- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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There will be a sense of comfort and familiarity for the Auburn players having Gus Malzahn back on the sidelines for Saturday’s opener against Washington State. He’s only a year removed from his stint as the AU offensive coordinator from which he already knows most of the team, but it won’t be the same. The players are still trying to move on from last year.
“They definitely had a very tough year last year,” Malzahn said. “They went through a storm. When you come into the program, there’s a lot of things that we had to deal with regarding those things.”
But Malzahn wasn’t around last year when Auburn finished 3-9 and failed to win an SEC game. He understands the circumstances, but he didn’t experience it. All he can do now is try and change the culture back to what it was, but it’s up to the players to buy in.
“There is some comfort in knowing what to expect seeing these guys in a game, but everything is different,” he said. “It’s completely different than it was when I was here before. It’s just kind of a new day. I just give everybody a chance to start over and show what they can do.”
The first audition for this new-look Auburn team will be Saturday. How will the offense look with new quarterback Nick Marshall under center? Will the defense bounce back under new coordinator Ellis Johnson? It should be a good barometer to see how far the Tigers have come since last year’s disappointment.
What to expect from Marshall at quarterback?
Marshall played just one season at junior college, but the numbers he put up were ridiculous and he was even more impressive on his highlight tape. He’s back at quarterback where he belongs, and at Auburn he’s in a system that looks like a perfect fit. But, it’s his first game. He’s only been on campus for two months, and growing pains are expected to come with inexperience. Malzahn wants to take it slow at first, easing Marshall into the offense, but he might have to take the reins off Saturday if it turns into a shootout.
Who will emerge as the go-to wide receiver?
When Malzahn took over as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2009, he asked the same question. Enter Darvin Adams. The junior receiver hauled in a school-record 60 catches for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns. Who will be that guy this year for the Tigers? The likely candidates are junior Quan Bray and sophomores Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis. Bray is the team’s returning leader in receptions with 13, but Coates had more yards and touchdowns. Auburn hopes that one of the three will emerge and become a go-to option for Marshall.
How will the secondary handle Washington State’s offense?
It’s no secret. Washington State likes to throw the football. Auburn was No. 47 last year against the pass, but they had no answers for the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray down the stretch. The Cougars don’t a quarterback of that caliber, but the AU secondary better come ready to play. It’s a secondary that returns four starters, but Joshua Holsey will move to safety and former linebacker Justin Garrett will debut at the Star position.
Players to watch
Auburn: RB Tre Mason
All eyes will be on Marshall in Auburn’s first game, but don’t be surprised if Mason has a huge game for the Tigers. Malzahn will want to lean on Mason and his stable of running backs early in the season to take some pressure off his new signal caller.
Washington State: WR Gabe Marks
Washington State played 17 freshmen last year in Mike Leach’s debut with the Cougars. The most notable might have been Marks who finished with 49 receptions for 560 yards and two touchdowns. He leads a talented receiving corps, key to the WSU offense.
“We're excited about the chance to play Auburn. They're a great team, great tradition and of course, they've got great players. They've had several great recruiting classes on the heels of the national championship. Any time you get to play in a stadium like that, it's a great experience.” -- Washington State coach Mike Leach
2dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf