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Auburn begins prepping for Kentucky

The Tigers are ready to start tackling players other than themselves.

And in less than two weeks — in front of a Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd slimmed down by 80 percent but still starving to see their team in action — the orange and blue will begin their pandemic-altered, 2020 season.

To add to the anticipation, Auburn’s matchup against Kentucky is currently a top-25 showdown (the only ranked game of the SEC’s opening slate), with the Wildcats sliding into the rankings at No. 23 and Auburn moving up to No. 8 in this week’s AP poll.

Sept. 26 can’t get here soon enough for Gus Malzahn and company. But there’s plenty of work to be done in the 12 days before kickoff.

Auburn's defense runs after the team's scrimmage last Saturday.
Auburn's defense runs after the team's scrimmage last Saturday. (Todd Van Emst / Auburn Athletics)

“We’re going to start transitioning the next two weeks to Kentucky,” Malzahn said Saturday. “We’ve got 15 practices under our belt and we’ve got 10 left. We need to improve and we need to get better in the next two weeks.”

Auburn is without a handful of players in practice due to COVID-19 issues within the team — 10 players in total, to be exact, with half of them presumed starters, according to Malzahn.

They'll be unavailable for practice while they adhere to the team’s coronavirus protocol, which calls for 17 days in quarantine for those who tested positive, and 14 days for those who were contact-traced. Malzahn said Saturday he expects “all those guys” back prior to the first game, but their roles against Kentucky will likely be downsized, as the extent of their game preparation for the next two weeks will only be Zoom meetings and film study.

So Auburn will instead focus on the field this week — focus on what it can control with the players it can use — as it begins its look-ahead to the No. 23 Wildcats.

Auburn officially began Kentucky prep Sunday, though the coordinators and coaching staff started studying the SEC East foe as soon as they learned who they’d be opening the season with last month.

Kentucky has won 18 games over the past two seasons. The ‘Cats should be held together by a defense that returns eight starters from a unit that ranked top 40 in yards per play, No. 2 nationally in pass defense and tied for No. 1 in passing touchdowns allowed last season.

“Once again, just trying to get our guys game-shape ready and start hitting different scenarios and situations,” Malzahn said over the weekend. “The next two weeks will be a lot more about Kentucky and getting game-ready.”

Auburn's last matchup against UK came during the 2015 season. Sean White (13) quarterbacked the Tigers to a 30-27 win in Lexington.
Auburn's last matchup against UK came during the 2015 season. Sean White (13) quarterbacked the Tigers to a 30-27 win in Lexington. (David Stephenson / AP Images)

In last Saturday’s all-important scrimmage — in which coaches hoped to “solidify” starting groups, and winners and losers at various position battles — Malzahn said Auburn didn’t commit a turnover but instead dealt with discipline issues, with too many yellow flags thrown by the scrimmage officials. It’s not a totally unexpected theme, with less reps as a unit after Auburn had no spring practices, but that doesn’t mean Malzahn will excuse unnecessary setbacks when the season begins.

“The thing that stood out to me is we had more penalties today that we had the two previous combined (scrimmages),” Malzahn said. “Being two weeks away that’s very concerning. We’ve got to get that cleaned up.”

Malzahn knows one of the more prominent side effects of a shortened offseason for teams across the country could be poor tackling, as well, so he and his staff are keeping a close eye on players wrapping up and finishing off defensive stops.

“Overall, I think we’ve tackled pretty well, definitely considering we didn’t go through spring,” Malzahn said. “That has been a big emphasis and we’ve tackled more this fall camp than any other. I’m sure most teams are doing that because tackling is going to be at a premium, especially early in the season.

“The pre-snap penalties, obviously we’ve got to clean up, and the urgency. I talked to the guys right after the scrimmage and felt our urgency has to be better and better every single day leading up to game time.”

In the 10 practices that remain leading up to kickoff on the Plains against UK, Auburn most of all hopes its players can stay focused on the Wildcats and the season ahead, and not dwell on who is and who isn’t at practice — and who may or may not play in the game.

Instead, Malzahn wants his Tigers — particularly players further down the depth chart who may not have gotten as many meaningful snaps this season otherwise — to relish their newfound playing time, and take advantage of the opportunities they’ve been presented.

“I think the teams that can adjust and not get distracted or discouraged and all that and just say, 'Next man up,’” Malzahn said, “that's the teams I think are going to have an advantage.”

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