<
>

Auburn, Chizik look to take next step

AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s fair to say we know a little bit more about Gene Chizik than we did this time a year ago, when some on the Plains were still scratching their heads over his hiring.

In that same regard, we also know a little bit more about where the Auburn football program is headed under Chizik.

“Last year, everybody was still trying to feel each other out,” senior linebacker Josh Bynes said. “Now, everybody is fully aware of how it works here. We know each other. We know what coach Chizik is about.

Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

Auburn coach Gene Chizik is ready to get back to work for his second season with the Tigers.“We also know for a fact that there’s nothing else we want other than a championship. It’s one thing to say that’s your goal, but we actually feel it in our bones.”

To say there’s some serious momentum right now in Auburn’s program would be akin to saying that Tiger Woods might face a smidgen of scrutiny next week at Augusta.

An eight-win season and Outback Bowl victory during Chizik’s maiden voyage in the SEC was followed up by a recruiting class that was ranked No. 4 nationally.

The Tigers head into their second season under Chizik with 24 seniors, including a couple of key leaders returning from injury, and they were the only team in the league to keep their entire coaching staff intact.

What’s next?

Good luck in getting the no-frills, tell-it-like-it-is Chizik to make any grandiose predictions.

He’s too busy worrying about the next practice, the next meeting, the next recruiting tape he needs to watch.

What he will tell you is that he likes the tone that has been set and the attitude he sees on the practice field this spring.

“Everybody knows what the expectations are and what we’re trying to do,” Chizik said. “Now, it’s trying to make our football team a more consistent football team all the way around.”

In a lot of ways, the Tigers were close to double-digit wins last season. But they were also, in Chizik’s words, a feast or famine team.

“That’s a classic sign of a very inconsistent team,” Chizik said.

A lack of depth was a huge issue, particularly on defense. The Tigers finished 11th in the SEC in total defense.

And even though Ben Tate had a big year running the football, the Tigers’ power running game wasn’t nearly as productive as Chizik would like. They dipped to an average of 133.2 rushing yards per game in their last four SEC outings.

“There were games in there where we didn’t run the ball very well. There were some games we ran it great,” Chizik said. “You can make stats look however you want to make them look. But when you look at SEC games, were we consistently moving the football running it?

“We’ve got to get better.”

Returning four starters on the offensive line should help, and while Tate is departing, the Tigers went out and signed one of the top running back prospects in the country in Michael Dyer of Little Rock, Ark.

Defensively, Chizik said it’s a given that first-year players will have to play next season.

In fact, he said it’s going to be that way the next couple of seasons.

“That’s just the way it is until we build our roster back up,” he said. “Roster management is going to be extremely big for us, how we handle the roster. The young guys coming in are going to have to contribute. That’s just where we’re at in terms of depth.”

And, really, when you look deeper at the numbers crunch the Tigers faced a year ago, coupled with the fact they had to play 11 straight weeks without a bye, it’s pretty remarkable they were able to scratch out eight wins.

The players don’t necessarily see it that way.

“A couple of plays here or there, a little more focus, and we’re 11-2,” Bynes said. “We have a lot of seniors, a lot of guys who’ve played. The chemistry is going to be tremendous. When we get the numbers right, and we will, I can’t wait to see what this team can do.”

Even more so than what the Tigers did on the field last season, Chizik and his staff really made their presence felt on the recruiting trail.

They reeled in highly rated prospects from just about everywhere -- Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, and yes, from inside the state, too.

The Tigers never blinked in the face of Alabama’s massive recruiting machine, which was only bolstered by the national championship.

Instead, they got creative.

The Big Cat Weekend led to secondary violations, and the Tiger Prowl limo tour drew some snide comments from rival coaches in the league.

But nobody was arguing with the results.

“We’ve got to continually find ways to upgrade the way we’re recruiting, what we’re selling, how we’re selling it, what our ideas are,” Chizik said. “It’s no different than a multimillion-dollar company trying to figure out how to generate more revenue than they did the year before. It’s the same idea.

“It’s not easy. I can promise you that. In-state battles for recruiting in the state of Alabama are extremely challenging, certainly when you’re recruiting against somebody who can now say they recently have another national championship. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but it’s not like we don’t know where we’re at. We know exactly where we’re at.

“We know what we have to tackle and how we have to do it, and we’re going to go full steam ahead.”

Don’t expect Chizik to waver, either.

He’s as grounded as they come, which is why the negative chatter surrounding his hire following a 5-19 record at Iowa State never registered a blip with him.

It’s the same reason he refuses to get caught up now in any “Auburn is back” chatter.

“The reception when I came here a year and a half ago was great,” Chizik said. “The bottom line is there were a couple of outspoken guys, and you’re never going to be able to control that. The ones that are negative and the loudest sometimes give the perception that they’re the majority, and that’s not necessarily the truth.

“The majority of the Auburn people have been phenomenal, because they love Auburn.”

And so does Chizik, who calls it a dream come true to be leading this program after serving as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator from 2002-04.

“We need to continue to work toward the vision we have for this place, and that is that we need to be better this year than we were last year,” Chizik said. “That’s not going to be easy to do.”

Perhaps not, but there’s no mistaking the buzz around Auburn’s campus these days.

“This first season … all it did was confirm all the goals and dreams we had when we first got here,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said.