AUBURN, Ala. — A series of dust-ups dotted Auburn’s football practices last August. Emotions ran as hot as the temperature on several occasions, an inauspicious sign for what proved to be the team’s most disjointed season in a decade.
This year, cooler heads have prevailed and stronger leaders have emerged, said cornerback Walt McFadden.
“Last year was kind of a battlefield in that no one wanted to listen because, ‘Who are you?’ ” McFadden said. “This year, we’ve got, ‘OK, that’s Antonio Coleman. He’s a guy that’s proved something here, so I can follow him.’ That’s what we’ve got going with this team.”
It’s with a fresh start and a new outlook that Auburn’s players reported Tuesday, eager to put last year’s 5-7 record behind them and begin 11 straight days of practice, starting today.
The Tigers entered last season ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press poll and picked to win the SEC West. Expectations are considerably lower in Gene Chizik’s first season as Auburn’s head coach, but he is encouraged by the progress the program has made in the eight months since he was hired.
“Our kids have been so resilient,” Chizik said. “They’ve just been great. They’ve bought in. Our coaches have done a great job trying to nurture these relationships with the players. We, as coaches, know how important that is. I think the relationships have gotten a lot stronger.
“It’s an eight-month bond, not a four-year bond. It’s hard to do in eight months. I think we’re ahead of the curve at this point with getting to know our players and them getting to know us. It’s been good.”
The staff has had help. McFadden declined to give names but mentioned that some players tabbed as leaders last year didn’t garner much respect.
“It was basically they were just going about it the wrong away,” McFadden said.
McFadden said there hasn’t been any wavering about who the leaders are this year, specifically mentioning Coleman, who decided to return for his senior season instead of entering last year’s NFL draft.
“I don’t take any crap, so I think we’re definitely in a good position,” Coleman said. “I’ve adjusted to it and adopted it. I’m just ready to get out there and work.”
Auburn has plenty of motivation. The Tigers, who finished in a last-place tie with Arkansas and Mississippi State last year, are the media’s pick to finish fifth in the SEC West this season .
“It motivates me very much,” linebacker Josh Bynes said, “because, being this low, you’ve got a lot of negativity coming to you. You want to prove a lot of people wrong and go out there and step it up and do the best possible. This is not over.”