AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn is not one to waste time. His offense and track record are testaments to that.
He’s also not likely to get too wrapped up praising his first-team offense that put up 58 points in the spring game, in part on the improved passing of quarterback Nick Marshall.
Malzahn knows he's got a lot of work to do, and he's not one who wastes his breath.
Malzahn wraps up his second spring camp knowing that 2014 presents new challenges in his effort to repeat as SEC champion.
He has to replace a likely first-round pick in left tackle Greg Robinson. He needs to find a back who can attempt to match the record-setting performance of Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason. He needs to develop his elite young stars along the defensive line after sack master Dee Ford departed for the next level.
And — get this — he wants to do it all at a quicker pace than a year before. He spent all spring working on running his offense even faster than last year's breakneck speed — this from an offense that went from dead last in the SEC at 60.5 plays per game in 2012 to fifth in the league at 73.8 a year ago. With the potential starters in the lineup, Auburn ran 44 plays for 483 yards and 44 points in the first half (just 24 minutes) of the game before the running clock drained the box score in the second half.
No matter how impressive the system, Malzahn knows it all begins and ends with the return of Marshall.
Marshall drew the most buzz Saturday. The former Georgia Bulldog started the game just 3-of-8 passing for 24 yards before settling into a rhythm to earn Offensive MVP honors. The Heisman contender and potential preseason first-team All-SEC quarterback looked like the seasoned veteran Auburn needs him to be on offense. What else should fans expect from a guy who played in an SEC title game and BCS national championship before making his A-Day debut this weekend?
"What he accomplished last year not going through spring is really something," Malzahn said. "He's had a great attitude and he's had a very good spring."
With all of the potential preseason accolades and one full season of highlights under his belt, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee know Marshall needs to improve as a passer to take the next step in his development, and that was clearly a focus on Saturday as the Auburn quarterback attempts 22 passes and ran the ball just once.
"There's no doubt that was part of our plan today," Malzahn said. "Coach Lashlee has worked him extremely hard on his footwork, his timing passing game and he's got a very good grip of our offense right now. He's starting to look very natural."
Marshall finished 13-of-22 passing for 236 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions before sitting the entire second half. Marshall led his offense to points on all seven of his series, including six touchdowns.
To address the need at left tackle, Malzahn and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes used a lot of moving pieces along the offensive front throughout the spring and that didn't change in the spring finale. Reese Dismukes is the leader at center, but he didn't play on Saturday. Chris Slade, Avery Young, Patrick Miller, Shon Coleman and Alex Kozan all played more than one position this spring. Who will fill the void left specifically left by Robinson may still be up in the air, but Coleman got the majority of the snaps at left tackle with the first unit on Saturday and the offense ran behind the big sophomore for more than one touchdown. Malzahn and Lashlee believe they have more depth, experience and versatility now despite the loss of the supremely talented Robinson.
"Our offensive line was a strength last year," Malzahn said. "We got everybody coming back but Greg, so it should be a another strength again. We are starting to get some depth which is very important. Coach Grimes has moved some people around at times just to help with the depth for next fall."
The void left by a Heisman finalist at tailback could be tough to fill. However, Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne and a host of hungry young players proved on Saturday why fans shouldn't be worried about the Auburn running game.
Artis-Payne scored the game's first touchdown from 14 yards out and Grant consistently showed why he could be one of the SEC's most explosive players. The duo combined for 225 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 carries in the first half. Grant carried just five times for 128 yards and had two runs over 35 yards. The Tigers' running game — the one that became the first SEC team to lead the nation in rushing — is going to be just fine this fall without Mason.
That said, one of those young backs fans were eager to see was redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. But on his first carry of the game, Barber fumbled and injured his right ankle/knee. He was carted off and never returned. Malzahn said after the game that Barber is doing fine and won't miss any time.
While the offense looked the part of an SEC champ, the defense has much further to go if it wants to get back to Atlanta. In the nation's toughest conference, one known for its defensive play, the Tigers finished spring practice cautiously optimistic. There is a ton of talent returning, but replacing Dee Ford, Jake Holland and Chris Davis from a unit that ranked 87th nationally at more than 420 yards allowed per game a year ago means that developing the young players was a focus.
"There's no doubt we need to develop our young defensive line players," Malzahn said. "(Defensive line coach) Rodney Garner did a great job with our defensive line last year. He played a lot of people, a lot of young guys and that should help us moving forward. We do have a lot some talent up there and it seems like the guys have improved this spring."
Those guys Malzahn is referring too are, among others, rising sophomore stars Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. Lawson, who may be the most talented of the bunch injured his knee late in camp and wasn't able to participate, and Adams played most of the day for the White team. This side of the ball was dealing with injuries all spring camp, so fans got to see a lot of new faces in new places on defense. Not surprisingly, the first-team defense held the second-team offense in check all day, allowing just 85 total yards and three total points.
Malzahn and coordinator Ellis Johnson know the defensive side of the ball, not the ballyhooed offense, holds the key to another run to Atlanta. Should the young talent develop quickly, Auburn will be as competitive as any team in the nation in '14. And what better way to prepare for football during the wide-open playoff era than practicing against Malzahn's warp-speed offense.
"Ellis Johnson likes it because it really helps our defense get lined up," Malzahn said. "It really helps our communication. It's very good. That's where college football is going and on our schedule, most teams are going to have some type of tempo."
At the end of his second camp as head coach, Malzahn showed he's going to try to take that tempo to the next level.