AUBURN, Ala. — The players at hand will dictate the play-calling.
Gus Malzahn has never wavered from that stance. Give him a team that needs to lean on the running game, and he'll make it work — as he proved last season when Auburn led the nation in rushing. But with Nick Marshall back for another go-round and the addition of highly-regarded junior college receiver D'haquille Williams, Malzahn vowed the offense would take on a more balanced look in the coming season.
If Saturday's A-Day game was any indication, the Tigers are well on their way to resembling that unit.
Mixing it up perfectly between the ground and the air, Auburn's first-team offense — donning blue jerseys and teaming with the second-team defense — dominated en route to a 58-3 victory against the overmatched White team.
Afterward, Auburn's coach didn't deny the Tigers were trying to make a statement with their aerial bombardment.
"The emphasis, obviously, was on throwing the football," said Malzahn, whose blue team threw for 386 yards and six touchdowns. "That's been one of our main points offensively this spring. It was good to see our guys throwing and catching the ball in front of a crowd."
The lion's share of those yards came on the arm of Marshall, voted the game's offensive most valuable player by media members. The rising senior completed 59.1 percent (13-for-22) of his attempts for 236 yards and four touchdowns, all in the first half.
Even compared to three months ago, Malzahn said his quarterback has grown leaps and bounds.
"I think the big thing is just (him) being more comfortable," he said. "You can see him in the pocket — he’s just more under control, his balance is good. His eyes and his progressions are good, so you can tell he’s really improved."
And he may have found a new favorite target: Williams.
The top-ranked junior college player in the country last season, Williams had a dazzling debut effort Saturday, notching a game-high five receptions for 88 yards. Included in that total was a 3-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. There wasn't much to it; Marshall looked to his right, saw Williams in one-on-one coverage and let his receiver go up and make a play.
Williams didn't meet with reporters after the game, but his teammates were more than happy to sing his praises.
"He’s going to be a beast, man," senior receiver Quan Bray said. "We’re just going to feed off of him and that will help everyone else feed off each other and make plays."
In his four years at Auburn, Bray said he couldn't recall seeing a player blend in so quickly. From Day 1, Williams' maturity level — and the fact he made head-turning catches — impressed his fellow receivers.
"To come in and do what he’s done, I guess he wasn’t the No. 1 receiver for no reason," Bray said of Williams' stature in the junior college ranks.Not that Williams had all the fun Saturday.
In fact, Bray had more touchdown catches (two) and yards (89) than Williams despite having two fewer receptions. The first touchdown was a 59-yarder from Marshall in the first quarter, with no defensive back anywhere in sight. The only time he could recall such an easy score was last year against Mississippi State, when the defender who was guarding him slipped, allowing him to run untouched for a 76-yard touchdown.
His second score Saturday took a bit more work, as he was defended step for step. Still, once Marshall locked in on him, Bray knew he had to make the catch.
"Nick’s got some big eyes, and when they light up, everybody sees it," he said. "When I saw his eyes light up, I knew it was coming."
That's not to say the Tigers forgot about the running game, though.
Corey Grant maximized on his limited touches, running for 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. His chief competition for the starting spot, Cameron Artis-Payne, ran for a touchdown of his own, finishing with 97 yards on 12 carries.
The Blue team tallied 271 yards on the ground, leaving Malzahn pleased with the running game heading into the fall.
"Probably the first couple of weeks we focused on getting better up front, pad level, working to the second level," he said. "Cameron’s had a very good spring as well as Corey."
But even with the positives one could take away from Saturday — be it the emergence of the passing game, the continued exemplary play by the running backs or a commanding showing by the first-team defense — Malzahn kept his focus solely on where the team is lacking.
The only way the Tigers can rectify that, he said, is through more work this offseason.
"They understand that, but I think they have a good idea about the foundation of our offense and our defense," Malzahn said. "and I think they’ve got the tools now to work this summer and try to get better. "