has taken note of that intensity. The returning players could have hung their heads coming off such a dismal season.
Instead, Malzahn has found the opposite, calling his players’ attitudes “refreshing.”
“They have really bought into ‘A New Day’ and they’re excited about a fresh start,” he said. “That’s the way our staff has approached this thing since they’ve been here and I’m very excited that they’re excited going into fall camp.”
As with any incoming coaching staff, the expectations for Malzahn are to improve upon last season’s record. That’s the bare minimum. But what about dealing with folks who aim well higher than that? Malzahn admitted that all the question marks the Tigers have — who will start at quarterback, establishing a go-to receiver and installing Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme on defense, to name a few — make it hard for him to predict how the season will turn out.
“We’ll learn a lot about our team in fall camp, we’ll learn a lot about our team early in the season, and my goal is going to be to improve each practice and each game,” he said. “And if we can do those two things, I like our chances of having a successful season.”
One thing Malzahn has been thankful for is the overwhelming support of the Auburn fan base. From its record attendance at the A-Day Game in the spring (over 83,000) to those who turned out to greet him at SEC Media Days, fan support has been consistent.
To think that the support has followed one of the worst seasons in Auburn’s history was something Malzahn found difficult to describe.
Then he found an apt metaphor: The Auburn fan base is akin to a family — and a resilient one at that.
“Families, when you go through adversity, true families have a way of rallying, and that’s what you saw,” Malzahn said. “And that’s what really separates us from a lot of other fan bases. Our fans rally and they get behind our team. It really gave us a shot in the arm at the spring game and since then.”
The backing can only go so far, though. While it’s nice to have, it won’t decide any games for the Tigers this fall, for better or worse. To change their record this year, the Tigers have to change themselves from within.
Take one of their media day representatives this year, for example. Cornerback Chris Davis hasn’t been a talkative player before, either on the field or during interviews with reporters. But when asked to take on a more vocal leadership role this season, Davis decided to do what was asked of him.
“It’s different, but I know it needs to be done to put our team in position to win games, let the team know how I’m feeling, speaking my mind,” he said. “I think that will lead to good things for our team in the future.”
To Ford, that future isn’t too far off.
The Tigers’ time is now.
“It’s a new day, and it’s time to start eating,” he said. “All of that (from last season) is over with.”