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June 11, 2013

A Different View

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AUBURN | The Tigers' "Senior Mini I" camp last weekend was my first foray into the world of the summer events and how they benefit everyone involved.

I was shocked.

That shock wasn't rooted in the caliber of athlete. Many kids reared in the Southeastern U.S. are taught to revere the game at a young age and see it, often wrongly, as a path to riches. So when I watch a Class of 2016 quarterback, TaDarryl Marshall of Leeds High in this case, throw across-the-field rockets at a distance of 40 yards, it's almost unremarkable.

What struck me instead was the sheer number of kids who attended. Four hundred and fifty-two kids were registered while at least 100 arrived unexpectedly and participated as well. That's a lot of footballs being thrown in a lot of different directions.

To an outsider, it was madness.

Yet I wasn't an outsider. I had former Auburn linebacker Travis Williams on my side. He pointed to the field where coach Gus Malzahn was conferring with assistants Charlie Harbison, Melvin Smith, Rhett Lashlee and Dameuyne Craig.

"That's where you want to be," Williams said. "Follow the head coach. Watch what he's watching. That's what you need to be seeing."

Check.

What a view it was. Malzahn, the mild-mannered bookworm I thought I knew, was in a different mode altogether. He was grabbing guys by the shoulder, almost dragging them around, moving them into the positions he wanted. This wasn't really about instruction -- it was about being interested in a handful of players and creating situations where those players could prove or disprove their value in Malzahn's eyes.

So what interested him? Every route run by wideouts Cortez Lewis from Demopolis and Rodney Stafford from Murphy High in Mobile were scrutinized carefully by the head coach. He offered pointers in a few cases, but spent most of his time altering matchups and the routes each player ran.

He was assessing. He'd nod his head back and forth occasionally, praise a good play by the wideout or defensive back. For the most part, though, he was quiet. He was crunching numbers, cataloging insights, reading his gut all at once.

And it was fascinating to watch.

Melvin Smith worked closely with Malzahn, shuttling a group of three favored cornerbacks in and out against the favored wideouts. They met several times through the course of the drills presumably to share some quick thoughts about the prospects. It mostly was Smith talking with Malzahn either nodding in approval and/or pointing toward a player to confirm what Smith was saying.

Malzahn and Smith weren't the only guys at work. Lashlee kept a close eye on the quarterbacks, calling out formations and focusing more on providing constructive feedback. Lashlee himself received some feedback from Harbison after running a play with twins to both sides plus two backs.

Harbison needed a minute to process why one tailback was wide open on a wheel route.

"That ain't right," Harbison said. "You can't run two by two by two. That's too many. You're trying to sneak something by me."

They both enjoyed a good laugh.

Craig, as usual, wasn't in the mood to laugh. He was in assessment mode, particularly when it came to Stafford, wideout Charles Standberry from Carver-Montgomery and tight end Jakell Mitchell, who committed to Auburn earlier this summer.

When Mitchell lost concentration just prior to receiving the ball on a drag route, Craig wasn't shy about expressing his disapproval. A linebacker (in zone under) and a cornerback were converging upon Mitchell as the ball arrived. It was a real-time test of Mitchell's ability to process a lot of information -- and he failed this quiz.

Craig put his hands on Mitchell's shoulders, looked him in the eye and spoke to him for 10 seconds. Mitchell listened attentively. Whatever Craig said worked; Mitchell caught the next two balls thrown his way. One was well over Mitchell's head, but he was able to accelerate downfield and leap for a surprising grab.

Craig, watching near the quarterbacks with his son in tow, clapped with approval.

Assistant coach Scott Fountain encouraged quarterbacks and kept them moving at a quick pace. Assistant coach Tim Horton was all over the field, working with wideouts one minute and a tailback the next.

This was a remarkably efficient, focused operation. Everyone knew their role. Everyone was communicating.

I asked Travis Williams if it was always like this.

"Coach Malzahn has a way of keeping everything on track," he said. "There's a reason for everything he does and he won't let anyone forget that reason. It's all about staying on point."

That's exactly what I saw Sunday.

And that's exactly what you'll be seeing on Saturdays this fall.



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