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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Late night notes: Well-rested Auburn knocks off rust in first practice for BCS title game

Given a two-week break to recover mentally and physically from a taxing regular season, Auburn left tackle Lee Ziemba lounged, settling in to a recliner in front of a large-screen TV for the majority of his time off.

“I enjoyed it,” Ziemba said. “But I started to get a little bored, and it was time to get back to work.”

No. 1 Auburn (13-0) began practice for its BCS national championship game matchup against No. 2 Oregon on Saturday, 14 days after its last action, a 56-17 rout of South Carolina in the SEC championship game.

The result was predictable.

“Really when you have a layoff of any sort — certainly a long one since the championship game — you expect to be a little bit rusty on some things,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “So timing was off a little bit. But again, nothing we didn’t expect. And it was really no different from any first practice for any bowl game.”

While Oregon began practice a week ago, the Tigers put off their return to the field. They did film work the last couple days in advance of the first of nine on-campus practices they’ll have before flying out to Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 3.

Saturday was mostly to devoted to the basics.

“During the season, we spend so much time game planning and making sure we have an answer for all these different defensive schemes,” Ziemba said. “Sometimes the things you learn back in August or back in April kind of slides off a little bit and loses importance. Now that we have a little bit of time to get back to the fundamentals, it’s really an ideal situation.”

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It's been a minute since we've done a practice update, so here are a bunch of notes and quotes from Saturday to get you back into the swing of things:
  • Chizik confirmed what most had long assumed: safety Aairon Savage won't play in the bowl game, meaning his college career is over. “It doesn’t look like that’s going to be a possibility right now,” Chizik said. “Aairon’s really doing a great job being around on our team as a leader and really almost taking on a coaching role for us.”
  • Savage, a sixth-year senior who missed two entire seasons with knee and Achilles’ injuries, broke a bone in his right ankle during the Tigers’ 65-43 win against Arkansas on Oct. 16. After having surgery, he targeted the Iron Bowl as a return date but quickly pushed that back to the bowl game. But it became apparent in the last few weeks that wouldn’t happen either. “It’s sad and of course it’s your last year, you want to be out there, especially this game — the national championship — you want to play in it,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “I know it’d be tough for me if I couldn’t play in it. And it’d be heart-breaking and sad, but he’s taking it and just being a part of this team and not letting it get him down where he can’t be a part of this.”
  • The Tigers practiced on the school’s soccer fields Saturday, across the street from the athletic complex, because construction on the new indoor practice facility has already begun, leaving the existing practice fields torn up. “It was a little different,” Chizik said. “It was good. The weather hasn’t been great, so it was a little challenging just in terms of footing. The facility was great. We’ve just got to get used to going over there and practicing in a different venue. But everything logistically worked out well.”
  • Auburn has the option of going to Jordan-Hare Stadium to practice, although Chizik said the majority of the team’s December practices will be at the soccer field. He said it doesn’t change anything Auburn will do. “That’s the thing: our routine is normal,” he said. “We haven’t really changed anything practice schedule-wise, meeting scheduling-wise. We’ve done everything exactly as we’ve done previously. I’m not sure it’ll have any bearing. If we have to practice in the parking lot, we’ll practice out there. They handled it well tonight.”
  • The practice was especially helpful for quarterback Cam Newton, who has made the rounds on the awards show circuit the last few weeks. “I’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” Chizik said. “It has been a whirlwind ever since the championship game. It’s been 7 to 10 days of basically traveling the world. He’s accepted a lot of awards, which he earned. I think he’s handled everything great. He hasn’t changed a lick, and I think he handled everything very well. The whirlwind’s over. I think he’s ready to get back into football, ready to get back with his team.”
  • How did Newton feel? “I felt rusty,” he said. “Everybody did. We looked like we didn’t play football in two weeks, but that’s normal. We need to have a better practice tomorrow.”
  • Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said Auburn won't try to re-invent itself in the upcoming weeks. "We'll build upon our strengths and tweak our game plan as we go," he said. "Anytime you have a lot of time, you have to be careful about putting in too much. I think we'll have a solid game plan once it's all put in."
  • Chizik on Oregon: "As far as what they do X’s and O’s wise, it’s not anything different than we’ve seen over a 13-game span. A little bit of what this team may do and a little bit of what this team may do. But they do it really well. They do a few things they execute extremely well, they’re very physical and they’ve got great speed. And then the tempo of their offense is very challenging. It’s not that this is a completely different offense from anything you’ve ever seen, it’s just that they execute it better than anybody else.”
  • Oregon, as we know, moves fast. "It's extremely different than any other team," Bynes said. "Within 14 or 18 seconds, they're snapping the ball, and that's pretty fast, considering our offense is what, once every 22 seconds? So that's a very fast pace, but at the same time it's not something we haven't seen before. But the pace is going to be something we ain't ever seen before. We've seen it with our offense but it's a little bit faster. It's going to be a different pace. But we're going to try to get that as close as possible when we're practicing."
  • Bynes said the Ducks' scheme isn't tough to sort out, but stopping running back LaMichael James, the nation's leading rusher, is not easy. "He finds a hole, finds ways to make plays happen," Bynes said. "When he sees a hole and he's just going to run it through as fast as he can, and a lot of times guys miss the tackle and he's out of there. ... You don't really need to do too much when you've got a guy like that. Just give him one play or two and let him run and make things happen."
  • Oregon isn't afraid to run the ball inside, meaning the tackles will have to step up their game. "Coach Rocker came to me and said, ‘They’re going to try to run through the A gap,'"defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. "He put it all on me and Zach (Clayton) and (Mike) Blanc so we’ve got to go out there and hold on in the A gap.”
  • Although Malzhan's offense is based on pushing the pace, Auburn hasn't necessarily done that this year. "At times we did," he said. "After we made a first down, we did. Pace is still a very big part of what we're doing. It's been a big part of our success this year. You've got to make that first first down. That's kind of been our formula."
  • Chizik said the bowl practice time won't be geared more toward the younger players, like it normally is. "They get enough work because of our numbers anyway," he said. "That’s not really the focus of what we’re trying to do right now. And again, today was just getting back to the basics, getting back to blocking and tackling and the timing of things. We just really worked on both sides of the ball.”
  • Malzahn's statements were slightly different (and by slightly, I mean completely): "Getting them those extra practices for those young guys. Especially next year. We're losing a lot of seniors and a lot of older guys. We'll be relying on those (younger) guys. It's very good to see their progression and really give them a chance to get more practice time."
  • Newton and Fairley, two juniors, will have to make decisions about whether or not they enter the NFL Draft after the season. ESPN projects both to be first-round picks, but for now, they’re putting off that talk. “It’s in the back of my mind but I haven’t thought too much about it,” Fairley said. “I’m just trying to get this ring for Auburn.” Newton said in New York that it is something he and his family will sit down and talk about after the season is over.
  • Fairley was very jovial with the media, a change of pace from earlier this year when he was more reserved. "Ya’ll got me prepared," he said. "I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, so it’s starting to come naturally now.”
  • Newton made his fair share of TV appearances after winning the Heisman Trophy last week, but the only time the spotlight got to him was when he read the Top Ten list on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” “That was probably one of the few times I’ve been nervous this year,” he said. “I didn’t know there was that many people watching in the crowd. I thought it was just a handful of people that they had, but it was a big deal.”
  • Ziemba said he hadn't seen Newton's Letterman appearance. "I heard the writers were supposed to be pretty bad," he said. Ziemba claimed he didn't pay attention to any of the rumors about Malzahn, even though it was all over the TV. His defense? He was watching movies, not TV.
  • Although the weekend was a whirlwind, Newton said he wasn’t overwhelmed by it. “Honestly during my whole time in New York, I never got a chance to just sit back and just feel what I had accomplished,” Newton said. “I was somewhere every single second, and if I wasn’t doing anything, I was probably sleeping. A trophy of that magnitude really won’t hit a person until years down the road.”
  • Newton played in the junior college national championship last year while with Blinn College. It's safe to say the crowd wasn't the same size as the one coming up at the BCS title game. " We probably have more people in this room here alone than the whole junior college national championship game," he said, looking around a room with a smattering of reporters.
  • What was Newton's favorite part of New York? Hanging out with the other finalists. But he was most impressed by the Tiger Walk as he entered the Best Buy Theater for the presentation. "When I saw that, it was amazing to see," Newton said. "Those guys were kind of teasing me, saying, 'This is what you guys do for the game.' I was amped up. I was tempted to put LaMichael on the side of the fans, but I don't want him to experience that until ..."
  • Malzahn, who reportedly turned down an offer to be Vanderbilt's next head coach, was glad to be back in a practice mode, instead of talking about his job prospects. "I like being on the field," he said. "That's what I like. I was fired up to get on the practice field again. That was a good thing. We'll get back in a routine. I think that'll be good for the team."
  • I'll have more on Malzahn in a story for Monday, but here's what he said when asked if he's like to be a head coach some day: "There's no doubt. Somewhere down the line, I'd like to. I'm in no hurry. We've got business to take care of here."
  • No academic casualties to report yet. "As always at this time of the year, there are some things we’re trying to get cleared up," Chizik said. "If anything changes, we’ll let you know.” (I'm going to go ahead and say that last part isn't exactly true.)
  • No word on LB Jessel Curry's status. He hasn't played since the Ole Miss game on Oct. 30. "We’re going to probably play that one by ear," Chizik said. Apparently this is an injury thing. Not sure what, though.
  • The fact that Auburn will play for the national championship still hasn’t sunk in with most of the players. Fairley said he didn't really think about it until Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers brought it up at one of the awards ceremonies. “It hasn’t really clicked,” Bynes said. “But it’s not like, ‘Oh, dang. The national championship. Oh, wow.’ We’re more like, it’s the next game, it’s the next team on the map and we know we’re going to have to defeat. We’re 60 minutes away from being crowned national champions. But we have to play ball first.”


Roman said...

Great, great practice report Mr. Bitter. You continue to be far and away the best newspaper reporter covering the AU beat.

I'm not local to your newspaper's delivery area and I don't see a mail subscription, but looking around the Ledger-Enquirer site I do see a very reasonably priced electronic edition. I've decided to sign up for it. Tell your boss I signed up because of you.

By the way, you might want to let someone at the Ledger-Enquirer know that there are some issues with the e-edition subscription page. The sample preview link does not work, and the trial subscription link is intermittent, returning a 404-not found error at least half the time for me.

Tar Heel Tiger said...

Great report, AB.