AUBURN, Ala. — Rhett Lashlee didn’t mince words.
In his short coaching career, Auburn’s offensive coordinator couldn’t recall being around a team as careless with the ball as this year’s Tigers. Through four games, Auburn’s offense has put the ball on the ground 12 times. The Tigers have been fortunate in one regard, though: Of those 12 fumbles, only four resulted in turnovers.
Regardless, the mistakes are unacceptable, Lashlee said, and must be remedied immediately.
“It's just not to our standard, even (on) the plays that we don't turn the football over,” he said. “That has been a huge emphasis last week and this week and our guys are really taking it personal and they should. That's the only way we can get it fixed.”
Not surprisingly, Nick Marshall has been involved in more of the miscues than anyone. He does touch the ball nearly every play, after all. For that reason, the junior quarterback has been credited — fairly or not — with five fumbles, losing two. Unlike Marshall, Tre Mason’s fumbles haven’t bounced the team’s way. The two times he has dropped the ball this season, it ended up in the hands of the other team.
Mason’s fellow running backs haven’t been able to escape the fumbling epidemic.
Corey Grant has fumbled once, while Cameron Artis-Payne was involved in a mishandled exchange with Marshall on a fourth-and-one attempt during the first possession of the LSU game.
It hasn’t just been an issue with players in the backfield, either.
Punter Steven Clark couldn’t corral a snap against LSU, which led to Auburn turning the ball over at the 10-yard line. One play later, LSU had a 14-0 lead. Quan Bray has had a pair of muffed punts, while freshman receiver Marcus Davis also relinquished the ball once this year.
Gus Malzahn couldn’t come up with a reason for his team’s struggles holding on to the football. Instead of laying all the blame at the feet of his players, however, Auburn’s man-in-charge took partial responsibility on behalf of himself and his staff.
“We’ve got to do a better job of emphasizing it and coaching it,” he said. “We’ve really turned up the heat in that area and it’s an area that has to improve. It has been glaring. There have been balls on the ground that we actually got back. That was a big point of emphasis last week and it will be a point of emphasis moving forward.”
What exactly did the team do during the bye week to reiterate the importance of protecting the football?
First and foremost, they enforced instant accountability whenever they detected even a hint of sloppiness.
“Just because a guy doesn't fumble a ball in practice, if you notice that ball's loose, or being a little careless with it, you've got to address it right then,” Lashlee said. “Not just to make a guy go do up-downs or punish him. What you're doing is emphasizing. You're making it every play. Every day, it's on his mind: 'I've got to protect that football.' Because if you don't do that, when they get in the game, it's not going to be second nature. It's got to become something that's a habit, that's ingrained.”
To make sure a routine is established, Lashlee said the coaching staff has paid more attention in practice to how a player is carrying the ball. After blowing the whistle, they go through a rapid-fire review of the previous play.
Was the ball protected properly, or was it swung around with reckless abandon in an attempt to eke out extra yardage? Did the player keep both hands on it? Where were the quarterback's hands when he handed the ball off?
Mundane and obvious as the questions may sound, Lashlee didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
It’s always the little things that seem to matter most.
“We've emphasized (ball security) from Day 1,” Lashlee said. “Obviously, we haven't gotten the point across good enough. But we've re-emphasized it, and turned our level of intensity up on that.”