BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Alex Kozan has seen how quickly things change in major college football.
Auburn’s redshirt freshman guard recalled how intense the recruiting process was for him, one of the top players in Colorado in the Class of 2012. Now, many of the coaches who pushed hardest for his signature are no longer employed by the universities they once touted so strongly. One of them, of course, is Auburn, where Gene Chizik’s staff was let go after the Tigers’ dreadful 3-9 season.
Kozan said it’s just a sign of the times.
“Football is constantly changing,” he said, “and it just speaks to competition at this level.”
That’s why Kozan immediately began to acquaint himself with the techniques offensive line coach J.B. Grimes brought with him. Though they differ from the concepts Jeff Grimes — the Tigers’ former line coach and no relation to J.B. — taught, Kozan believes his skill set makes him equally adept at both.
“I think both schemes fit me,” he said. “I wouldn’t say one particular offensive style fits me best. It’s definitely good to learn different offensive styles because you never know who you could be playing for one day if you make it to the NFL.”
Kozan became accustomed to learning new offenses at the drop of a hat during his high school days in Castle Rock, Colo. Each year, he never knew what kind of system the team would lean on.
“We had an offensive coordinator who mixed it up every year based on our personnel,” Kozan said. “One year, we were straight veer-option, then the next year we were a spread offense. I’ve been around different offenses throughout my career.”
Sitting out last season gave Kozan the opportunity to take stock of himself. Upon arriving at Auburn, he immediately saw how many things he needed to learn. Used to being able to physically overpower nearly every player he faced off against in high school, Kozan quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to rely on strength alone.
“There’s different techniques you’ve got to use in order to block those three-techniques and nose guards, as big and strong as they are,” he said. “A big problem I had was not being able to stay low enough. I’d always played so high in school because I was strong enough to overcome that. Learning how to play with technique makes you a more sound a fundamental football player.”
Kozan said his improved flexibility was thanks to Ryan Russell’s strength and conditioning offseason program. But he believed sharpening his mental game was every bit as important as any physical gain.
“Well, I just tried to come out every day and try to get better,” he said. “The main thing I try to do is not make the same mistakes I made the previous day, so once you make a mistake, learn from it and keep progressing forward. … If you make mental mistakes, the offense can’t function right.”
It didn’t take long for Auburn’s coaches to notice the progress Kozan has made since the end of last season. Grimes praised him during fall camp, and head coach Gus Malzahn did the same at Tuesday’s press conference.
“Alex Kozan’s a guy that (has) really improved since the first day of spring,” Malzahn said. “He’s getting more mature. He’s a strong guy. We were a little concerned about his mobility early, but he’s answered that question. He’s gotten a lot faster and quicker. He’s had a very good fall camp.”
The admiration was mutual. Malzahn simply sees the game differently than his peers, Kozan said.
To prove his point, the guard provided a detailed example of what he meant.
“For instance, if we were to run a zone play, most coaches would look at what their quarterback is doing, what are the running backs’ and receiver’s eyes doing — where are their eyes?” Kozan said. “(Malzahn) will notice what the right guard’s foot placement is. Things like that. A lot of coaches will leave that up to the line coach. He’ll pull you aside 15 minutes later and say, ‘Hey, on that play, what were you doing?’ That’s impressive, I think, for any football player who has the opportunity to work with him.”
A near-lock to start at left guard, Kozan has high hopes for those laboring on Auburn’s line this fall. His goal is to see it develop into a feared unit, one that will give Nick Marshall time to throw as well as pave the way for the Tigers’ stable of running backs.
Kozan and his fellow linemen will get their first opportunity to do so this Saturday.
“I’d say the biggest thing we’re trying to be is a tough, physical team that teams look at every week and say,’We have to get ready to play Auburn this week. They’re tough and they’re going to come strap it up against us every single play, (they take) no plays off and they’re going to execute.’”