The maturation of Auburn’s football team could clearly be seen on a first-and-goal late in last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The Tigers were sitting at the 4-yard line, only steps from scoring, but there wasn’t any urgency. There wasn’t any desire to take those few steps because the game was well in hand. So instead of shooting for 50 points, Auburn knelt on the ball twice to run the clock out.
The team buried in youth and inexperience for most of the season looked like a group vets with its composure and dominance.
The squad that left the Georgia Dome that night was a much better representation of the Tigers than any prior last season, and coach Gene Chizik said that New Year’s Eve win propelled this team into the offseason.
“There’s a lot of value in playing in a bowl game and winning it,” Chizik said.
That value has come in the form of a more competitive and faster spring on the Plains. Even with the addition of two new coordinators in Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, Chizik said this team was further ahead as far as maturation and development within the schemes than last spring‘s group.
“It’s been a really productive offseason,“ Chizik said. “We know that we’ve got a long way to go, but I think our kids understand that our future here is very bright and the foundation has been laid and will continue to work in that direction. Everybody’s very upbeat, very positive and understanding that there’s an urgency to be a better football team than we were the previous year.
“We’re excited about it and our kids are, too.”
One side of the ball that made a lot of progress was the offense. Auburn’s players were entrenched in a spread style with Gus Malzahn running the show, but with Loeffler in town, the Tigers have added more pro-style sets. The good thing, Chizik said, is that Loeffler has a background in both styles, which made it easier for players to adapt this spring.
Loeffler would rather run more of a pro-style offense, but he isn’t naïve. He knows what his talent can do, and while Chizik wouldn’t exactly give the blueprint for Auburn’s offense, he did hint that there could be elements of both styles this fall.
“We’re going to come up with our own package and our own identity,“ he said. “We’re going to try and get good at just a few things, but we have certainly moved forward in terms of finding out exactly what we can and can’t do this spring; no question about it.”
Another thing that isn’t totally clear is who will throw the ball for the Tigers this fall. Moseley, who started the last six games of the season, was sidelined for most of the spring with a sore shoulder, while rising sophomore Kiehl Frazier, who was used more for running situations last year, took a bit of a lead.
Frazier fits more of a spread style, but Loeffler’s teaching really helped him develop more of his game, especially as a passer, this spring.
“I don’t think that there’s any question about it; he certainly improved in a lot of aspects this spring,” Chizik said. “He had a lot of opportunities. He’s maturing as a quarterback, but he’s learning a lot. He’s still a young 19-year-old kid that has a lot in front of him, but we’re asking a lot of him. I thought he handled it very well.
“His best days are certainly ahead of him, but he made a lot of strides this spring.”
And Chizik thinks the best days are ahead for his entire team. Offensively and defensively, this team will still be young, as close to 70 percent of Auburn’s scholarship players will be underclassmen, but Chizik said the level of maturity this year doesn’t resemble a group of underclassmen.
Development still has a ways to go, Chizik said, but the want to improve and win is exactly where he wants it.
“As long as you have young, eager guys that are wanting to succeed and wanting to better themselves,“ he said, “I think you always got a great chance to have a successful year.”