AUBURN, Ala. — Trooper Taylor is a believer.
All it took was a 90-play live scrimmage for the Auburn wide receivers coach to fully understand what Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense is capable of.
“Let me tell you, Malzahn’s a genius, fellas,” Taylor told reporters, shortly after things wrapped up. “Write it down. I’m telling you, he is the real deal, folks. I made the right decision, I can promise you that. I’m excited. I’m more excited than (the players) probably. I’m geeked about being in this offense.”
While it was the defense that ultimately prevailed 45-40 Saturday, breaking a tie in the reward-based scoring system on the final drive when defensive lineman Cam Henderson pounced on an Onterio McCalebb fumble caused by safety Drew Cole, it was Malzahn’s offense that grabbed the attention of players and coaches on both sides of the ball.
“It’s real quick,” left tackle Lee Ziemba said. “With the more plays comes more yards. With more yards comes more points, so that’s the theory behind that. I think the defense saw it.”
“They looked real good, man,” linebacker Craig Stevens said.
The 90-play showdown, Auburn’s first of the spring, was shrouded in secrecy at an empty Jordan-Hare Stadium, kept off-limits to the media and public, but details were pieced together afterward.
As promised, the Tigers moved at a rapid-fire pace, running 55 plays in 20 minutes at one point.
“Today they were giving us four or five plays in a row,” cornerback Walt McFadden said. “And that was something that we weren’t used to.”
While the coaches wanted to simulate game conditions as much as possible, they slowed things down at certain points to let a defense that is still learning its system get properly set.
“What we’re trying to do is just make it a fair fight, especially early on,” offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said. “We don’t want to rush and do everything so fast that we don’t execute the offense or defense.”
Some offensive players felt that skewed the final score.
“I know he wants us to learn and everything, but I feel like it’s a competition,” running back Ben Tate said. “If you’re keeping score, let us go. He was giving them an advantage right there.
“I was getting mad there at the end once we lost. I was like, ‘That’s not fair.’ You could see the guys on defense. They weren’t even set. Coach was holding us back.”
“In the game, it really won’t be that way,” quarterback Kodi Burns promised.
Chizik estimated that the Tigers ran the ball on 60 of the 90 plays, trying to establish the physical, run-first mentality he promised upon taking the Auburn job in December.
Even the quarterbacks joined action, going live for portions of the two-hour practice, vulnerable to hits.
“I understand that is risky at times,” Chizik said. “We didn’t do it the whole practice today, but you’ve got to be able to have a gauge when you’re trying to measure two or three close guys in a battle right now, what’s going to separate them. And two-hand tag is hard to separate them.”
Burns, Neil Caudle and Barrett Trotter rotated evenly with the ones at quarterback Saturday. Caudle had a touchdown pass to Ralph Spry and Burns threw a touchdown to Terrell Zachery.
But the coaches were hesitant to draw any conclusions immediately after the scrimmage, hoping to get a better idea once they pored over game video later in the afternoon. So far, nobody has distinguished himself of the three.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Chizik said. “I don’t know if there will be separation in seven more practices. I really don’t. … Right now they’re kind of all clumped in there together and they’re all doing some nice things.”