As one of the unquestioned leaders on Auburn’s football team, Emory Blake has a problem with anybody labeling last season as a transition year.
Sure, the Tigers were coming off an unbeaten 14-0 season and national championship in 2010, and it’s a fact that only six starters returned from that team. Gone were Heisman Trophy quarterback Cam Newton, Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley and four senior starters on the offensive line.
It was an entirely different football team -- one with first- and second-year players dominating the depth chart -- that scratched out an 8-5 season a year ago.
But a transition year?
Blake isn’t buying it; not at Auburn.
“For us, we never think of a year as a transition year,” said Blake, who led the Tigers in catches (36) and receiving yards (613) last season despite missing three games with a high-ankle sprain.
“We’re out there trying to win every game. That’s just the attitude we have at Auburn. It doesn’t matter who we lost or who we have coming back. That’s the standard here. We’re going to go into every game and fight and feel like we’re supposed to win. I felt like we did that. We just had some things go against us and weren’t as successful as we were the year before.”
One of those things that went against Auburn was a passing game that was virtually non-existent, particularly the downfield passing game.
Nobody in the SEC completed fewer passes than Auburn in regular-season play, and the only two teams that had fewer passing yards than the Tigers were Ole Miss and Kentucky.
“We just never could get our passing game going, and that made us easy to defend,” Blake said.
Even more frustrating for Blake was the high-ankle sprain that plagued him the second half of the season. He suffered the injury in the 16-13 win over South Carolina, and his only action the next three games was one play against Florida.
That’s after catching four touchdown passes in his first five games. He only caught one more the rest of the way, although he came back and hauled in six catches for 108 yards in the Chick-fil-A Bowl once he had a chance to fully rest the ankle.
“That’s just what we needed, our offense having one of its best games at the end of the year and everybody finally not being banged-up, because it’s carried over into the offseason,” Blake said.
This spring has only created more excitement for Blake, who’s moving around a lot more in the Tigers’ new offense than he did in the past. First-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is installing more of a pro-style system, according to Blake, and the Auburn staff has made it clear that one of the goals is to get the ball to Blake during his senior season.
In fact, receivers coach Trooper Taylor has thrown out there the “80 for 80” theme.
Blake, who wears No. 80, is all for that idea. Then again, what receiver doesn’t want to catch 80 passes?
“I feel like I have the confidence, the ability and the experience to be one of the top receivers in the SEC, and if you’re one of the top receivers in the SEC, you’re one of the top receivers in the country,” Blake said. “We’re all excited about the possibilities in this new offense. We’re still learning, but it’s a fresh start, a clean slate for a lot of guys.”
Whereas the Tigers leaned on Michael Dyer and the running game last season, they won’t have that option in 2012. Dyer followed Gus Malzahn to Arkansas State.
The 6-foot-2, 197-pound Blake is now the closest thing the Tigers have to a proven go-to guy on offense.
In his last 13 games dating back to the national championship season, he’s caught eight touchdown passes. His 13 touchdown catches over the past two seasons are more than any returning SEC player.
“You would be hard-pressed to find a receiver that runs better routes or is smarter,” Taylor said. “He may not be the fastest or the biggest or the strongest, but I guarantee he’s productive.”
Blake also has the luxury of talking shop with his dad, Jeff Blake, who was a quarterback in the NFL for 14 seasons.
And now that the Tigers are running an offense that more closely resembles what they’re running in the NFL, Blake looks forward to even more of those conversations.
“It’s a more universal offense,” Blake explained. “Coach Malzahn’s offense was more his offense, more the stuff he created. This is more pro-based now, especially the lingo, and my dad can relate more. I can call him now and talk about what we’re doing, and I think that’s going to be a big help in learning the offense.”
Blake doesn’t think the learning curve will be a steep one. He already sees considerable progress with everybody. In particular, he says Loeffler has zeroed in on the quarterbacks.
“With everybody we have coming back and everything Coach Loeffler brings to the table, we should be a much more consistent offense,” Blake said. “Just seeing how quarterback-oriented [Loeffler] is, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to have whoever wins that job ready to play.
“We have to help the defense out more this year. There were too many times that we didn’t do our part last year. We need to create more explosive plays and finish games, and we have the players and the attitude to do that.”