Auburn practiced inside the confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium on Thursday, but it was closed to the media and to anybody else.
It was sweltering hot, 92 degrees and sunny, and the blinding August sun reflected off the empty bleachers inside the 87,000-plus-seat stadium.
If that sounds miserable, you’re probably not too far off. Then Gus Malzahn stepped to the podium in Jordan-Hare’s media room and broke the news that it was not quite a banner day for the Tigers’ offense. Even less so for the Tigers’ two quarterbacks (Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood) amid a battle for the starting spot.
Malzahn said the team worked on punt, punt return and third-down scenarios, followed by a traditional scrimmage of around 84 plays.
“Our defense had an outstanding day,” Malzahn said. “Getting turnovers, that’s the focus for us. They did a super job with that.”
There are two sides to this story, the first being that Malzahn might be right that the Tigers’ defense could be the best since he took the head-coaching job. Malzahn said he was most excited by turnovers, and the Tigers defense forced a few on Thursday.
That defense forced a fumble and three interceptions — neither Malzahn nor the players available would say who threw them — and one of those interceptions was a pick-six by cornerback Javaris Davis (according to defensive lineman Nick Coe). Coe even questioned the legitimacy of the one touchdown the Tigers’ offense scored on the day.
“The defense dominated,” Coe said. “I think that it’s really good for us because it shows the defense is still there, and the offense needs to improve, and we can develop everything.”
The turnovers are, in a way, a positive sign, and a step in the right direction for the Tigers’ defense. It ranked 34th in the country in turnovers gained last season (22 total), and grabbed 14 total interceptions.
Defensive lineman Derrick Brown said he thought the defense had an “average” day.
Brown could not narrow down just exactly what needed to improve, instead opting to say “everything.” Auburn ranked 30th in the nation in third-down percentage defense a season ago, 38th in total defense and outside the top 50 in red-zone defense.
“We’re not, right now, where we want to be,” Brown said. “We want to be a dominant defense this year.”
The flip side is this: Auburn’s quarterbacks, still fighting for a starting job, threw three interceptions and a pick-six in their first scrimmage of the fall. And up on the docket first is Oregon, a top-15 team by many accounts with a demonstrated ability to score points.
The date with Oregon in Arlington, Texas won’t come until the end of August, so there’s still plenty of time for both quarterbacks to adjust. Malzahn did not seem worried — again, it’s the first scrimmage of the fall — and said it “takes some time to get the quarterbacks and receivers on the same page.”
“I think there was one (interception) that went off a receiver, that had a chance to catch it,” Malzahn said. “The other one, the safety made a great play. But hey, really good that our defense had an outstanding day.”