Ryan Black commentary: A-Day performance proves Tigers can air it out

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comApril 25, 2014 

AUBURN, Ala.Gus Malzahn is as tight-lipped and evasive with reporters as any coach you’ll find this side of Bill Belichick.

Once in a while, however, he’ll be somewhat direct. This evinced itself during last Saturday’s A-Day game, as the results harkened back to a comment Malzahn made in December. Upon the signing of D’haquille Williams, the nation’s top junior college receiver, Auburn’s coach was asked whether this would bring about a change in the team’s offensive philosophy in 2014.

At the time, the notion might have seemed laughable — and it should. After all, the Tigers were preparing for the BCS championship game thanks to its near-unstoppable rushing attack, which ranked first in the country.

But the prospect of bringing Williams into the fold was too much for Malzahn to ignore.

“We are going to get more and more balanced next year,” the coach said in December. “Any time you’ve got a dynamic guy like him coming, that’s a really good thing.”

Once last weekend’s spring game concluded, Malzahn proved he had stuck to his word. No longer were the Tigers content to lean on the run. This wasn’t the offense that took the field against Arkansas and Tennessee last season, a two-game stretch which saw the Tigers throw just 16 times. Heck, by the end of the opening period last Saturday, Auburn’s top two signal-callers had combined for 22 passes: 12 by starter Nick Marshall and 10 from backup Jeremy Johnson.

This isn’t to say Auburn will turn into Washington State East.

As long as Malzahn is head coach, it’s unlikely the Tigers will ever become a pass-happy bunch. While he strives for balance, Malzahn prefers to hedge more in the direction of the ground game, with last season being somewhat of an anomaly in how one-dimensional Auburn’s play-calling became offensively. Opponents couldn’t stop Marshall, Tre Mason and the zone-read, so the Tigers were content to run to their heart’s content.

Relegate that to the memory bank.

In their place, insert visions of Williams and Sammie Coates and the rest Auburn’s receiving corps hauling in Marshall’s touchdown passes.

It took all of one quarter for Williams to prove he was worthy of the hype, catching two passes for 28 yards and a touchdown. His scoring play was one of pure athleticism; in one-on-one coverage at the 3-yard line, Marshall lofted the ball in Williams’ direction expecting his receiver to make the play. Williams didn’t disappoint.

But to focus all the attention on Williams would be a disservice to the rest of the Tigers’ pass-catchers.

Quan Bray got his final season on the Plains started off on the right foot, with three receptions for 89 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Melvin Ray, who had a 50-yard touchdown catch in the BCS championship game, followed it up with six receptions and 91 yards on Saturday while playing for both the Blue and White squads. In sum, six different receivers — Williams, Bray, Ray, Coates, Tony Stevens and early enrollee Stanton Truitt — had multiple receptions in the lopsided 58-3 victory for the Blue team.

Make no mistake: It was a concerted effort by the Tigers’ coaching staff to showcase, as South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier would put it, how they could “pitch and catch.”

“The emphasis, obviously, was on throwing the football," Malzahn said afterward. "That's been one of our main points offensively this spring. It was good to see our guys throwing and catching the ball in front of a crowd."

Give him this much: Malzahn was up front about highlighting the quarterbacks and receivers.

One thing Malzahn won’t be quite as candid about? Uttering bold proclamations about the passing numbers Marshall and Co. could put up this fall. Things don’t always have to be explicitly stated, though.

Anyone who watched the game — in person or on television — could discern this unit has the capability to shatter every single-season passing mark Auburn has in its record books.

Perhaps the only person who can keep Dameyune Craig’s (3,277 passing yards in 1997) and Cam Newton’s (30 passing touchdowns in 2010) records safe is Malzahn himself — remember, offensive equilibrium is the objective.

It’s just that Tigers’ aerial assault may prove impossible to keep grounded.

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