AUBURN, Ala. — This isn't Will Muschamp's first rodeo when it comes to installing a defensive philosophy. By his count, this spring is the sixth time he's had to implement his system with a new team. And five practices in to his second stint as Auburn's defensive coordinator, Muschamp believes things have gone well, for a pair of reasons.
One is that he's gotten more efficient in his teaching.
"(There has been) a lot of trial and error through those (previous) years," he said earlier this month, "and figuring out probably the best ways to get things taught in a timely manner for the players."
The other is the NCAA loosening the restrictions on offseason interaction between players and the coaching staff. Coaches are now allowed to sit down with players and go over film prior to spring practice starting.
"I think we've done a nice job in our offseason because of the new rules being able to meet with them more on football," he said. "We were much more prepared coming in."
Even though Auburn's defenders may be a bit farther along in learning Muschamp's scheme than other units he's coached, the Tigers aren't being graded on that knowledge.
"All I told them is, 'Listen, effort's on you right now. The execution's on us, and eventually you've got to learn to execute within the scheme and what we're trying to do. Just give us effort right now and we'll coach the rest of it,'" Muschamp said. "Right now, I've been somewhat pleased."
In Muschamp's mind, "playing hard" is a talent. But all the effort in the world won't get a player on the field if he can't make plays when it counts.
"I told them too, 'There’s going to come a point in time if you can’t execute, you can’t play,'" he said. "When we've got to repeat something over and over again, that’s when you get to the point and you tell the player you can’t do it and go to the next guy."
Muschamp said that day is coming soon. In the five practices the Tigers had prior to last week's spring break, they had just started to go over "middle field concepts." If, at the end of this week — which will signify Auburn passing the halfway point of the spring, having held eight practices of the 15 permitted by the NCAA — there are players who are struggling to retain the fundamentals of Muschamp's system, it doesn't bode well for their chances of seeing the field this fall.
"Once we've installed something, we've been over it," he said. "We've talked about it. We've watched the film. We've had an opportunity to rep it and then we’re (still) not getting it, then we may have a problem."
Part of what the coaching staff is evaluating is volume: How much can they handle mentally in committing those concepts to memory?
The goal is, at some point in the coming season, for the defense to be playing at such a high level that opponents have to exhaust rarely-used parts of their playbook to move the ball against the Tigers.
"Hopefully if we play well during the season, we’re going to get into a game and somebody is going to do something totally different we haven’t prepared for," Muschamp said. "That’s a great compliment to your defense because it means they don’t think they can beat you doing your normal stuff."