SEC MEDIA DAYS 2017: Confidence is high in Auburn camp
HOOVER – If confidence breeds winning, then Auburn fans have plenty of reason for high expectations entering the 2017 season.
With eight starters back on offense, seven on defense and one of the nation’s most accurate kickers rounding out the special teams, head coach Gus Malzahn doesn’t seem concerned if anyone believes he’s on the hot seat.
Malzahn, speaking on Thursday at SEC Media Days, said he has seen the look in his players’ eyes before. It was in 2013, when his first Auburn team was coming off a disappointing season and looking for redemption. That hunger and determination carried the Tigers all the way to the BCS National Championship Game.
“Probably the biggest thing that’s standing out to me about this team, that they’re hungry,” he said. “They’re hungry and they’ve got something to prove. And, really, the last time I felt this was 2013.”
If he’s fanning the flames, so be it. Malzahn has occasionally been caught up in the preseason hype before and he wasn’t backing down. In fact, he helped connect the dots on several of his answers on Thursday to make sure the media didn’t miss the point.
“We’ve got more starters back than we’ve had in the last 12 years,” he said. “We were close. We were close. Like I said, we were playing as good a football, I felt like, as anybody for six games. We had some impact player injuries.
“We weren’t happy the way we finished. And so those guys had that chip on their shoulder of rebounding. We’ve got to redeem ourselves. You know, from a coach’s standpoint, that’s what you want. And when you’ve got a chance to have one of those special teams, they have that characteristic.”
In a glass half empty, Auburn was fortunate to beat LSU and could have lost games to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. In a glass half full, the Tigers could have beaten Clemson and Georgia and could have swung the Texas A&M game in their favor.
And with many of those players coming back, forgive Malzahn if he sounds pretty confident in his team’s ability to win the Southeastern Conference. And if you win the Southeastern Conference, you’re likely winning a berth in the College Football Playoff.
“This season we have one of the more experienced teams coming back in our league offensively,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in (new offensive coordinator) Chip (Lindsey). He’s going to provide more balance for us. And he’s a quarterback guru, too. And probably the thing that I’m most excited about is we have quality depth at our quarterback position and that’s been our Achilles’ heel the last two years.”
Offensively, it all starts at quarterback where Sean White returns for his junior season, but all of the buzz is on Jarrett Stidham, the sophomore who played as a freshman at Baylor before transferring via McLennan Community College.
“He’s a lot better athlete than people think,” Malzahn said. “I think he started at wide receiver his sophomore year. He’s got a 35, 36-inch vertical, he runs a 4.6. In our league, you have to escape. Things are going to break down. The defensive lines are too good.
"You have to have a quarterback that can escape pressure, keep his eyes down the field, know when to throw it, know when to run it, and protect the football and make good decisions. We had a chance to really evaluate him in the spring. Our defensive line is pretty talented. And so we got a lot of good information. And we like the way he reacted, too.”
Many of the freshmen wide receivers thrown into the fire have matured somewhat as sophomores this season, including Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis and Eli Stove.
“It’ll be a lot better because everyone knows when you play this game, you’ll get better adjusting to it,” safety Tray Matthews said. “The speed of the game will slow down tremendously so they’ll get things done and be in a lot better shape than they were last year.”
In the backfield, Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson return. There are holes to plug on the offensive line but left tackle Darius James, center Austin Golson and right guard Braden Smith return along with more depth in that unit.
“It makes us comfortable knowing that we have that kind of depth,” Smith said. “We can plug in any player at any position and we have multiple options. We don’t have to fear that if one guy goes down we don’t have anyone to fill that spot. Having that depth is very key.”
Defensively, Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams return at inside linebacker and safeties Stephen Roberts and Matthews, along with cornerback Javaris Davis, should help second-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele field a solid unit on that side of the ball.
“They understand his expectations,” Malzahn said. “In the spring it was like night and day compared to last spring. They had that edge, they had that confidence, and I think we’ve got a chance to be really good on defense.”
The defensive front is the biggest concern after losing Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams, but tackle Dontavius Russell and end Marlon Davidson return.
“The D-line will be very good this year,” Matthews predicted. “Coach (Rodney) Garner does a great job coaching those guys up. The D-line is no problem. They’ll be taken care of.”
Throw in senior kicker Daniel Carson, whom Malzahn called “one of the biggest weapons in all of college football,” and the Tigers are thinking it’s their year.
“I think that we do have a special team this year,” Carson said. “This is my fifth year and I was here during 2013, and it feels special and similar to that year. We’re all working hard and this team is really coming together. All of the talent and all of the pieces of the puzzle that need to come together, we have a shot at a really special year.”
The LSU and Clemson games will be on the road in the early part of the season, but Texas A&M now falls in November and both Georgia and Alabama will travel to Jordan-Hare Stadium. A heartbreaking November loss to Georgia in 2016 took the Tigers out of the running for the conference crown, but the last time a team from the SEC West knocked Alabama out of contention for the conference title, it was in 2013 with a memorable last-second victory.
In the three years since, Auburn hasn’t had a chance to compete for the title because they couldn’t compete with their arch rival.
“It’s frustrating,” Matthews said. “We haven’t been finishing like we wanted to, of course, and that’s a big reason why we have that huge chip on our shoulder. We’re going to get after it this year. We want it bad. We want to get the job done. Alabama is in the way of getting the SEC championship and that’s what we want, so we have to beat them. No ifs, ands or buts about it. And they’re a great team, so we’re looking forward to that game.”