AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn kicks off spring practice Tuesday, marking the earliest the Tigers have started since Gus Malzahn became the head coach.
When asked for the reasoning behind the decision, Malzahn pointed to the hire of Will Muschamp.
"We decided to split it up a little bit. Go five practices, have our spring break and then come back and have 10," he said. "Just strategically, with a new defensive coordinator coming in, (it gives us) a little bit more time to put our defense in and to teach everything."
As it was, the unit collapsed at the end of last season. The Tigers allowed 30-plus points in six of their final seven games, including five straight SEC contests. That led to the firing of Ellis Johnson.
So if Auburn's defense is to show immediate improvement next season, this spring is integral.
"He's going to install his defense from the ground up, and spring is going to be that foundation where he's laying the foundation," Malzahn said. "So it's very important."
Malzahn also didn't dispute that Muschamp and his assistants — linebackers coach Lance Thompson, defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner (the only holdover from Johnson's staff) — are still figuring things out. Without having been on the field yet, they don't know which players might need to move positions. In the early going, Malzahn wouldn't be surprised to see defensive players "mix and match" at different spots.
But he was certain Muschamp would fit the pieces together quickly.
"He's been there, done (that) before,: Malzahn said. "Like I've said numerous times before, I believe he's the best in the business at doing it, so we're looking forward to spring, and him implementing his defense."
The Tigers also have questions offensively. Most of the focus will be on the game's premier position, where Auburn has to replace Nick Marshall. Jeremy Johnson, a rising junior, is expected to win the job. And from the outset, Malzahn said he'll receive the reps with the first-team.
That doesn't mean he has a stranglehold on the spot, though. Sean White, who redshirted last year, will also get his opportunities to prove he should become the starter.
The same goes for Jason Smith, a junior college transfer.
"Jason Smith's a guy that we've known about for a long time. (We) recruited him a long time," Malzahn said. "You know, he's got some outstanding skills. We're going to give him a chance to compete for the quarterback spot. He's very talented, very athletic, and we're glad that we have him."
At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Smith has drawn comparisons to Marshall due to his dual-threat capabilities. For now, Malzahn would like that talk to be put on hold.
"I think after spring, I'll have a better idea (how) to answer that question," he said, "but right now, he's going to have an equal opportunity to win the position. He's got a skill set that fits what we do."
There are other spots where the Tigers are looking to replace key cogs from last year, including H-back, center and receiver. Heading into Tuesday, there are some favorites, sure. But nothing is ever guaranteed.
Malzahn knows once spring practice concludes in April, the best player at every spot will have emerged.
"Every position is going to be open. That's the great thing about spring," Malzahn said. "We're going to put the ball down, let guys compete. You know, we've got a bunch of young, inexperienced guys that we think are going to be very good football players. But in the spring, that's when you evaluate everything and give everybody a chance to compete for positions."