1. Overall, what was the vibe for Auburn’s spring practices in light of last year’s disappointing season?
With the way the regular season ended, and with all of the speculation that we may get a buyout and Gus would be sent packing, the Music City Bowl was a very pleasant surprise and it left us heading into the offseason with a better taste in our mouths. Most importantly, it seemed to be an indicator for the future instead of a blip of success on the radar. That was the game where Gus Malzahn said “screw it, I’m calling these plays” after Chip Lindsey left, and he took control back in a big way. You saw it, but even against an overmatched and slow B1G team, 56 first-half points is unbelievable. Now during the spring, Gus has apparently been much more hands on in his coaching approach, which is where he thrives as opposed to delegating to his assistants. He’s more relaxed, listening to *gasp* that dang hippity hop music and getting back to coaching instead of being a CEO.
Also, it really didn’t hurt that he was free to do literally whatever he wanted during the spring because everyone was paying way more attention to the basketball team’s run to the Final Four. We only actually turned our attention to the football team right after the Virginia game, and by that time we’d hit the spring game. Gus thrives under the radar, and he was allowed to do that this year. It’s an oddly positive vibe coming from the spring as a whole. As an Auburn fan, I don’t know if that’s good or not.
2. Any idea on the starting quarterback battle between vet Joey Gatewood and five-star freshman Bo Nix?
It’s convenient that you’re turning to us now for this question, because Gus just named them 1A and 1B at a recruiting event a couple nights ago. What we’ve heard from the new offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham (DILLY DILLY) is that Gatewood is a “physically dominant athlete” and Nix is “sneaky athletic”. We put out a poll that ended with 60% of voters wanting Gatewood at quarterback since he’s built in the Cam Newton mold and could end up giving us that true dual-threat element back in the offense. Nix isn’t a statue, though, and he’s got some real speed when he starts to scramble. Both guys seem to have a good grasp on the offense, and both guys threw the ball well in the spring game. It’s going to come down to fall camp to see who ends up being the starter, but Gatewood has public support from some of the players on the team (like wideout Seth Williams) who say that he’s capable of some really unbelievable stuff on the field.
3. The offense returns a couple linemen and some experienced backs. Did it feel like the running game may be coming back this spring?
Last year we had one running back that we really depended on, and that was Boobee Whitlow. That’s not great behind a line that really didn’t gel until the last couple of weeks of the season. Even in the 52-21 loss to Alabama, the offensive line played pretty well, and they were unstoppable against Purdue. Now, it’s a bunch of seniors. When you add in a guy that came on late in recruiting in DJ Williams, and a stronger Kam Martin to complement those guys with more speed, I think you’re going to see a resurgence in the run game this year. We’re not talking the 2010/2013 type of run game where we hit 300 yards every time out, but we’re talking more efficient and more complementary to what the passing attack is going to be doing.
4. On defense, we know a lot of the big names returning. Any new players emerge?
With the bulk of the defensive front coming back, and a couple of projected first-rounders in that group, we may only need the rest of the defense to be alright to compete every week. That said, there are some dudes who have taken the next steps on defense, including KJ Britt at linebacker. He’ll replace Deshaun Davis as the leader of the defense in the middle, and he’s an older guy so he’s got experience and the attention of the team. Big-time recruit Owen Pappoe will also play at linebacker some this year, but he may not begin the year as a starter. I’d expect him to get there before too long. In the back end, pretty much everyone except Jamel Dean returns, but we’ll have speed to burn at the corners with Javaris Davis and Noah Igbinoghene. Behind them, there’s savvy and experience galore with Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas returning for what feels like their post-graduate work at safety.
5. The whole “Fire Gus” thing has become a bit of a joke, but is there any sense that the pressure is real for the program right now?
There’s pressure for sure, but that’s life in the SEC. We wrote some about this during all of the hooplah last December, but getting nine wins this year would be a hell of an accomplishment. By most preseason polls, Auburn has five top ten teams on the schedule (Oregon, Florida, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama) with three of those away from home. Furthermore, who in the world do you hire? Gus has a proven track record of success in the SEC, he’s one of three active SEC coaches with an SEC Championship ring, and he competes with Alabama as well as anyone around. Personally, I wouldn’t want to get rid of him unless things go really poorly.
That said, there are many who don’t agree with me. Eight or nine wins isn’t enough, and Auburn should be winning championships every other year. Gus hasn’t done enough to develop the talent he’s got, and recruiting doesn’t look great after this year. We’ve got Saban and Kirby on our schedule every year, if we aren’t making the SEC Championship once every three years, and winning a title once every five years or so, people are going to be upset. Also, we can’t fall on the sword of preseason expectations either. When it’s expected, Gus needs to produce. Do those things, and the pressure goes down. However, this is shaping up to be a year where Auburn can make some noise provided quarterback play is good. We need to see something to get one of those burners turned off.