It has not been a normal spring practice for the Auburn Tigers.
Well, it has been normal in that there has been plenty of hitting by defensive players, running backs toting footballs trying to impress coaches, and a group of quarterbacks and receivers all trying to show they deserve playing time.
In addition, it has all been taking place at a much faster clip than in recent years as the Tigers have been trying to adjust to the pace that head coach Gus Malzahn wants from his new team.
And all the while there is a cloud of controversy around the program because of recent attacks on Auburn primarily by The New York Times and ESPN The Magazine over allegations of cash payoffs, grade changing and failed drug tests for synthetic marijuana under the previous coaching regime.
However, if you walk onto the practice field you won’t find the players or coaches worried about any of that. They are worried about only one thing — improving on the 3-9 record from last season.
The Tigers are halfway through the spring drills and they are showing signs of improvement.
“Now, we have time to have a good plan moving forward to the second part of the spring,” Malzahn said on Monday. “We’ve got some good information now. I told them we ought to be able to improve greatly in the second part of spring now that we have people in specific positions.
“All 11 guys ought to be executing better,” he said. “We’ll evaluate quarterbacks and everything that goes into that. The execution part in the second part of spring should be a lot better where we can get better at evaluating the players.
“It’ll be more than it has been in the past, but there will still be some flexibility for people to move up the depth chart. We won’t make any final decisions until after the last day of spring.”
Malzahn spent the early part of this week looking at film and grading the players from last Saturday’s scrimmage in Jordan-Hare Stadium. It was a scrimmage that saw good work from the expected top two quarterbacks on the depth chart — Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace.
“I think the whole team played better. We played faster. We got a long way to go, but we played a lot better today,” Frazier told Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. “I think we definitely progressed from scrimmage one.”
Frazier talked about the pace that Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee are demanding.
“Of course the coaches said it’s not where they want it to be, where it needs to be, but it’s definitely a lot faster pace than the last scrimmage was,” he said.
Frazier has the advantage of being familiar with Malzahn from two years ago when the Auburn coach was offensive coordinator on Gene Chizik’s staff.
“It’s a lot different knowing the confidence level that I have and knowing that I can go out there and play. The guys around me, they believe in me. They believe every time they run a route, they believe I’m going to get the ball to them,” Frazier said.
Tre Mason sat out last Saturday’s scrimmage with a minor injury, but that opened the door for junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne to show his skills running with the football.
“Strong runner; he’s quick; he’s fast,” Wallace said of Artis-Payne. “He makes the right cuts. He’s a smart ball player. Cameron has been a hard worker ever since he’s come here. He’s always around the complex trying to get better.
“Guys were making plays. The offensive line was keeping a great pace. Guys were making unbelievable catches. It was a very successful day, but we’ve got a long ways to go. Coach still wants that standard to be so high. We want to reach that standard that coach sets.”
While most people associate the pace of the game with offense, Auburn’s new tempo has had an effect on Ellis Johnson’s defense as well.
“We probably are pleasantly surprised on the way they’ve picked up new things they’ve not done before, or things we’re calling a little differently,” Johnson said. “On the other hand, I think we’re a long, long way, especially when we’re doing the fast-tempo operations, from cleaning up enough missed assignments and other things that are hurting us.
“I know we’re physically in condition, but mentally right now we’re not staying focused through that.
“The No. 1 thing is the effort to the ball. The No. 2 is our tackling. We got to see that improve; the physical part of it, the fundamentals part of it.
“I think the third thing, we’re not trying to game plan or anything, but we got some things in that have been performed since the first, second or third practice and I want to see some consistency in that.”