NWAnews.com :: Northwest Arkansas Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Coordinator switch not caging Tigers

Posted on Thursday, August 3, 2006

URL: http://www.nwanews.com/adg/Sports/162412/

HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn is breaking in another defensive coordinator.

Will Muschamp, 34, is the Tigers’ third defensive coordinator in three years. He follows Gene Chizik, who left for Texas after Auburn’s 13-0 season in 2004, and David Gibbs, who left after last season’s 9-3 finish for a job with the Kansas City Chiefs.

“With three coordinators in three years now, it sounds like a problem,” Auburn senior linebacker Will Herring said. “But the way I look at it, we’ve been tremendously lucky to play with three great coordinators.”

Muschamp is not new to the Tigers or the SEC.

A former Georgia safety, Muschamp began his coaching career in 1995 as an Auburn graduate assistant. After fulltime assistant jobs at West Georgia, Eastern Kentucky and Valdosta State, he became LSU’s defensive coordinator in 2001 and directed the defense under Nick Saban’s tutelage when the Tigers won a share of the national championship in 2003.

Muschamp then followed Saban to the NFL and was the Miami Dolphins’ defensive coordinator last year, but chose to return to the college game when Saban brought in Dom Capers presumably to be a codefensive coordinator.

“I think Will Muschamp has brought a lot of enthusiasm to our team,” said Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville, a Camden native and former defensive coordinator at the University of Miami and Texas A&M. “Working for Nick Saban for five or six years, his work ethic obviously is great.

“ I think he’s going to be a big benefit to us, to give us a little bit of a new curveball, so to speak, in the bullpen. He also knows a lot about the SEC.”

Muschamp’s hiring is among the reasons Auburn was an overwhelming choice by voters to win the conference championship at SEC Media Days last week.

The Tigers received 73 of 104 first-place votes cast. Florida was second with 11.

Getting so much media support is a dubious honor considering the reporters have accurately selected the SEC championship team just twice since the conference expanded from 10 to 12 teams in 1992.

“It’s fine to have respect, but it puts a huge target on you,” Auburn senior wide receiver Courtney Taylor said. “We haven’t done anything yet. It’s fine for the fans, but we as players know there’s a lot more to it than that.

“ I’m confident about my team, though. I feel we can compete with anybody in the conference. But we have to put things together on the field.”

The Tigers are 55-21 in the previous six years and have won the SEC West outright or shared the division title five times in that span, with one overall conference championship in 2004.

“Our program is as solid as it’s been since I’ve been at Auburn,” said Tuberville, going into his seventh season with a four-game winning streak over archrival Alabama. “I can name you four or five other [SEC ] teams that I’ve watched grow and have done the same thing, so it’s going to be very competitive.

“ Somebody has to be ranked up there. We’ll take it this year. Maybe you give it to somebody else next year.”

Herring is among six returning starters on defense. The five returning starters on offense include junior quarterback Brandon Cox and senior tailback Kenny Irons, the SEC’s leading rusher last season with 1, 293 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Herring said Irons reminds him of Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, the former Auburn star running back who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Playing a guy like Kenny in practice gets you ready for game day, and then some,” Herring said. “He’s just like a motorboat out there that never stops running. He’s so powerful with his hips and his legs.

“ When you hit him, you better hit through him, because you’re not just going to grab him and bring him down. He’ll just keep on going.”

Herring, who moved from free safety to outside linebacker last spring, is part of a defense that is small by SEC standards but will rely on speed and quickness.

Tuberville’s recruiting philosophy in recent years has been to bring in players with speed and who make plays, regardless of their size.

“We’re not quite as big defensively as we were last year,” Tuberville said. “Then, with a new defensive coordinator, the new things we’re going to do, are they going to help ?

“ We’ve got to get off to a fast start.”

The Tigers got off to fast start last spring when Muschamp took over the defense.

“’He’s like he had a gallon of coffee before practice,” Auburn senior linebacker Kariba Dede told the Birmingham News last spring. “He’s a live wire.

“ ’He’s so animated. It seems like everything is a point of emphasis.”

Herring said the players are excited about executing Muschamp’s defense, especially the new blitz packages.

“I knew Coach Muschamp a little bit because he recruited me when he was at LSU,” Herring said. “He seemed like a laid-back guy. As cool and calm a guy as you’ll ever know.

“ But when you step on the field for him, he’ll light a fire under you. You better get ready to work, because he’s going to get after it.

“ It came as a surprise to a lot of us last spring. That first day of practice might have been a little tougher than what we were expecting.”

To get ready for this season, the Tigers have studied films of LSU and Dolphins games from when Muschamp was the defensive coordinator.

“Looking back at LSU of 2003, quarterbacks didn’t have long to pass the ball,” Herring said. “They had better get the ball off, or they were going to hit in the mouth.

“ We’re going to come after them the same way this year. We’re going to make them make decisions fast.”

Next: LSU ABOUT THE TIGERS RETURNING STARTERS Offense 6, defense 5 SURE THING Running back UNSURE THING Defensive tackles OFFENSIVE MVP RB Kenny Irons DEFENSIVE MVP DE Marquies Gunn SEC TITLE SCENARIO Auburn has a veteran starting quarterback in junior Brandon Cox, a punishing runner in senior Kenny Irons and is well-stocked in talent on both sides of the ball. The kicking game looks pretty good, too. Staying healthy always is important, but especially because the Tigers have no open dates. Winning the third game, against LSU, will hold the key to whether Auburn takes at least a share of the SEC West title for the sixth time in seven years. The good news for Auburn is that it gets LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium.