AUBURN, Ala. — Jermaine Whitehead hasn’t forgot where he came from.
When he was coming up, his family and friends were behind him as he developed into a top-ranked football prospect. That’s why the junior free safety is planning to return to Greenwood, Miss., this weekend to watch his younger brother’s own gridiron exploits.
It’s the right thing to do, after all.
“He’s playing some good ball right now,” Whitehead said. “It’s always good to be supportive of the people who supported you.”
The opportunity has presented itself since Auburn has a bye this Saturday. And like most of his teammates and coaches, Whitehead believed the open date is coming at the perfect time for the Tigers. In Whitehead’s mind, it took on added importance since this is the first year under a new coaching staff.
Much like the coaches are continuing to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their players, the players are still learning the myriad schemes each coach employs.
“We’re going to be able to simplify our defense,” Whitehead said. “We’ve got four different packages that we’ve threw at people this year, and I think we’re going to be able to get the best one and make the best of that situation.”
Aside from being able to use the week to make needed corrections, head coach Gus Malzahn was relieved to have a bye to give his injury-plagued team a chance to recover.
“That may be the biggest blessing of the off week: that we have a chance to get some of our guys healed up,” Malzahn said. “And when you think about being banged up, we got guys that weren't 100 percent that played anyway last week, so hopefully last week will help them get back to 100 percent. And the guys that hadn't played will have a chance to have two weeks before our next game and have a chance to get one of those guys back on the field.”
The Tigers entered the open date on a sour note, however, suffering their first loss of the season last Saturday, as they fell to No. 6 LSU on the road 35-21.
The scene that greeted Malzahn in the postgame locker room pleased him — inasmuch as one can be after a loss. It was somber, and long faces were everywhere he looked.
Malzahn felt that spoke volumes about the team.
“We had some disappointed guys in there, and I think that’s a good thing. They want to win and they’re hungry,” he said. “They’re not happy right now, so I think that’ll help us moving forward. They battled, made some mistakes and they hung together.”
While the defense is thankful to have a week off to regain its health, the offense has other areas it wants to perfect this week; namely, upping its pace of play. The team is averaging 72.5 offensive snaps per contest, seven and a half short of Malzahn’s stated goal of 80.
Auburn ran 85 plays versus LSU. Now, the trick is to keep that up. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said converting third downs was the key to breaking the 80-snap barrier each game, and the bye week could do nothing but help in that endeavor.
“There's no doubt we've got to be able to play faster and more consistent, and it couldn't come at a better time for us to clean us up and get all those little things fixed,” he said. “So (hopefully) the next time we have an opportunity to win a big football game, we can do it.”
With another week until Auburn hosts Ole Miss, many players said they would tune in to watch the Rebels’ game this Saturday.
“That’s going be one of the games (I watch) because we play Ole Miss next week,” sophomore wideout Sammie Coates said. “I think it’s going to give me a good chance to see what their DBs (defensive backs) do with good wide receivers.”
Senior defensive end Nosa Eguae would prefer to go back to his home state of Texas, but didn’t feel he would have enough time to make it worthwhile.
“I'll probably just go down to Atlanta and see some of my boys,” he said. “Just get a day off, chill, watch some college football and be a fan.”
Kris Frost plans to do the same. Even without a game to prepare for this Saturday, the sophomore linebacker said his week will be all football, all the time.
“I love the sport,” he said. “I love watching the sport, love studying the sport and love playing the sport. I’m going to watch it any chance I get.”
Fellow defender Dee Ford took a more nuanced view. Yes, he’ll carve out some time to watch a few games that pique his interest. But he also needs time to refuel mentally.
During that time, the senior said he’ll focus on relaxing and meditating.
“I do like to get away from it a little bit,” he said. “You know, have a day set aside for yourself. But I’m just like (my teammates) — I have to fight it. I have to stay away from the TV. But it’s a good thing to get away from it every now and then.”
Whitehead couldn’t agree more. He’ll head home, cheer on his brother and enjoy one weekend free of football responsibilities. All in all, he said he’ll thoroughly enjoy himself.
He’s a football player for a reason, though.
His passion for the game can only be suppressed for so long.
“It’s going to be a great week for me,” he said, “but I just can’t wait to play again.”