The Auburn Tigers hit the practice fields for the first time in preparation for the 2012 season on Friday, as Gene Chizik and a pair of new coordinators led the team through practice inside the indoor facility on a rainy day on the Plains.
"We were anticipating this day and we were anxious for this day to come," Chizik said. "I feel like our players did a really nice job of focusing and they've been really excited. I was pleased with the day and I thought it was a good day."
It was the first time Chizik's team has been under the direction of new coordinators Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder. Chizik understands the journey ahead, but is happy with the youthful exuberance displayed.
"They are trying to learn new verbiage, new concepts, things of that nature," said Chizik. "Today was the first day we got to put it into action, ti was a good day. We have so far to go, but a lot of young guys running around out there trying to improve and increase their football knowledge."
Auburn is looking to bounce back from a 8-5 season, and a season that included blowout losses to Rivals LSU, Georgia, and Alabama. The Tigers are welcoming back 18 players who played as true freshman a year ago, plus redshirts, and overall return an immense amount of young talent.
Competition will be at an all-time high, but Chizik is keeping things in perspective.
"It's certainly an important spring. There's no question about that," Chizik said. "This is a fun time for us. It's a little different flavor than the previous three years simply because of the newness of some of the things we're doing on both sides of the ball. Our special teams are the only constant thing that we've had the previous three years. Every position has a chance to compete for a job."
While the media was closely watching Loeffler and VanGorder as Auburn worked for the first time under their tutelage, Chizik wasn't. When he made the hires, he knew what they were all about.
"I feel really confident in all of the guys that I hired. True professionals," Chizik said. "I watch everything in practice, but it's fun to watch the new guys out there. Some new blood. Some new life. I think for the players as well. Overall it was just kind of good for everybody to get that first day under their belt.
"On your first day of practice, there's a lot of moving parts everywhere, whether you have a new coach or not. Today it was a good first day for our new coaches because everybody does practices different, so the structure of practice and the tempo of practice, that was the main thing that they were able to kind of just go with the flow in terms of how practice unfolds. That was good for them to be out there. They did a great job today. They were all uptempo and high-tempo, just like we like it.
"For them, I think it was a productive first day."
VanGorder, Loeffler make debuts
For Loeffler, it was like the first day of spring practice was preparing to play in Jordan-Hare Stadium on a fall afternoon. For VanGorder, it was just another start to spring ball, a day he's been through many times before.
"Yeah, it was exciting. You walked in here, it's one of the best places in America," Loeffler said. "You're with a bunch of great young football players. It felt like it was game day today. The enthusiasm of the coaches, along with the players, was excellent."
VanGorder has been through the battles as an SEC defensive coordinator and an NFL defensive coordinator. He knows what to expect and gave a quick response to whether he lost sleep leading up to the first day of practice.
"Too old now," said VanGorder. "I think it was rather typical, kind of expected much of it, and by that I mean real good energy. The guys are excited about the first day, and therefore sometimes that energy works as a negative. That would be rather typical of our brand new system, brand new language, brand new discipline. There were a lot of mistakes out there, but the energy was good. That was the positive."
There's a reason VanGorder has experienced success wherever he's been. He wants perfection, even on the first day.
"I find myself frustrated a number of times," said VanGorder. "I was prepared going in for exactly that. It just bothers you with bad execution. It's totally understandable. Now, we have a chance to have it on film. I thought they were settling down as the practice went down, gaining confidence, communicating better."
Loeffler's enthusiasm was very clear, and appeared happy with the ability of the quarterbacks to begin to grasp the new offense and everything it entails.
"It was great. The kids came out with great enthusiasm, we got through our first installation, which was exciting," Loeffler said. "There's a lot of moving parts, but for the most part they did a great job handling the new terminology, and they were really into it. It was really an exciting first day."
Loeffler plans nine to ten different installations throughout spring practice and was pleasantly surprised with the play of Kiehl Frazier, Clint Moseley, and freshman Zeke Pike.
"We're going to see how that goes. It's a day-by-day process," he said. "If you go out on an installation and you don't quite pick it up, you've got to put on the brakes, so we're going to take it day by day.'
"We've got three young guys that are battling, and they're doing everything in their power to help Auburn win. We've got two that are really young. Clint's obviously new to the system, so I treat him the same. In my mind, they're all freshmen, and they did a nice job for the first day. Again, there's moving parts, there's new terminology, there's new this, there's new that, and the quarterback position, there's a lot of information they need to know, and they handled it quite well on Day 1."
Freshman Jermaine Whitehead burst onto the scene last season with 31 tackles and an interception returned for a touchdown. Whitehead, playing mostly nickel, did earn a start against Alabama at the end of the season. Now, Whitehead is back competing for playing time at corner, but another position has Whitehead's focus also.
VanGorder said Whitehead, the former valedictorian of Greenville High School in Mississippi, is also learning the safety position in addition to corner, and was impressive in his first day.
"That's the one guy in our defense we're going to kind of move around and get a good feel for him," VanGorder said. "Down the road, there will probably be more of that. Like I told them, there's no depth chart; don't panic about it. It will sort itself out. There are a couple of guys we'll cross-train -- we'll cross-train linebackers, which is normal for us."
**Defensive end Nosa Eguae is sitting out this spring after left shoulder surgery on his labrum. "I'm getting better every single day. I'm just doing what the trainers are asking me to
try to do too much. Just taking it day by day," he said.
Eguae is already impressed with VanGorder and his intensity:
"He's a guy that he expects a lot. He expects a lot from everybody, not just the players, it's everybody, the coaches. Everybody that's going out there trying to do what's right for Auburn. It's all about Auburn, it's all about Auburn defense, it's all about being the No. 1 defense in the nation. And that's what he says, and he means it. And we mean it too. And we're going to go out there and do whatever it takes to get there.
"Just watching from the sidelines, I saw the same approach from him I saw in meetings and this whole offseason. He's so amped up he's so fired up about football, you feed off of it. You feed off it as a player and I see the guys out there and they're doing whatever it takes to make sure that they do their job. Coaches, everybody out there is on the same page, going out there to make sure Auburn is the No. 1 defense in the nation next year."
**Linebacker Jake Holland returns as a leader in the linebacker corps heading into the 2012 season. Holland believes the new defense will require even more communication than ever before:
"Yeah, there's actually even more communication - not just from me but from every position. The linebackers, especially the middle linebacker and the safeties - a lot of communication going on pre-snap and post-snap. I wouldn't say it's more complex, but I would say it's very different. But at the same time, there are a lot of similarities."
Holland is also jacked to have new linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen coaching him up. Holland and Thigpen have a close relationship going back to when Thigpen recruited Holland out of Pelham High School in Birmingham.
"I love Thig. Me and Thig have a personal relationship and he's a great coach. A great teacher as well. I've learned a lot from him just even from the first couple days in training," Holland said.
**Chizik said Auburn has filed a waiver to clear incoming fullback Jay Prosch to play next fall. Prosch reported at 253-pounds and Chizik is encouraged with the mentality and toughness he will bring to the team.
"Just really, really pleased with Jay," Chizik said. "Just from the day he got here, the work ethic that he brings to our team. He's been great. He's been everything that we had hoped he would be. He's a tough guy. We've seen him play college football so we're not guessing as to whether he can play or not. he's a tremendous worker. Football means a lot to him. He's been a great addition to our team."
**Chizik also commented on the status of Shon Coleman, saying, "right now he has not been cleared. Until he is, then his status is going to be the same. He was able to work out with us in the winter workouts and he's really done well in that regard. But he's not been cleared to actually play football yet."
**Along the injury front, here are the Tigers missing spring practice as confirmed by Chizik: Kenneth Carter, Eguae, Philip Lutzenkirchen, Jonathan Evans, and Ladarious Phillips. Carter, Eguae, Lutzenkirchen, and Evans were all in the "banged up" category, while Phillips is dealing with "personal problems" according to Chizik.
Chizik said corner T'Sharvan Bell is in good spirits back out on the practice field with his teammates again and believes Bell is ahead of schedule.
"'T' is really in a good place right now in terms of where we thought he'd be versus where he is," Chizik said. "I think if there's any positive for T and that knee injury, is that it's not his first one. The mentality of the rehab for him, he understands that. He's really ahead of where we thought he would be.
"What he's going to be able to do before we finish spring ball, probably not a lot in terms of practice, DB skill work. But I am happy that he's ahead of where we thought he would be at this time. He's really making some huge strides. That's really encouraging for fall practice."
Chizik also confirmed that junior college transfer defensive end Joel Bonomolo has left the team and will focus on graduation.