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Auburn opens spring practice with a chip on its shoulder after last season

Montravius Adams is one of many Auburn returning lettermen that want to redeem themselves from last season's disappointment. David J. Phillip/AP

AUBURN, Ala. -- The theme for Auburn football this season is “Earn it.” As head coach Gus Malzahn explained Tuesday, it’s about earning respect from your teammates and coaches every day, both on and off the field.

It was conceived by Montravius Adams, Marcus Davis, Devaroe Lawrence and a handful of other seniors, who learned last year that expectations mean nothing.

Auburn came into the season ranked in the top 10. Many saw the Tigers as the favorite to win the SEC West and a serious contender for the College Football Playoff. But things started to unravel after a 45-21 loss at LSU in Week 3. Everybody’s favorite sleeper pick to win it all finished with just six wins during the regular season and barely made a bowl game.

But last season is a distant memory now that spring is here.

“There is no last year,” Adams said following Auburn’s first spring practice. “We’re probably not going to be ranked in the Top 25. It’s just like when I came here in 2013 off a 3-9 season. We’ve got to earn everything that we want.

“So when we’re in the weight room, we’re earning it. We’re earning our teammates’ respect, our coaches’ respect. We just want to earn it for everybody with everything we do.”

Some of the players did bring up the victory over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl as a turning point and a source of momentum for this coming season. But beyond that, they have put everything from last year in the rearview mirror.

“We have to,” linebacker Tre' Williams said. “If we think about last year, we might carry over some qualities. We're trying to brush all that off, let that go and try to build something new for ourselves.”

As Malzahn kept saying, this is a new year for Auburn football.

The personnel is different. Over 20 scholarship players from last year’s team are gone. Meanwhile, the Tigers welcomed nine early enrollees in January, and in that group could be the team’s starting quarterback, a starting wide receiver and at least two defensive linemen who could see early playing time.

Thirteen more newcomers are expected to arrive this summer, including a graduate transfer from Illinois who probably has more experience than any linebacker currently on the roster.

The coaching staff has also changed. Five assistant coaches left in the offseason, and Malzahn found replacements from the SEC, the Big 10, the Pac-12, and even the NFL. But the one thing they all have in common is a connection to either Auburn or Malzahn, and that has helped with the transition.

“Our players have responded very well (to the changes),” Malzahn said. “We’re going to have a veteran group this year. Our new coaches have come in and done an excellent job. A lot of the guys we brought in, a lot of our players were already familiar with.”

In addition to the new players and the new coaches, there’s a new chip on the team's shoulders that stems from what happened a year ago. It originated the day after the bowl game and has since carried over into spring practice.

Even Malzahn admits to having that chip on his shoulder.

“That’s why I’m excited to get out there,” he said. “From a coach’s standpoint, especially a head coach’s standpoint, you evaluate the things from last year that you need to improve on. We know what they are and we’re going to go out there, and redeem ourselves. Me personally, I’m excited to get on the practice field."

Malzahn, like his players, knows he has to earn it this season.