Aug 25, 2013
Alex Kozan works against Angelo Blackson during an Auburn practice (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - Alex Kozan wasn't looking for attention. He just wanted to make sure he did the right thing.
Kozan, a promising offensive lineman from Valor Christian High School in Castle Rock, Colo., thought shortly before signing day in 2012 that he knew what he wanted to do. He planned to sign with Iowa, a program well-known for developing offensive linemen. After traveling the country with his father, Jon, and mother, Teresa, he'd chosen the Hawkeyes over Auburn and Michigan.
"I took him on a couple of trips to the Midwest, then Arizona," Jon Kozan says. "His mom took him to California and Auburn and drove literally over the entire Southeast."
But signing day, Feb. 1, came and went and Kozan did not sign. Finally, on Feb. 27, he signed with Auburn. Now a 6-foot- 4, 300-pound redshirt freshman, he is expected to start at left guard Saturday night in the season-opener against Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"My parents didn't really like how I rushed into the decision," Kozan says, looking back. "I'd only spent probably two hours looking at things. Iowa had done a great job of producing linemen. My parents told me they wanted me to sleep on it and make sure I was doing what I really thought was best for me."
Two days after signing day, the Iowa offensive coordinator left for the NFL. Then the offensive line coach moved to defense. Kozan began seriously looking elsewhere.
Days stretched into weeks. He became an Internet sensation as the wait went on.
"I probably over-analyzed everything," Kozan says. "I had a database with hundreds of different categories and different aspects of college life I was looking at."
It came as no surprise that Kozan took an intellectual approach to the recruiting process. His father was a Naval submarine officer and a nuclear engineer. He got an MBA after he was discharged. Jon and Teresa Kozan demanded excellence from their three sons.
"My dad was really, really smart," Kozan says. "He skipped two grades and went to the Naval Academy at 16 or 17 years old. He was a nuclear engineer on subs and did marksmanship, too."
Kozan laughs when he tells the stories of his parents' insistence on academic excellence, about long reading sessions and things "I have blocked out of my mind." Only A's are acceptable in the Kozan household..
In the end, Kozan signed with Auburn because he liked the coaching staff and he thought it gave him the best chance to excel in football and to get a business degree. He is majoring in finance.
"I was close with Coach (Jeff) Grimes," Kozan says. "I loved Coach Yox. I liked Coach (Scot) Loeffler and Coach (Gene) Chizik a lot. They were the major reasons I came."
Six months after Kozan arrived, he learned one of the hard lessons of college football. The coaching staff that recruited him was gone, fired after a 3-9 season in which he did not play.
"Even when we were 1-5, I thought we had to step it up a little bit, but I still thought they would be back," Kozan says. "After the Vanderbilt game, the team kind of went down a little bit. After we got blown out by Georgia and Alabama, I knew that was tough."
During his junior season in high school, Kozan took a visit to Kansas, where a former teammate was a quarterback. He met the Jayhawks offensive line coach, J.B. Grimes.
"I swear I thought he was the shortest offensive line coach I'd ever seen," Kozan says, laughing. "I honestly never thought I'd see him again." He was wrong.
In December, after Gus Malzahn was named Auburn's head coach, J.B. Grimes was named offensive line coach. And Kozan quickly came to welcome the opportunity to learn from the man he'd met two years earlier.
"The best thing is he is really detailed about how he wants things are executed, which really helps," Kozan says. "Nothing is left to question. There is no assuming. You know exactly the way he wants it."
As a true freshman, Kozan made a move in preseason camp, only to fall back as the season neared and eventually be redshirted. When the season was over, he went to work on preparing himself to play. He and fellow redshirt freshman Jordan Diamond, his roommate, were regulars in the weight room even when they didn't have to be. A tackle since childhood, he moved to the first team at left guard midway through spring practice.
"Obviously, every lineman needs to get stronger coming out of high school," Kozan says. "I did pretty much double days in the weight room throughout the spring and the summer just trying to get stronger. ... I just really tried to focus on technique and really picking up the schemes and concepts. I tried to have no mental mistakes. Know your play every single play and execute it.
"Coach Grimes says now just focus on the little things and focus on getting better each day. That's what I've been trying to do."
Grimes says Kozan's combination of physical ability and intelligence have pushed him to the front.
"He's come a long way since we first came," Grimes says. "We had to change some of his habits. A lot of it had to do with just plain fundamentals. He's a strong kid, but he was negating his strength with his hands and his feet. His hands and feet weren't getting in the right place. We had to break him down and kind of build him back up.
"A wise man time told me one time that smart people get better. He's smart enough to recognize when he has a deficiency. He looks at it and says `I've got a coach that can help me and I'm going to fix it.' He fixes it and he moves on."
Kozan says Grimes' attention to detail and his ability to teach have been invaluable. He's taken the lessons he teaches to heart.
"With college football, a lot of it depends on what you do," Kozan says. "If you are willing to put in the extra time and watch the extra film, everything changes. I would never have guessed the whole coaching staff would be gone two years after they won the national championship. A lot of it is up to you and what you want to do with it."
Kozan's father had an idea when his oldest son was in middle school that he would play college football. And he did all he could to help him prepare to do it.
"All I had to do was keep him in check," Jon Kozan says. "A lot of good football coaches have helped him on the way. When we were in pee-wee, he had a coach - I want to say in the seventh grade - whose father was a high school coach in Nebraska. He'd come over to where we were living in Wisconsin. He took one look at Alex and said `Your son is going to play D-1.'"
There was no thought then that he would do it 1,500 miles away from home.
With his father in the Navy and then pursuing a new career, moving from place to place was part of Kozan's childhood. The family moved eight times and he lived in seven states. That made it easier for him to choose a school so far from home.
"I really learned how to make friends quick and how to adjust and meet different people from different places," Kozan says. "It definitely made choosing a college a lot easier on me because I had those experiences."
It was after the family moved from the Wisconsin to Colorado when he was in the eighth grade that Kozan truly began to blossom as a football player. Valor Christian head coach Brent Vieselmeyer, now the defensive coordinator at Houston Baptist, ran a college-style program. And Kozan thrived.
"That's where I learned what it really takes to be successful," Kozan says. "They had a great weight training program there. It was like college in a lot of ways. You had to put your nose to the grindstone. They had a really great system that allowed me to really develop. I've always loved the game."
And now, for the first time since his senior year in high school, it's almost time for Kozan to play in a football game. He'll do it Saturday night before more than 80,000 and a national television audience. Though he was redshirted, he dressed for every game last season and watched up close as a team came unraveled.
"Realistically, the way I saw it was we weren't a good team, but we weren't as bad as it seemed," Kozan says. "We were a possession away from beating Clemson and a play here or there from beating LSU. We have the talent to compete with those guys. It's not like these guys are unbeatable.
"We just have to pay attention to detail and execute. It comes down to execution. If you're not going to execute, good things aren't going to happen."
Kozan's ability to execute, to learn and take what he has learned to the field, has gotten the attention of his teammates. He'll line up Saturday between junior center Reese Dismukes and sophomore left tackle Greg Robinson.
"He came into this camp, and I felt like he was a lot more focused and determined than he was last year," Dismukes says. "He knew what he had to do, and so far he's gotten it done. It looks like he's going to be playing next to me all year, and I'm looking forward to it."
Dismukes started the first Auburn game in which he played. He says Kozan will face unique challenges, but he'll have help.
"It will be tough for him, but he's playing next to me and next to Greg," Dismukes says. "He'll be just fine. He's a smart guy. That's one of the advantages of having older guys on the line. We can tell him what to look for and alert him to something you know is going to happen."
Kozan admits there is some nervousness, but he says he's ready for the challenge, ready to begin a career he hopes carries him on to the NFL.
"Everybody is nervous for their first play," Kozan says. "A lot of times the problem is guys build it up in their own head. Fact is in five or 10 years no one is going to remember what you even did. I want to go out there, do the best I can and enjoy the moment."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: