AUBURN, Ala. — From the moment he took the Auburn head coaching job, Gene Chizik vowed to return the program to its smashmouth roots.
But ingraining that physical mentality while managing a short-handed roster this August has been a delicate balancing act.
After a physical spring session, Auburn has had to be careful with the amount of hitting it has done so far, practicing at different tempos and levels of tackling throughout the preseason to preserve a healthy roster of players for when the games actually start.
Now, less than a week away from Saturday’s season opener against Louisiana Tech at Jordan-Hare Stadium, questions about Auburn’s physical preparedness remain.
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“I don’t know exactly where we are in that department,” Chizik said. “We’re trying to go enough of our first teams against each other, where we stay sharp in that department. Because that is a concern if you don’t do that.
“But there is a fine line with us doing too much of that versus doing too little of it. But I feel good with where we’re at. I still feel like our plan is smart.”
It’s been especially difficult on the defensive side, where coordinator Ted Roof preaches contact and physicality above all else. The Tigers are already without safety Mike McNeil, who broke his leg last April. They have four scholarship cornerbacks and a thin linebacking corps that has gone through a large portion of this month’s practices without projected starter Eltoro Freeman, who has battled hand and hamstring issues.
“You’ve got to work and you’ve got to prepare to play physical if that’s what you want to be, and that’s what we want to be,” Roof said. “So we have to prepare that way, but, at the same time, we have to be smart-tough, not dumb-tough.”
To strike a balance, Auburn has practiced at a variety of tempos this August: live, thud and tracking.
On live days, everybody except quarterbacks wearing the orange, non-contact jerseys are fair game. Players are tackled to the ground, just like in a game.
When the team uses thud tempo, defensive players remain physical, hitting and wrapping up ballcarriers, but they do not take them to the ground. At a tracking tempo, players read and pursue like they would in a game, but they do not hit.
“I think it helps, actually,” junior linebacker Craig Stevens said. “I think it keeps us fresh because, even when we thud, we’re still basically tackling, just not taking to the ground. Then, when we’re tracking, we’re still working on our fundamentals, running to the proper help and everything, so I think it’s going to help us.”
Last week was a perfect example of Auburn’s balancing act. The team had Monday off, setting up for a physical, full-contact practice Tuesday.
“Everybody was kind of shocked,” cornerback Walt McFadden said. “Everything was live, and, once we started picking up the tempo, everybody started just hitting and giving it all-out like it was a game, because (Chizik) kept preaching, ‘Game tempo. Game tempo. Game tempo,’ in everything that we’ve done.”
Contact was tailed back in Wednesday and Thursday’s practices. Friday, the team went to the stadium to do situational work while wearing shorts and helmets.
Despite the limited contact, Chizik and the players think they’ve done enough to prepare themselves for the season.
“He doesn’t want to take nobody into that stadium if we’re going to play soft,” McFadden said. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”