HOOVER-Auburn Coach Gene Chizik came to SEC Media Days last week with a different mindset and approach than he had shown over his first three seasons on the Plains. The usually stoic coach, known for his tendency to use coach-speak almost to a fault, was more emotional and expressive this year, raising his voice at times to make points. Perhaps it was because Chizik and the Tigers have been through yet another rollercoaster of an off-season or maybe the coach felt more comfortable and confident with the state of his team than he had in past seasons. Whatever the case may be it was clear that Chizik and the player representatives were ready to find solace on the football field.
Last summer, on the heels of their first national title in 52 years, Chizik and the Tigers dealt with controversy as the NCAA investigated the recruitment of Cam Newton. This summer was far worse for the Tigers. The June 9 shooting at the University Heights apartment complex took the lives to three individuals, including two former Auburn players, Ladarious Phillips and Ed Christian, and shook the town of Auburn and the college team that resides there to the core. Much like last year, football may be the thing that finally brings closure to many of those involved.
Chizik opened his press conference by addressing the shooting. “I’d like to take this opportunity to thank so many people for their outpouring of love and prayers and emails and phone calls to the Auburn family since that tragic night, June 9th, when three young men were shot and killed. I do want to say thank you,” he said. “I’m very proud of our football team. I think in the midst of some very difficult times they’ve really bonded together and done a great job of trying to move forward. They, without question, are still dealing with some of those issues. We got to still plow through some of those tough days and we know that.”
And while that emotional cloud hangs over his team, Chizik still seemed very confident about the product the Tigers will be putting on the field this year. According to the coach, he has the program heading in the right direction. “I think we’re in a much stronger position as a football team than we were a year ago. I really believe that,” Chizik said. “I think one of the reasons that we are there is that, you know, we finally, in my opinion, after so many years, have developed some depth and we’ve got a little bit of experience.
“If you look on paper right now, we have 16 returning starters. But the truth of the matter is we have guys, in many cases, right behind those guys that are considered one of the starters pushing them for starting job.”
Chizik made note of the off-season changes the Tigers experienced on their coaching staff. Gone are offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who took the head coaching job at Arkansas State, and defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who took the same position at Penn State. In are new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder. Both bring NFL and college experience to the table and Chizik seemed excited about what each brings to the Tigers.
He praised Loeffler for his ability to develop quarterbacks. “It’s important for obviously any quarterback on our whole football team,” he said. “It was imperative that as I went out and looked into who the new coordinator could potentially be, that was a huge point of emphasis.” Loeffler’s effect on the Tigers’ quarterback will be paramount next season, and while many consider Kiehl Frazier as the odds-on favorite to get the job, Chizik said the position is up for grabs. Frazier and Clint Moseley will compete for the job. “It’s going to be a battle,” Chizik said. “Obviously in two-a-days is when that’s going to be decided. I’m not going to put a timeline on it. However, I will say the sooner the better.”
Senior wide receiver Emory Blake and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen both sounded excited about the change in offense under Loeffler. “It’s completely different,” Blake said. “It’s more of a pro-style offense, more under-center than what we did last year. It’s going to give me more opportunities to make some plays and more plays in the passing game in general.”
“It just goes back to a more traditional standpoint,” Lutzenkirchen said. “Week-in and week-out, depending on the defense, we’ll do a number of different things. You’ll probably see more under-center from us this year; more two-back with a true fullback in the back with Jay Prosch.”
According to Chizik, the hire of Van Gorder from the Atlanta Falcons was the perfect fit for Auburn. “Philosophically we’re on the exact same page with what we believe in defensively and what we think is the right mixture of a lot of different things, coverage and front-wise,” Chizik said.
Chizik talked about starting the season out strong, noting their season opener in Atlanta against Clemson. “To have that game at the beginning of the season is interesting for our guys,” he said. “We haven’t necessarily had a game opening team since I’ve been here, that is going to be exciting for our players. Not that other games weren’t, but this is a big game, against probably a top-10 team.”
“It’s great. Especially after losing to them last year, in that way,” defensive end Corey Lemonier said. “It left a sour taste in our mouths. It made us hungrier. Even more so, we’re just ready to get out there and play them.”
“It really causes you to be focused on the off-season,” Blake said. “You know the first game you have to be ready because if you’re not, they’re going to beat you.”
With games in September against Clemson, Mississippi State and LSU the Tigers will surely face an uphill battle to start the season. “It’s going to be big that we start out fast and we’re going to keep practicing to make sure that happens,” Chizik added.
The Auburn coach also answered a few hot topic questions during his media session.
•On the upcoming four-team football playoff: “I’m going to be honest with you, that depends on what glasses you’re wearing. In 2010, if we had the four team playoff in place, I was at Auburn, just went through this league undefeated, won the SEC championship game, am I in favor of playing another one to prove that I deserve getting into the national championship game? No, I don’t. But if you go back to 2004 when we were undefeated and we didn’t get in the national championship game because we weren’t 1 or 2, then I’m totally in favor of it.”
•On possible changes in the commitment process: “Some guys get caught up in the spur of the moment. They do it. They’re young. It sounds good. It sounded good on that day. Two days later, two weeks later, it doesn’t sound as good. That’s the reality of recruiting. We’re all big boys, we all know what to expect, and we all know how to recruit. It happened to all of us both ways. You know what, we’re going to continue to recruit the way we do. I don’t know that anything will ever change with the commitment process.”
•On Missouri and Texas A&M coming into the SEC: “I don’t think people are giving Texas A&M and Missouri the credit they deserve. They aren’t coming into the SEC with their hat in the hand saying, ‘Thank you for letting me be here.’ They’re coming in here to compete and play their tail off on the football field. You can bank on that.”