AUBURN, Ala. -- It's just past 6 a.m., the sun slowly rising on the Plains, and outside the Auburn football complex a few dedicated joggers lumber past the giant Tiger paw at the intersection of Heisman and Donahue Drive.
Gus Malzahn is already in his office. The third-year Auburn coach has been there since 5:50. The Tigers are grinding their way toward the two-week point of preseason camp, and the last practice before their second scrimmage of the preseason looms later that afternoon.
Malzahn, just like his no-huddle, warp-speed offense, is a buzz saw of energy as he maps out the day and prepares for his 7 a.m. staff meeting.
"Want a cup of coffee?" he asks. "I don't drink as much coffee in the preseason as I do in the season."
Malzahn looks at his cell phone sheepishly and explains that it's a necessary vice in today's college football world, particularly when it involves recruiting. He excuses himself briefly to return a text.
"I'm a one-track guy. I don't like distractions," he says. "Sometimes I just have to put [the cell phone] away, or I'm never going to get anything done."
Most coaches are naturally guarded. Some are borderline paranoid. Malzahn, admittedly, would fall into both categories, but he agreed to open up his program to ESPN.com for a day, a peek behind the curtain of what preseason camp looks like for a team with national championship aspirations.
There has been a bit of facelift since last season ended with such a thud, capped by a disappointing Outback Bowl loss to Wisconsin.
Not only does Jeremy Johnson take over at quarterback, but Will Muschamp is now in charge of the defense. The Tigers took it on the chin defensively last season, one of the chief reasons they lost four of their last five games, prompting Malzahn to clean house on that side of the ball.
"We have an edge about us on defense, and I knew Will would bring that," Malzahn says.
"This is the most physical camp I've been in, but it's good for us," Auburn senior linebacker Kris Frost says. "You kind of mold to your coach. We're adopting Coach Muschamp's personality as a defense more and more each day.
"It's not just the defense, though. We want to impose our will on people, to be that tough team that people talk about, and when they say you have Auburn on the schedule next week, they kind of cringe."
Classes have yet to start at Auburn, so there is no NCAA-mandated 20-hour rule to adhere to for the players. Breakfast and treatment start at 7:30 a.m., and most of the guys aren't calling it a day until 10 p.m.
On this day, the defense gets first shot at the morning walk-though, while the offense lifts weights. Malzahn warns that the music in the weight room (ranging from Rick Ross to Motley Crue) is loud enough to burst your ear drums, and he's right.
"They can play what they want to as long as there's no cussing," Malzahn said. "It's too loud for me. I guess that's proof that I'm getting old."
Malzahn is not big on the swear words. He'll throw a "crap" or a "dern" or a "stinking" out there tp get his point across, but his outbursts on the practice field are PG-rated.
"That doesn't mean he can't light into you," Frost says.
Strength coach Ryan Russell bounces around the Tigers' weight room like a whirling dervish. The three running backs competing for the starting job -- Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas -- all pump iron together.
Malzahn strolls into the indoor practice facility where Muschamp is directing the defensive walk-through.
"I just want them to know that I'm here," Malzahn says. "I'm not in defensive meetings. I don't need to be. Will is the best in the business. Look at how everybody's locked in on Will. Nobody's wandering around or not paying attention."
One of the new players Malzahn points to is Michigan transfer Blake Countess.
"He can play corner and nickel. He's smart enough to play safety," Malzahn says. "It was a huge need for us after T.J. Davis got hurt in the spring."
Countess isn't the only player out there this preseason who wasn't a year ago and is expected to make a big impact. Defensive end Carl Lawson, who missed last season after tearing his ACL, looks better than ever. Malzahn thinks he's even faster than he was before his injury, and the 6-foot-2, 257-pound sophomore certainly looks the part on the practice field. He has been unblockable this preseason.
"He's a train wreck. He's going to disrupt something," Malzahn says.
At lunchtime, several of the Auburn coaches eat in the year-old Wellness Kitchen. Malzahn usually has something brought in to eat, which means he's multi-tasking in his office.
Malzahn says it's all chicken and veggies for him during the preseason. But once the season begins, it's Mexican night on Thursdays and biscuits and gravy in the mornings.
And after home wins, Malzahn and wife, Kristi, hit the Waffle House just off campus. He gets the same booth every time, and he doesn't need a menu, either.
"Steak omelet, hash browns scattered, smothered, covered and chunked, and me and Kristi usually split a waffle," recites Malzahn, whose mind is racing way too fast this time of year to work up much of an appetite for lunch.
And on this particular Thursday, Malzahn is dealing with the return of star receiver Duke Williams to the practice field. Williams had missed the previous five practice days because of a "discipline issue," but has been allowed to rejoin the team. Malzahn is tight-lipped about the details concerning Williams' punishment, but is clearly at that point where one more misstep by Williams will be his last.
The team meeting begins promptly at 2 p.m., and the players and assistant coaches are all in there well before Malzahn enters. Rodney Garner, the Tigers' associate head coach and defensive line coach, is busy doing one of the things he does best. It's unofficially called de-recruiting, and he's letting prized freshman defensive end Byron Cowart, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2015 class, have it. Cowart has the body of a five-year NFL veteran but is still learning the ropes at the college level.
Garner, who has recruited and coached his share of first-round NFL draft picks, is pushing Cowart much the same way he did Marcus Stroud and Richard Seymour when Garner was at Georgia.
"Hey, there's the No. 1 player in the country right there," Garner chortles. "At least, he's supposed to be. He's getting coached like everybody else. I guarantee you that. He's being talked to like he never has been before.
"Gotta decruit. Most important thing you do."
Garner isn't the only one pushing Cowart. Muschamp has also turned up the heat. And sure enough, Cowart responded later that afternoon with his best practice of the preseason.
"We put a couple of examples up for the team where we'd gotten after him pretty hard. He's on the accelerated plan," Muschamp says with an approving smile. "The great thing about how we handle our business in the recruiting process is that I tell them, 'You're not always going to like me. I've got enough friends. I don't need any more.'
"What it's about is developing them as a player and as a person. If we're doing that, we're doing our job. It ain't about being a buddy with you."
As Malzahn enters the room for the team meeting, a hush replaces what was once a loud buzz. He quickly goes over the practice schedule, and as he does in every meeting, turns to the video screen for his daily point of emphasis. Today, it's sportsmanship.
"We celebrate the right way," Malzahn says. "We plan on winning a lot of games, and when we do, we're going to walk across the field, shake hands and show respect to our opponents. Not just the head coach, but all of us.
"And if we lose, just like the Mississippi State game when we were No. 2 in the country and didn't play well, we're still going to be men about it. We're not going to have anybody hightailing it to the locker room. We got our butt whipped, but we're still going to walk across and shake hands."
The Tigers are scheduled for 22 periods on this Thursday, parts of practice outside in the 90-degree heat and other parts at the indoor facility. Several of the players come up to Williams on the sideline as practice begins and give him a tap on the helmet or slap on his shoulder pads. He does little in his first practice back and doesn't get any work with the first team.
Malzahn might be the head coach, but he's far from a CEO during practice. He is working with offensive linemen on their stances, instructing backs to carry out fakes and working with receivers on running crisper routes and recognizing where the safety is lining up.
He's a teacher, first and foremost, which is understandable given the fact he spent 15 years coaching and teaching in high school.
The players take on a little extra pep in their step when the "Dirty Show" part of practice arrives. It's the third-and-short period, and they crank up the music to a decibel level that reminds you of a Saturday night at Jordan-Hare. Neither side wants to give an inch, and it's some of the most spirited work of the practice. Over the years, Malzahn has been miscast as more of an innovative mad scientist on offense. But it's clear when the pads start popping where his heart lies.
"We're very physical every day. That's who we are," he says.
But they're also fast. Malzahn, donning a big straw hat, and his assistants run from drill to drill. The periods aren't long, but the tempo is intense.
"We didn't go as fast today as we normally do," Malzahn says. "We're usually faster."
Even against double teams, Lawson is a beast, and Malzahn is quick to point out that the offense didn't score a single touchdown against the defense in the first scrimmage.
"We're playing with a chip on our shoulder. We have a whole bunch to prove to the world," Frost says.
Muschamp says it's time for the Auburn defense to hold up its end of the bargain.
"There's a certain standard, and we talk about that standard all the time," Muschamp says. "This place was founded on defense."
Some of the best action of this particular practice is raging over on the sideline where the 2-year-old twins of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, Thomas and Hudson, are pounding blocking dummies and occasionally each other.
When Malzahn talks about his offense, he invariably talks about efficiency. It shouldn't come as any surprise that there are no wasted plays during the Tigers' practice. And if there are, somebody is going to hear about it.
The manner in which Auburn lost last season to Alabama still gnaws at Malzahn. The Tigers scored 44 points, rolled up 630 total yards -- the most ever gained against an Alabama defense -- but still lost.
"We didn't score touchdowns in the red zone. We should have put 60 on them, and we didn't," Malzahn said. "That was the most disappointing thing, when you have a chance to do something special and don't, and then we gave up all those fourth-quarter points.
"We let them off the hook, but we've got them at home this year."
Granted, the Iron Bowl is played 365 days a year in this state, but it's still a long way to Nov. 28. The only thing longer may be Malzahn's work day. He and the coaches grade practice after dinner and then meet with the team to go over practice. Malzahn is usually out of the office by 11 p.m.
"I don't sleep much once the season starts, but I'm in a routine now," Malzahn said. "The adrenaline just sort of carries you."
For a guy who was coaching high school football 10 years ago, Malzahn jokes there will be plenty of time down the road to catch up on sleep. In the meantime, he's living his dream.
"I'm excited about the future," Malzahn says. "That's what excites me. The next three, four years ... we've got a chance, a real chance, to do something special."