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Phillip Marshall: The anatomy of a football turnaround

Oct. 31, 2013

AUBURN, Ala. – How did it happen? How did a 1-7 record become a 7-1 record in a year’s time? How did a team widely believed to be bound for nowhere end up bound for somewhere?

When Gus Malzahn was named Auburn’s head coach last December, I doubt even he would have dared believe that such a transformation could take place so quickly. Yet, as the Tiger prepare for Saturday’s game at Arkansas, they are 7-1 overall, 3-1 in the SEC and ranked No. 8 in the land. They control their own destiny in the SEC championship race.

When Malzahn got his staff in place, they found a team more dispirited than any of them had ever seen. The 3-9 record and everything else that had happened had left Auburn players floundering. There had been nothing fun about the 2012 season, and some of them were having trouble finding anything fun about football in general.

The turnaround in began in January. Malzahn told his players they were going win, that they were going to be part of the greatest turnaround in Auburn football history. They wanted desperately to believe it.

Talk to any Auburn player about the keys to shedding the losing ways of 2012 and it won’t be long before he points to strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell. Relatively young and full of energy, Russell changed bodies and changed attitudes as the Tigers moved toward spring practice.

Last season’s issues were never about talent. There probably wasn’t enough talent to contend for a championship, but there was far too much talent to go 3-9 and be blown out 150-21 in the last three SEC games.

Malzahn was able to attract a coaching staff of proven winners. He talked former Tigers Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner into leaving lucrative and secure jobs to return to their alma mater. He got a guru of a defensive coordinator in Ellis Johnson. Rhett Lashlee, J.B. Grimes, Tim Horton, Cheese Harbison and Melvin Smith all had long track records of SEC success. Scott Fountain had convinced Malzahn years earlier that he was ready to be an SEC coach.



Along the way, Auburn players started to believe again.  They started to have fun again. But the turnaround of Auburn football wasn’t all about mind games and offseason workouts.

It was about recruiting, too. And it was about evaluating the players on hand.

The signing of quarterbacks Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson was crucial. Without true freshmen Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel, Auburn’s defensive line would not be as deep or as good as it is. Freshman wide receiver Marcus Davis has made big plays at the biggest of times.

There might not be a bigger story on the 2013 Auburn football team than the reclamation projects. Hybrid safety Robenson Therezie, running back Corey Grant, safety Ryan Smith, cornerback/safety Ryan White, linebacker Anthony Swain and defensive ends Craig Sanders and LaDarius Owens had been all but abandoned. Therezie has been perhaps the team’s best defensive player. All have made major contributions.

Where does Auburn go from here? With games left at Arkansas and Tennessee and at home against Georgia and Alabama, there are no guarantees. But you can rest assured Auburn players plan to finish with a flourish. They believe they can beat anybody.

There will always be ups and downs, and much remains to be done to make Auburn a consistent contender. But the state of mind that has been Auburn football for most of all of our lives is back.


Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for Follow Marshall on Twitter:


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