AU's changes: Turn them loose, let them play
by Joe Medley
Mar 29, 2012 | 7781 views | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik watches players run through drills during practice Wednesday in Auburn (AP Photo/The Birmingham News, Hal Yeager)
Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik watches players run through drills during practice Wednesday in Auburn (AP Photo/The Birmingham News, Hal Yeager)
AUBURN — Insights into changes under Auburn’s two new coordinators come in trickles and tea leaves during the era of mostly closed practices, but they do come.

After four spring-practice sessions, including Wednesday’s two-hour workout in full pads, Auburn assistant coaches and players let loose interesting tidbits about life under new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

For starters, things are getting less cerebral on defense.

“A lot easier,” defensive line coach Mike Pelton said. “To me, it’s a defense that, as a defensive lineman, you want to play in it.

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“It emphasizes all get-off (the ball). It emphasizes penetration. It emphasizes going and playing football.”

After three years of mediocre-at-best defense under former coordinator Ted Roof, any change will come as welcome news to Auburn fans.

Some of the struggles had to do with youth on defense, a problem cured by time and physical development.

But that youth had a lot of thinking to do under former coordinator Ted Roof. Now that he has taken his playbook to Penn State, players and coaches he left behind seem to welcome VanGorder’s abridged version.

“There aren’t a lot of checks in this defense,” Pelton said. “It basically lets them play.

“To me, it’s a lot easier to play,” Pelton said. “It’s a lot easier to play as a defensive lineman. I can turn them loose and let them play.”

Some of Roof’s best successes came when he kept it simple. He took that approach going into Auburn’s victory over Oregon in the 2010 Bowl Championship Series final, going with just a few calls against Oregon’s fast-paced offense.

The Tigers held the Ducks to 19 points.

VanGorder apparently wants to keep it simple all the time. Pelton whole-heartedly welcomes the change.

“You get good players and let them play,” he said. “Sometimes, I thought we were paralyzing them last year by there being so many things they had to think about before the ball was snapped.

“This right here? Not a lot to think about. Get off the football, use your hat and hands and go make plays.”

Among the changes is less gap control by the defensive line.

“We’re trying to knock them back,” Pelton said. “We still play a gap, defensive, but it’s more about, ‘Let’s play gaps on their side.’ It’s more vertical.

“Everybody in the country does it.”

As for life under Loeffler, some players clearly see the chance to start over. Take wide receiver DeAngelo Benton, a senior who has yet to live up the considerable billing he brought when he signed in 2009.

“I think he’s a great guy,” Benton said of Loeffler. “I’ve liked him since the first day he stepped here.

“He doesn’t have favorites. If you do right, he’ll tell you. If you do wrong, he’ll let you know. He treats everyone the same.”

Is this a shot at former coordinator Gus Malzahn, now head coach at Arkansas State? Benton didn’t exactly thrive under Malzahan, after all.

Consider this from wide receiver Emory Blake, who certainly thrived under Malzahn.

“It’s very different,” Blake said of the new offense. “Coming into the spring, not knowing the offense, as from last year, coming in and knowing it like the back of your hand, is very different, but I think it’s healthy for us to get something fresh and new in here and bring some excitement, actually.

“I’m excited, personally, for our team and offense as a whole.”

Malzahn ran a spread-style system, and Loeffler will go more with a pro-style offense. It means quarterbacks working under center more instead of almost exclusively in the shotgun.

“It’s different all around,” Blake said. “People are not used to seeing under center a lot, and there’s a lot more of that, and you know, just the whole offense is very different from what Malzahn brought.

“Just very excited for a fresh new start.”

Blake hinted at several new looks, including more tight end-oriented formations and more varied use of his skills.

“Definitely more tight end sets, even more moving around — not always being to the boundary,” he said. “Sometimes, being to the field is going to help, and stuff like that will definitely help me get open a little bit more, and it will help other guys get open more, as well.”

One thing that won’t change is emphasis on the run. Malzahn ran a hurry-up offense with spread-like formations, but Auburn had at least one thousand-yard rusher in each of his three years as coordinator.

Loeffler will come at it with a more power formations and a more physical mindset.

“There are times in every football game when you have to be able to run the football, and everybody knows you have to run the football, and those kinds of things help you do that,” offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said.

“If you’re under center, you have more people on the field, maybe more people at the point of attack, whatever the case may be, I think it gives you more options.”

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576, or follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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