Malzahn con­vinced Tigers ex­cep­tional

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - TOM MUR­PHY

HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn ex­uded an aura of con­fi­dence dur­ing his ap­pear­ance at SEC me­dia days Thurs­day.

One of the re­peated queries in Hoover was, “Can any­one catch Alabama?” Malzahn made it clear he thinks the Tigers can do it.

Auburn, with an 11-13 SEC record the past three sea­sons, is ready to con­tend, he sug­gested.

“Prob­a­bly the big­gest thing that’s stand­ing out to me about this team is that they’re hun­gry,” Malzahn said. “They’re hun­gry, and they’ve got some­thing to prove. And re­ally, the

last time I felt this was 2013, so that’s a good com­fort for me.”

In 2013, Malzahn’s first year on The Plains, the Tigers went 12- 2, knock­ing off the de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pion Crim­son Tide en route to a loss to Florida State in the BCS Cham­pi­onship Game.

Malzahn re­peat­edly men­tioned how close the Tigers were to be­ing a force last sea­son, point­ing out the team’s six-game win­ning streak and declar­ing, “I re­ally felt like we were play­ing as well as any­body in the coun­try.”

Malzahn’s con­fi­dence was re­flected in this line dur­ing his ap­pear­ance in the big me­dia room: “Prob­a­bly the big­gest ques­tion mark about the team is who is go­ing to be the start­ing punter.”

Malzahn has a rea­son to feel feisty. The Tigers re­turn seven of­fen­sive starters and eight de­fen­sive starters.

The de­fense de­vel­oped into a force in 2016 un­der first-year co­or­di­na­tor Kevin Steele dur­ing the 13th stop of his coach­ing ca­reer.

The Tigers ranked No. 7 in scor­ing de­fense ( 17.1 points per game), No. 28 in to­tal de­fense ( 361.9 yards per game), No. 27 in rush­ing de­fense (132.8 ypg) and No. 11 in red zone de­fense (74.4 per­cent) last year.

Malzahn lob­bied for Steele in the Broyles Award com­pe­ti­tion — which is given to the na­tion’s top as­sis­tant coach ev­ery year — but he was not a fi­nal­ist.

“He should have been right in the mid­dle of that thing,” said Malzahn, point­ing out that one of his goals was to be a top 10 de­fen­sive team. “We weren’t any­where close to that the year be­fore, so for him to get us to play top-10 de­fense … his de­fen­sive staff did a su­per job.

“I say we got a chance to be re­ally good on de­fense again, and that’s what it takes in this league.”

Se­nior safety Tray Matthews said he’s never met a per­son like Steele.

“Coach Steele def­i­nitely hasn’t got­ten enough credit for that be­cause he’s an amaz­ing coach, he’s an amaz­ing per­son,” Matthews said. “He’s one of those coaches that you want to play for, that you want to put your life on the line for him, be­cause he would do the same. I love coach Steele. All the play­ers can vouch for me, they can say the ex­act same thing.”

The Tigers re­turn five starters from their front seven: line­men Mar­lon David­son and Don­tavius Rus­sell, and lineback­ers De­shaun Davis, Dar­rell Wil­liams and Tre’ Wil­liams. Matthews, Carl­ton Davis and Stephen Roberts are re­turn­ing starters in the sec­ondary.

The big­gest ques­tion on of­fense is the lack of re­turn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at wide re­ceiver, where Ryan Davis and Eli Stove are the top re­turn­ers.

Auburn’s run­ning game looks to be in fine shape, with Braden Smith lead­ing a group of three start­ing line­men.

Kam­ryn Pettway, now a ju­nior, rushed for 1,224 yards and 7 touch­downs and led the league with 122.4 rush­ing yards per game. Ker­ryon John­son, an all-pur­pose stand­out, ran for 895 yards and 11 touch­downs and is likely to as­sume a larger role in the of­fense.

Malzahn, who has nor­mally had a low-key de­meanor at me­dia days, seemed as­sured the Tigers will have a say in who wins the SEC West.

“This team, we 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 of foot­ball I felt like as any­body for six games.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Sean White is bat­tling Bay­lor trans­fer Jar­rett Stid­ham for the start­ing quar­ter­back po­si­tion at Auburn.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.