Chizik, Tigers face another rebuilding project

Chizik has proven he can rebuild

Gene Chizik has flashed a number of weary smiles this spring.

A year after entering spring camp with a bunch of established faces, proven talent on both sides of the ball — and a soon-to-be program-changing quarterback — Chizik and his staff are basically starting over.

New faces at nearly every position. Less than 60 scholarship players to work with.

Kind of like the first year Chizik and Co. came to Auburn. Except they’re not trying to follow up a 5-7 season this time around.

“We’re just a long way away both sides of the ball,” Chizik said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “We’re just a long way away.”

The loss of such a large senior class provided enough of a hurdle.

When the rest of the Tigers’ attrition is factored in, the picture gets even bleaker.

A perusal of the 2009 spring football prospectus shows 29 scholarship players on the Tigers’ roster that would still have eligibility remaining for this season.

Only 11 remain.

Of the 26 members of the Tigers’ 2009 signing class, only 13 are still around, with only one — Demond Washington — exhausting his eligibility.

It makes oversigning not seem like such a despicable act.

“This is an entirely new group,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “All you’ve got to do is turn on the film and there’s a lot of things we’ve got to get better at. Last year is so far in the rearview mirror.”

When Roof, Malzahn and the rest of the coaches took over two years ago, they inherited a team low on numbers and coming off a down year, but a team that actually had a fair number of pieces already in place.

The offense had feature back Ben Tate, multi-position threat Kodi Burns, and had Mike Berry, Byron Isom, Ryan Pugh and Lee Ziemba returning on the line.

The defense returned Antonio Coleman on the front, Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens at linebacker, and Walt McFadden and Zac Etheridge in the secondary.

They were established pieces with starting experience who — in most cases — still had two years to go.

This year’s Tigers return five players that started at least half of their games last season — linebackers Daren Bates, running back Mike Dyer, defensive end Nosa Eguae, offensive lineman Brandon Mosley and safety Neiko Thorpe.

“I think this (spring) is more important (than two years ago),” Malzahn said. “You know the first spring our coaches were still learning the system, we were trying to learn our guys. We have a better grasp of what we have and what we don’t have and a better grasp of what we need.

“There’s going to be a lot of inexperience. As a coaching staff, we’re going to have to be somewhat patient. This team will grow obviously as the season gets closer and as the games go on, but we’re going to be playing a whole bunch of young guys and a whole bunch of inexperienced guys.”

And the act they’ve got to follow is a BCS National Championship.

The feeling permeating spring practice in 2009 was that of a new year, a new beginning, an optimistic restart after Auburn missed a bowl for the first time since 1999.

It’s almost the same thing this time around: a new year, but with a slightly different connotation.

“A lot of people think it’s going to be a down year,” Eguae said. “We’ve heard all types of stuff. We’re just trying to prove that we’re still Auburn.”

At least, junior cornerback T’Sharvan Bell said, this year’s team has a recent example to follow.

“We’re trying to find our identity, back at square one,” Bell said. “From last year, we’ve seen what great looks like. We know what we have to do to be great. It’s not going to be as easy as last year, but everybody comes to Auburn to accept that challenge.

“Everybody’s on board for the challenge.” | 737-2568

Spring 2011 looks a lot like the spring of 2009

Roster Snapshot

Spring 2009:
Freshmen: 24
Sophomores: 27
Juniors: 28
Seniors: 16

Spring 2011:
Freshmen: 28
Sophomores: 20
Juniors: 20
Seniors: 16

Returning Starters (started at least half of the team’s games the year before)
Spring 2009:
Offense: 6
Defense: 8 (Mike McNeil, starting safety, missed 2009 due to injury)

Spring 2011:
Offense: 2
Defense: 3

Percent of team’s production returning
Passing Yards:
2009: 100
2011: 2.1

Rushing Yards:
2009: 79.9
2011: 50.6

Receiving Yards:
2009: 58.7
2011: 31.7

2009: 63.2
2011: 43.1

2009: 66.9
2011: 42.8

Tackles for Loss:
2009: 62.7
2011: 28.8

2009: 73.8
2011: 32.9

2009: 81.8
2011: 16.7

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