Malzahn eyes return to 2013

AU hopes to rebound after eight-win season

By JOHNATHAN BENTLEY, Eagle Sports Editor
Posted 7/13/17

HOOVER — Gus Malzahn expects big things from Auburn in 2017. After all, the Tigers’ head coach mentioned the 2013 season four times during SEC Media Days in Hoover on Thursday.

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Malzahn eyes return to 2013

AU hopes to rebound after eight-win season

Posted

HOOVER — Gus Malzahn expects big things from Auburn in 2017.

After all, the Tigers’ head coach mentioned the 2013 season four times during SEC Media Days in Hoover on Thursday. That happens to be the same year Auburn defeated Georgia and Alabama and won an SEC Championship on its way to the BCS National Championship game.

The 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons didn’t come up.

“Probably the biggest thing that’s standing out to me about this team, is that they’re hungry. They’re hungry and they’ve got something to prove. And really the last time I felt this was 2013. So that’s a good comfort for me,” said Malzahn, who is entering his fifth year at Auburn.

Auburn had a roller coaster season in 2016. After a 2-2 start, the Tigers reeled off six straight wins, starting with an 18-13 victory over LSU in a game that saw a late touchdown reversal give Auburn the victory.

Just as Malzahn’s hot seat cooled off, injuries took a toll with the Tigers losing three of their last four games — the lone win coming against Alabama A&M. By the end of the season, Auburn had an 8-5 record and Malzahn’s seat was starting to warm up yet again.

The Tigers were rolling with a healthy Sean White at quarterback last year. However, when White wasn’t at 100 percent, the Tigers’ high-octane offense was out of gas.

“We started out, we had some major adversity. I was real proud of our team, the way they rebounded. We went on a six-game win streak, and I really felt like we were playing as good as anybody in the country,” Malzahn said. “We had some key injuries late. We kind of limped home. I just had that bad feeling the way we finished. We felt like we had a real opportunity there and just didn’t seize the moment.”

Enter quarterback transfer Jarrett Stidham from Baylor to go along with White and Auburn has something that has been lacking during Malzahn’s tenure.

“So the exciting thing for me is we’ve got depth at quarterback. That’s been our Achilles’ heel the last two years,” Malzahn said.

Auburn returns most of its offensive playmakers this season including Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, who combined for 2,119 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. Pettway ranked fifth in the SEC with 1,224 rushing yards despite not playing in four games.

Auburn returns seven starters on offense, including four lineman, and six on defense, led by senior defensive back Tray Matthews and senior linebacker Tre’ Williams. Second team All-American kicker Daniel Carlson is also back for his senior season.

“Overall, I’m very excited about this team. We have a lot of experience back. I think we’ve got more returning starters than we’ve had the last 12 years at Auburn, and of course in this league there’s nothing like experience,” Malzahn added. “We have quality depth. And really as a head coach of the Auburn Tigers, it’s the first time I can say that we have quality depth in all areas.”

Then there is Stidham. As a freshman at Baylor in 2015, he completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Though Malzahn hasn’t officially named a starter, Stidham provides the big-play ability Auburn has lacked at the quarterback position in recent years.

“He’s a lot better athlete than people think. He’s got a 35-36 inch vertical. He runs a 4.6,” Malzahn added.

“In our league, you have to escape. Things are going to break down. The defensive lines are too good. You have to have a quarterback that can escape pressure, keep his eyes down the field, know when to throw it, know when to run it, protect the football and make good decisions. We had a chance to really evaluate (Stidham) in the spring. Our defensive line is pretty talented. And so we got a lot of good information. And we like the way he reacted, too.”

The season opens at home against Georgia Southern on Sept. 2 followed by a game at defending national champion Clemson in Week 2.

Starting in mid-October, Auburn plays consecutive road games at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M before returning home for a game against Georgia.

“Obviously, we’ve got a challenging schedule. We’ve got some great teams in our league. But I really like where we’re at. I’ve just got that feel where there’s a lot of excitement around our complex, not just with our coaches, but our players. And we’re really looking forward to the season.”