Healthy Cox, WRs key to Auburn's improvement

Al Borges doesn't play the numbers game. The Auburn offensive coordinator learned a long time ago that you can twist points, yards and first downs any way you want.

What you can't twist are wins and losses.

After leading the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense during each of Borges' first two seasons on the Plains, the Tigers slipped to eighth last season.

Borges is the first to admit it. They weren't as much fun to watch on offense and labored through stretches when they were borderline dull.

Quarterback Brandon Cox played injured all season. The offensive line had its own health issues, and outside of Courtney Taylor, nobody at receiver could consistently make a play.

But in the spirit of the overall toughness and resiliency that has epitomized this program under Tommy Tuberville, the Tigers still managed to win 11 games.

In the three years that Borges has been with Tuberville, Auburn is 33-5 and the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 15 of the final polls all three years.

Those are the numbers that matter to Borges.

"We had to play a more conservative style," said Borges, who cut his teeth on the West Coast where the only thing in the air more than footballs was the smog.

"We weren't as flamboyant as we've been. We were under 300 pass attempts (282), the least we've attempted. Some of it was the rules changes, but a bigger part was that we felt like we had to do that to win games. We had an excellent kicking game and played great defense.

"It wasn't as fancy or as pretty as a couple of years ago. But the end result was 11 wins and two losses, and I'll take that any day of the week."

Borges coached in the Pac-10 and the Big Ten before he arrived in Auburn. He said nothing prepares you for the overall defensive prowess in the SEC.

Even so, the Tigers almost made it look easy during his first season as offensive coordinator in 2004. He helped turn quarterback Jason Campbell into a first-round draft pick and took talented runners Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown and utilized them in the same explosive backfield.

Auburn went 13-0, won the SEC championship, and Borges was hailed as the missing piece.

But in some ways, Borges is more proud of what the Tigers were able to accomplish last season when they weren't brimming with future NFL talent.

"The key is: Can you manufacture enough points to win when you're not at full strength?" Borges said. "I thought our kids did a good job with that. We didn't light up the scoreboard. But sometimes you've got to put your ego on the shelf.

"I'd rather win 11 football games and average 350 yards than averaging 500 yards and winning eight games. As long as you don't lose sight of that, you've always got a chance."

As the Tigers wrapped up spring practice with their annual A-Day game this past Saturday, Borges thinks his offense is closer to getting back to where it was his first two years on campus.

For one, quarterback Brandon Cox finally looks healthy again after suffering through knee and ankle injuries last season. He was never the same after the LSU game during the third week, and the Tigers were limited in what they could do with him.

"He couldn't move or drop back, and we had to go to a lot of two-step drops," Borges said. "I've never had a quarterback that beaten up who continued to play. He was a tough kid and kept getting back up from everything that happened to him, but he was really never back.

"This spring, he's looked really good and is so much more mobile. He looks like the quarterback from 2005."

That mobility also should help the Tigers up front. They allowed 35 sacks last season, the second most in the league. Left tackle King Dunlap is the only returning starter on the Tigers' offensive line.

Andrew McCain moved into the right tackle spot after the first scrimmage this spring. Tyronne Green and Leon Hart have worked as the first-team guards and Jason Bosley as the starting center.

It's never ideal to have so much inexperience on the offensive line, but Borges is even more antsy about his receivers. Rod Smith has had an excellent spring, and redshirt freshman Tim Hawthorne was coming on until a tragic car accident earlier this month that killed one of the passengers in the car and left Hawthorne with a concussion.

The Tigers also are hopeful that freshman signee Chris Slaughter of Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy can have an immediate impact. Borges thinks Slaughter, a 6-foot-3 receiver, would have played last year had he come straight from high school.

Despite Kenny Irons' departure, running back shouldn't be a problem. Brad Lester, Ben Tate and Mario Fannin have all had their moments this spring. Fannin could end up being the Tigers' breakout player on offense next season.

Borges said he's used fullback Carl Stewart in a one-back set this spring and is excited about Stewart's versatility, especially his ability to catch the ball. Look for the Tigers to use their tight ends more, too.

"We're going to try and get back to doing some of the things we did the first couple of years, being foot loose and fancy free," Borges said. "How much will depend on how quickly our line matures and whether we find a few more playmaking receivers.

"There's going to be a few growing pains along the way, but I like what I've seen so far."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.