By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Fans who attend Auburn club events this spring can expect an optimistic assessment from Gus Malzahn.
One year after Malzahn said, "I really believe these next three or four years are fixing to be our best years we've had," Auburn's fifth-year head coach is not interested in wiggle room, poormouthing or walking back that comment. Instead, he's doubling down.
"I feel more confident about that statement now than I did then," Malzahn said. "From the standpoint that, last year we ended up the No. 2 team in the SEC and went to the Sugar Bowl. Battled some pretty major injuries late and fought through them, so, we're really focused on the depth part, and we're building that. I like where we're at as a program and looking forward to the season."
Seeking to add a vertical passing component to Auburn's offense, Malzahn hired coordinator Chip Lindsey, who will choose a starting quarterback from returning starter Sean White, transfer Jarrett Stidham, and freshmen Woody Barrett and Malik Willis.
Auburn's 16 returning starters -- eight each on offense and defense -- are the most the Tigers have had in 12 seasons.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele oversaw a unit that finished No. 7 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 17.1 points per game.
"Our kids had an excellent spring," Malzahn said. "Defensively, I really feel like we're farther along this spring than we were last spring, got a lot of guys coming back.
"Offensively, we have a lot of guys coming back. With Chip Lindsey coming in and providing the balance, we're throwing the football down the field.
"Our quarterbacks, I really feel great about that room after spring. We've got some good quality depth. And, of course our kicker, Daniel Carlson, the best kicker in college football. He continues to prove that."
Carlson, a two-time Lou Groza Award finalist, made all five of his field goal attempts during Auburn's A-Day game, culminating a spring practice in which Malzahn says Auburn accomplished its objectives.
"We were very physical this spring, similar to what we were in 2013, and we didn't have any major injuries and I think that's a blessing," Malzahn said. "Our guys went to work. There wasn't one practice that I felt like was a bad practice. Our guys really came prepared. That's a tribute really to our leaders, specifically the senior leadership. They're hungry right now, and they answered the bell every practice."
Auburn's leaders helped create the Tigers' theme for the 2017 season: "Our time."
Malzahn, who in 11 seasons of college football has coached in six conference championship games, won two SEC titles, won a national championship and was a national runner-up, will articulate that theme beginning Thursday in Tampa on the AMBUSH tour, formerly known as the Tiger Trek.
Malzahn will also speak at AMBUSH events in Dallas on May 11, Florence, Ala. on June 5 and Alexander City, Ala. on June 8.
"Probably more than anything, the biggest exciting thing is just the state of our program," he said. "The state of our program is in as good of shape as any time I've been here. A lot of excitement. I know our players are excited. I know our coaches are excited. And when that happens, the head coach gets excited for next fall."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer