March 17, 2014
AUBURN, Ala. - For the first time since Mitch Mustain was a senior at Springdale (Ark.) High School, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's starting quarterback returns. The ill-advised attempt to take the hurryup out of hurryup offenses has been shouted down.
And that means Malzahn's plan is to push the accelerator harder than ever. The unspoken message: If opposing coaches thought it was hard last season, just wait.
"We think we can be quite a bit faster," Malzahn said Monday, the day before the 2014 Tigers open spring practice. Last year we had a lot of new people out there, a lot of moving parts. As you get more comfortable, the faster you can get."
He didn't mention Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, the most outspoken opponent of hurryup offenses, and a game that will create lots of energy at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Aug. 30. He didn't have to.
Auburn played fast enough last season, averaging just more than 72 plays per game, to win the Southeastern Conference championship and come within 13 seconds of the national championship. But Malzahn has said since his days as offensive coordinator that his goal is 85 snaps per game. That hasn't changed.
And the return of quarterback Nick Marshall, who rushed for 1068 yards and passed for 1976, gives Malzahn an advantage he's never had as a college coach.
"You can see his leadership," Malzahn said. "He is more comfortable being around his teammates. He's a leader by example. He doesn't say much, but when he does, people listen. I think he is really looking forward to the spring, just being more comfortable."
Marshall arrived from junior college last summer. Everyone knew he was a terrific athlete, but he'd been a cornerback at Georgia and a one-man gang in junior college. No one knew for sure what to expect. By the end of the season, Malzahn had seen enough to proclaim Marshall should be in New York City for the announcement of the Heisman Trophy winner.
"Really, what Nick did with only two weeks practice was phenomenal," Malzahn said. "The things that probably looked to the casual eye like they were frustrating, there's a lot more to it. ... The goal for him will be at the end of the spring that in our base offense - our base passing game and running game - he is just reactive. We feel like that is going to happen. Every game we saw him get more and more comfortable."
A major part of playing fast, they say, is communicating fast. That will be a focus this spring, and not just on offense.
"I think that's big with the pace offenses and defending the pace offenses," Malzahn said. "You have to be able to communicate on both sides."
As spring practice began year ago, Malzahn was talking about installing new offensive and defensive schemes, about a quarterback race that didn't even include Marshall, about all the things new coaches talk about. He talked about some of those things again Monday - building more depth across the board, the plans for a very physical spring.
Malzahn has an Auburn championship ring now, a familiar face at quarterback, potential all-stars all around and high expectations. The frustration of coming so close to winning the biggest game of all will linger for a long time, but Malzahn's focus is firmly forward.
"It's a complete new season," Malzahn said. "This is a new team. We have to earn it. All we are talking about is trying to earn the right to get back to a game like that."
And so it begins.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: