AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn assistant coach Trooper Taylor, who oversees the Tigers’ punt return unit, deferred questions relating to that group to head coach Gene Chizik.
“He’s taken over that,” Taylor said. “As a matter of fact, when that last ball hit the ground (against Furman last week), I saw him coming and I thought I’d go the other way.”
Chizik provided few answers Wednesday about the Tigers’ struggling punt return unit, which ranks 114th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with a 3.8-yard average. He said Auburn will likely decide on a returner by the end of today’s practice.
The Tigers have sought a returner all year. The latest to try, redshirt freshman Philip Pierre-Louis, had two returns for negative yards last week against Furman before muffing a catch inside the Tigers’ 5-yard line. The Paladins recovered and scored a touchdown.
It was Auburn’s sixth fumble or muff this season. Three have led to turnovers.
“It’s an embarrassment to our football team right now,” Taylor said.
Pierre-Louis, Anthony Gulley, Demond Washington and Mario Fannin have all returned punts this year.
“I don’t know exactly what direction we’re going to go at this point, but we’ve worked other options,” Chizik said,
“That position, as we’ve experienced this year, is so mental. It’s almost like a baseball batter. ... We’ve obviously, to use that analogy, been in a slump.”
Auburn has worked Gulley, a do-all freshman, on defense most of the week at practice to try to shore up its situation at cornerback, a group made thinner with sophomore D’Antoine Hood (Central-Phenix City) battling the flu this week. But Gulley will dabble on offense as well.
“He’s obviously an offensive player at heart,” Chizik said. “But, again, with our situation (at safety) ... we really have to do that. So he’s been able to get a little bit of the corner concepts.”
Gulley will serve as a speed sweep option on offense with running back Onterio McCalebb (ankle) still day-to-day with an ankle injury and receiver Travante Stallworth (knee) out, possibly for the season. Gulley, a wide receiver by trade, scored on touchdown runs of 13 and 50 yards last week as a running back, despite never having played there at the college level.
“He’s going to be in that (speed sweep) role,” Chizik said. “How much we use him in that, we’ll see, but he’s definitely able to do it.”
Taylor said junior Tim Hawthorne will have an increased role Saturday as a slot receiver.
Hawthorne, who entered the summer as a projected No. 1 receiver, hasn’t made much of an impact since breaking his foot in July. He returned after missing only two games but watched as Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery thrived as starters.
He caught his first pass last week against Furman for 3 yards.
“The thing about Tim that he’s done is he’s fought through some wraths, mostly mine, with what he had to do on that football field,” Taylor said. “Especially once you’ve been injured, you have to be able to mentally come back from that, as well as physically. He’s made it back. He’s really done a good job.”
Hawthorne would split time with tight end Tommy Trott as Auburn’s third receiver.
Taylor, as with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, has seen his name pop up as a candidate for the Memphis head coaching job in the wake of Tommy West’s firing.
“It’s flattering; that’s about it,” Taylor said. “To be real honest — and I’ve got questions about that and e-mails and things — the big deal for me is I’m focused on doing what we’re doing right now. There’s always a time and a place for that.
“My goals are to be a head coach one day, but, right now, my goal is to help this team become a championship-caliber football team.”