April 21, 2014
Rhett Lashlee applauds the offense during Saturday's A-Day game at Jordan-Hare Stadium (Lauren Barnard photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - For Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, it was a spring practice unlike any other. Starting quarterback Nick Marshall was back after leading the Tigers to a Southeastern Conference championship. Lashlee was surrounded by coaches who knew and understood the offensive scheme.
Heading toward his fourth season as an offensive coordiantor, those are firsts for Lashlee. He spent a year running Samford's offense and a year running Arkansas State's offense before moving with Gus Malzahn to Auburn after the 2012 season.
"To me, it was awesome because this was the first time in four years that I had not been teaching a quarterback and a whole offense a system," Lashlee said. "And the coaches. We had our whole staff back, so we were able to be on the same page better. At quarterback, especially, it was kind of weird the first two or three days, to be honest."
The 15 days of spring practice, Lashlee says, were productive. The passing game, sometimes inconsistent en route to the BCS Championship Game last season, was a priority from the start.
"I think, overall, we got better in the areas where we needed to get better," Lashlee said. "We put a lot of emphasis on throwing and catching the ball vertically and all our timing throws. I think Nick got a lot more comfortable, which he should be in Year 2. He was confident because he knew where to go with the ball. I think he improved his footwork. He's throwing on balance more, which I think has showed in his consistency."
The Tigers came within seconds of winning the national championship, losing a 21-3 first-half lead and falling to Florida State 34-31 in the title game. They'll almost certainly be ranked in the top five going into next season.
The passion to make that right, to get back to the biggest game and finish it, drives Auburn's players and coaches. What happens between now and the start of preseason practice, Lashlee says, will have much to say about whether or not that happens.
"The potential is there, but potential can be a scary thing," Lashlee said. "If you don't live up to it, you are viewed as a failure. I think we are more consistent in a lot of areas. At the same time, if we want to be as good as we can be, this summer is going to be big. Do they get better over the summer on their own or not? That will make the difference between whether we can be good or be great."
More from Lashlee:
Those backup quarterbacks - and there are two of them - aren't bad either. Jeremy Johnson and Jonathan Wallace have earned their coach's confidence, too.
"A lot of times, even when you have a good starting quarterback, a lot of your stress is what happens if something happens to him. I feel very confident in both guys we have behind him. Everybody sees the loads of potential Jeremy has, and he got better this spring. He's continuing to grow and mature. He's learning to become an everyday leader. The sky is the limit for him.
"But you look at Jonathan Wallace, too. You can't tell me there is anybody in our league or maybe even in the country that has a better situation than we do at No. 2 and No. 3. What his teammates think of Jonathan Wallace says a lot about him. He's unbelievable. He's all you could ever ask for. He's the perfect teammate. He's the perfect player to coach. He's someone you'd want your son to grow up to be or maybe want your daughter to marry. He's a good football player, too. He had some really bright moments this spring. He made some throws this spring that I'd never seen him make. That tells me he's getting better."
A year ago, Auburn coaches worried that they didn't have enough wide receivers who could play winning football. Under co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig, Sammie Coates, Marcus Davis Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray, Melvin Ray and others steadily improved. Newcomers D'haquille Williams and Stanton Truitt were added to the team. Now it's viewed as a position of strength.
"This time last year, we had almost none. Those guys were running nonstop. I think it's a real credit to Coach Craig and our coaching staff. Now we have depth. We are two-deep at every spot. At some we have three.
"More than anything, we have a confident group. Those guys believe when the ball is in the air, it's theirs and they are going to go make a play on it."
Despite the good things they did, the wide receivers still need to improve as a group if they are to reach the level Lashlee is convinced they can reach.
"I think we have a lot of guys that will attack the ball and make plays, and more than just one. I think that's a big plus. It's all a matter of those guys continuing to work hard over the summer to make sure their routes are perfect and we don't ever lose focus.
"The one thing we had at times was we would lose focus and have a day where we'd have a lot of drops. Then we'd go back to catching everything. We know the talent is there. It just has to be an everyday thing."
Tre Mason is headed for the NFL after the most prolific rushing season in Auburn football history. Lashlee will miss him, but Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber were highlights of the spring. Though Barber was injured on his first and only A-Day carry, he is expected to be full-speed in time for preseason practice.
"I feel like we are in a solid, steady spot. With Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, they work hard and we are really pleased with them. Peyton Barber is one who had a really good spring. It's disappointing the fans didn't get to see that with the injury. We still think a lot of him, and he's going to help us win."
The offensive line focus in the spring was on the race between Shon Coleman and Pat Miller to replace Greg Robinson at left tackle. If it's been decided, Lashlee and Malzahn aren't saying.
"We feel like we have a good situation at tackle with Shon, Pat, Avery (Young) and Robert Leff, who had a very good spring. We feel like we have a lot of information. I don't know if we are ready to make a call on that yet, but both of those guys are going to be a big part of us winning."
Though his value couldn't be measured in individual statistics, departed fullback Jay Prosch could be the hardest player to replace from last season's team.
"Our biggest question mark would be who is replacing Jay. Brandon Fulse did a lot of good things in the spring. He came a long way. He had a good spring. It's going to be a matter of continuing to accumulate reps. Gage Batten is the same way."
Coming Wednesday: Talking defense with Auburn DC Ellis Johnson
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: