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No-Huddle Notebook: Happy New Year

Spring practice is in the air and Sir Justin Lee is back — Was he ever gone? Was he ever really here? — to bring us the most notable notes from each fine football morning. You can call it the No-Huddle Notebook. We’ll call it that, too.

Quarterbacks. Doing quarterback things.

It’s officially the new football year, sports fans: That time of year where the smell of spring is in the air, everyone is undefeated (and winless), and last year becomes “last year” and this year becomes “this year.”

The Tigers took to the field in shorts for their first practice of the spring today, with the theme of the day being the adjustment from Scot Loeffler’s pro-style offense — or whatever that was — to Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle scheme.

They’ll be in shorts again Friday before their first practice in full pads on Saturday. But for now, there were plenty of notes and quotes to be had from the first day of spring ball. Let’s get it:

Gus Malzahn likes things fast. It was a tough first-day adjustment for the Tigers to get back in Malzahn’s break-neck tempo, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. He talked about it in his post-practice press conference, which clocked in at just under nine minutes.

“It’s great to be back on the practice field with our team and our new coaches out there,” Malzahn said. “A lot of excitement. A lot of flying around. I told our team at the very end of practice when I called them up, the main thing is we just have to learn how to practice at the pace and the intensity and the tempo both offensively and defensively. The X’s and O’s will come.

“Our main focus right now is learning how to practice and being able to process things by practicing them fast.”

Quan Bray called it “hectic.” Demetruce McNeal called it “mind-boggling.” Malzahn called it Wednesday.

“It is about learning how to line up correctly, learning how to process information quickly and having great body language and hustling,” Malzahn said. “It’s all that combined. How we did today, we’ve got a ways to go as far as learning how to practice at the pace and the tempo that we want. But that’s to be expected. We will get better each day at that.”

Wide receiver Trovon Reed compared the tempo to Malzahn’s last season as an offensive coordinator in 2011 (and perhaps confirmed an oft-rumored tactical change of the time):

“It was that fast (in 2011), but sometimes Coach Chiz slowed us down to get the defense — now, pffff, it’s fast,” Reed said. “For the first day, that was fast. I only can imagine that as we get better as a team, they’ll keep pushing us, and it could get extremely fast.”

McNeal explains the 4-2-5. Demetruce McNeal says he’s at the “boundary safety” spot in new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s three-safety scheme. McNeal said that the new spot puts more of an emphasis on his range than the free safety spot he played at last year, where he spent a lot of time in the box (and, consequently, lassoed in 90 tackles and was the Tigers’ second-leading tackler.)

Now, McNeal’s focus is on flying to the ball and picking off more passes.

McNeal definitely looks like the odds-on favorite at the boundary safety spot, while the “field safety” spot is wide open. Auburn worked two guys at the third safety — the linebacker hybrid called the “star” — namely, junior Justin Garrett and redshirt freshman JaViere Mitchell.

“It’s a great defense,” McNeal said. “It gives us a chance to spread our wings and show athleticism. That third guy, that star, he’s the key guy in the defense. He has to be a key guy in the defense for the defense to work. He has to be set, and all of us go off of him.”

McNeal said that the system, and new defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Charlie Harbison, allow the players a certain new level of freedom and puts an emphasis on athleticism.

“I feel more free with Coach Harbison than I ever did with any coach, because he just lets me do what I want to do,” McNeal said. “Do what I do, but just do it within the system. That’s just the difference. With (former defensive backs coach Willie) Martinez, I didn’t really feel that free within the defense, because I felt like a robot, just staying within the defense but doing what he wanted me to do.

“But now with Harbison I can do what I want to do but just do it within the defense. So that’s really the big difference and I think I’ll have a better year because I’m just feeling in my comfort level back there at safety.”

Multiple roles. Wide receiver Quan Bray looks like the leading man for the 2013 version of Malzahn’s Wildcat package, as he took snaps from the formation in team drills and worked some with the quarterbacks today.

“I’m looking forward to playing a lot of different roles,” Bray said. “Just trying to be all over the field and learn different things for me to be able to help my team and be a playmaker for the team.”

Meanwhile, Robenson ‘Cadillac’ Therezie said it looks like he’ll be playing as a “boundary cornerback” in the new defense, but that he could be experimenting on the offensive side of the ball at some point in the future as well.

“It will be a possibility,” Therezie said. “I spoke with Coach Malzahn and it seems like a plan. I won’t mind at all playing (Onterio McCalebb’s) position.”

Corey Grant also mentioned stepping in to fill the void left by McCalebb, even though he can go between the tackles as well, and Bray mentioned Ricardo Louis and Trovon Reed as guys that could take jet sweeps in the backfield.

So, yes, this offense is still just as crazy as you remember it being.

Next up: Another day in shorts Friday morning. They’ll start going full pads on Saturday.

Related: The Toomer’s Ficus Tree at Gus Malzahn’s press conference.


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