Auburn's offensive line gets new slate

abitter@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 30, 2009 

AUBURN, Ala. — Lee Ziemba paused for a good six seconds, exhaling in a long, exaggerated manner while trying to find a delicate way to summarize the Auburn offensive line’s struggles last season. He finally sidestepped the question.

“I don’t want to comment on that,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious.”

The members of the Tigers’ offensive line would prefer to treat the 2008 season as a distant memory. Call it the Mark McGwire approach. They’re not here to talk about the past, just the future as they prepare for life in Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo yet power-based offense.

“The attitude has changed,” Ziemba said. “It’s all about putting everything together.”

Auburn was in need of a fresh start after a season that ranks among the most dysfunctional in recent memory. The line struggled throughout the year, stuck in a tug of war of coaching philosophies, with coach Hugh Nall entrenched in an old-school, smashmouth way of doing things while offensive coordinator Tony Franklin wanted lean, nimble linemen able to move.

The slimmed down linemen struggled to adapt to Franklin’s offense as the rift on the coaching staff worsened. By the time Tommy Tuberville fired Franklin and returned to a more traditional offense, the offensive line wasn’t equipped to play a power game.

“It was definitely frustrating because you go back to running every down and you don’t have the weight behind you,” center Ryan Pugh said. “But we really haven’t thought about that much to be honest with you. We worry about gaining weight and being stronger and faster, which I think we’ve had the best offseason I’ve seen.”

Fears that Malzahn’s up-tempo offense was simply a carbon copy of Franklin’s system faded during the new coordinator’s first meeting with the team, when he put a Power Point slide up on the projection screen that emphasized his commitment to being a two-back, run/play-action team.

“It was a new slate,” Ziemba said.

Armed with a fresh attitude, a new position coach in Jeff Grimes and some much-needed bulk (Ziemba added 28 pounds, Pugh 20), the line has high hopes for a rebound year, returning four players — Ziemba, Pugh and guards Byron Isom and Mike Berry — who have started in the past.

The only newcomer is right tackle Andrew McCain, who chuckled at the designation.

“I guess experience right now is a funny word with everyone trying to learn a new system,” he said.

McCain has had a long, dotted career at Auburn, moving from tight end to defensive tackle and finally offensive line, where he’s been a backup the last two years. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound tackle has never started, despite getting playing time in every one of the Tigers’ games last season, filling in for an injured Jason Bosley on several occasions.

“When you’re in the middle of it and something’s not going your way, often times you tend to think that you’re right and everyone else is wrong,” McCain said. “And I guess I can take the fault for having that attitude at points. ...

“You’ve just got to deal with it. And I don’t try to sit around and play the game of what could have been or what should have been. I’m just trying to embrace this new situation and run with it and make the best of it that I can.”

Early indications are positive. Grimes called McCain one of the best leaders on the line this offseason.

“It’s unusual for a guy that hasn’t played to have this same level of leadership and willingness to step to the front of the line as he has,” Grimes said.

If McCain can shore up the right tackle position, Auburn should have a bounce-back year up front. At the very least, they’re all on the same page.

“Everybody knows what the guy next to them is supposed to do,” McCain said. “And it makes for a complete understanding of the offense on everyone’s part, to where it works like well-oiled machine. At least that’s the goal. We’re still a long way from that.”

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