Changes on the Plains
By Matt Smith
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The Tigers open their season with a BCS-conference opponent for the first time since 2007 when they face Clemson in the Georgia Dome on Sept. 1.
Continuity in major college football has become virtually extinct. Coordinators leave for head coaching jobs. Star players defect to the NFL with eligibility remaining. Even something as basic as a lucky bounce can knock a team from its proverbial pedestal.
Only a year and a half removed from a national championship, such circumstances have caught up with the Auburn Tigers. Cam Newton’s unexpected Heisman Trophy-winning season and subsequent departure to the NFL left the team scrambling for a quarterback last season. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was gone less than a year later, taking over the head coaching position at Arkansas State. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof was forced to resign.
With the opportunity to make hires at both coordinator positions, rare even in the nomadic world of modern college football, head coach Gene Chizik chose to tweak the team’s schemes by bringing in Scot Loeffler to run the offense and Brian VanGorder to direct the defense. Loeffler was the offensive coordinator at Temple last season, but had previously coached Tom Brady and Tim Tebow during stops at Michigan and Florida. VanGorder was the defensive coordinator at Georgia in the early 2000s before spending five of the past seven years in the NFL with the Jaguars and Falcons.
Chizik liked Loeffler’s background with quarterbacks after seeing the triumvirate of Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier struggle for much of last year’s 8-5 season.
“Scot has a lot of different experiences in his background as an offensive coach,” Chizik said Wednesday during SEC Media Days. “He’s a tremendous quarterback developing-type of football coach. It’s a little bit different type of offense than we’ve been used to doing.”
Trotter elected not to return, but Chizik hopes Moseley and Frazier benefit from Loeffler’s experience tutoring young quarterbacks.
“I think our quarterbacks have embraced [Loeffler]. It was very important for me to hire a guy that had SEC experience and possibly NFL experience.”
One player whose role will see significant change in the new offense is tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen. In Malzahn’s spread scheme, the senior played more of a hybrid role as a fullback, H-back and tight end. Under Loeffler, he’ll generally line up on the line of scrimmage with his hand in the ground, but he’s uncertain about how versatile he’ll be asked to be.
“I’m playing a traditional tight end,” Lutzenkirchen said, “but I don’t really know how to define a traditional tight end anymore.”
Georgia experienced its greatest success when VanGorder was the defensive coordinator, and Chizik hopes history will repeat itself at Auburn due to the philosophical similarities between the two.
“It’s been a great transition with Brian,” Chizik said. “We’re on the exact same page with what we believe in defensively and what we think is the right mixture of a lot of different things, coverage and front-wise.”
One of VanGorder’s most famous players at Georgia was defensive end David Pollack, the 2004 SEC Player of the Year. Auburn junior defensive end Corey Lemonier said VanGorder has frequently mentioned the former Bulldog as a player for Lemonier to model his game after.
“He name drops [Pollack] a lot,” said Lemonier, who led the Tigers in sacks a year ago as a sophomore.
Chizik wasn’t willing to go call the two equals quite yet, but admitted Lemonier can approach that level during his remaining time at Auburn.
“He’s got some work cut out for himself, but he’s willing to do it. That’s the thing I love about Corey. He definitely can do it.”
Lemonier discussed the changes between VanGorder and Roof, who left in December for a brief stint at UCF before joining new coach Bill O’Brien’s staff at Penn State in January.
“This year is more of an attacking-style defense. Last year was more read and react. For us defensive linemen, we’re all about attacking offensive linemen and attacking backs, so that’s going to benefit us.”
The Tigers open their season with a BCS-conference opponent for the first time since 2007 when they face Clemson in the Georgia Dome on Sept. 1. It was Clemson who ended Auburn’s 17-game winning streak last year in Death Valley. Lutzenkirchen hasn’t forgotten the pain from that loss.
“Losing that winning streak was tough for everyone on our team. A lot of those guys had never lost in college before. It was a good learning experience, but we’re looking forward to set this season off on the right foot.”
For those like Lutzenkirchen who started on the 2010 national title team, it’s a drastic shift from what helped the team complete a perfect season. However, in today’s college football landscape, changes are the new norm, whether you’re 14-0 or you’re 8-5. In Auburn’s case, it was a little of both.