AUBURN, Ala. — It's been a long time coming, but Auburn is finally a complete team.
For the first time since the team reconvened for fall camp Aug. 1, the Tigers will take to the practice field with a full complement of players. Head coach Gus Malzahn made the announcement in the opening statement of his weekly press conference Tuesday.
“To heal up was a big factor,” he said. “Today will be the first day we'll actually have our entire team going through practice, which is a very positive thing moving forward.”
Malzahn might have forgotten about receiver Jaylon Denson — who had season-ending surgery last week to repair a torn patellar tendon — but that wasn’t the point. The only other offensive player slowed by an ailment was running back Corey Grant, who Malzahn said “had a good week of practice,” following his limited role in the LSU game, which saw the junior carry the ball just two times for nine yards.
“We expect him to be ready to go,” Malzahn said.
But Denson’s and Grant’s wounds don’t hold a candle to the defense, which has been ravaged by injuries since the opening week of the season. The Tigers’ injured defenders include a pair of starters coming out of fall camp in cornerback Chris Davis (foot) and defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker (knee) as well as Craig Sanders (injury undisclosed), who started the first three games of the season at left defensive end in place of the then-injured Dee Ford.
Jonathan Jones, the team’s top backup at cornerback, will also make his return after breaking a bone in his ankle days before fall camp concluded.
“We’ve had some big blows defensively as far as injuries go,” Malzahn said. “Anytime that happens, especially to impact players, and some of them are definitely impact players, you’ve kind of got to mix and match. Hopefully we’ll stay healthier moving forward and we’ll get some stability and improve.”
Another Tiger is close to making a long-awaited return. Sophomore defensive end Keymiya Harrell, who had knee surgery in the spring, has been working his way back to 100 percent ever since.
“He’s out there and he’s getting better,” Malzahn said.
Regaining their health isn’t the only thing the Tigers worked on during the bye week. With extra time to evaluate players and position groups, Malzahn said changes to the depth chart could be in the offing.
“We evaluate everything and try to get a plan moving forward that gives us the best chance of being successful and the best chance of improving each week,” he said. “Saturday you could see a few little tweaks and all that.”
Tigers look to replicate Red Wolves’ success
This Saturday’s matchup comes at a time that was significant for Malzahn’s team last year, as his Arkansas State squad hit its stride beginning in the first week of October. Arkansas State’s victory over Florida International on Oct. 4 last year marked the first of eight straight wins to end the 2012 campaign.
Malzahn said it was “definitely our hope” that the Tigers could pull off something similar this season.
“The fact that we were able to remove ourselves from the weekly grind of trying to scheme up someone and all that (means) we can sit back and just get really good at what we feel like we need to get good at,” he said. “ Obviously it had to help our quarterback to slow down and really focus on some things that we feel like we could be strong in. And really defensively, (it’s) the same thing.”
When asked about the importance of the month as a whole, Malzahn wouldn’t take the bait. He reverted to coach-speak, saying Auburn is focusing on “one game at a time.”
This week, that means Ole Miss is the only thing on the minds of Auburn’s coaches and players.
“We're not taking anything for granted,” Malzahn said. “They're very important as we're building this thing. We understand this is a big game. We're playing at home, playing against a very good opponent. We're not thinking ahead, I'll put it that way.”
Davis may be back returning punts this Saturday. Malzahn won’t come to a decision on it until he sees how the senior cornerback responds during practice. “We’ll see how he does this week,” he said. Malzahn said Brandon Fulse and Melvin Ray continue to make progress in their competition to replace Denson. “Both of those guys got reps at that position (last week) and feel comfortable,” he said. “That has been good.”