- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn is a congenial enough guy, smiles and laughs in the proper measurements. But there's a distinct air of guardedness to him, too. It's not annoying; it's sort of amusing, really. He's not going to lay his hand on the table for you, not even in early April, and you have to respect the wall properly constructed in front of you. Wouldn't you do the same thing?
The first-year Auburn coach (and former offensive coordinator), returning to the Tigers after a year hiatus at Arkansas State, refers to holes on the roster as "deficiencies," the types of things that could, potentially, induce a three-win season like the one the school endured in 2012 that prompted the firing of Gene Chizik -- two years removed from winning a national title -- and the hiring, or re-hiring, of Malzahn.
But when I pressed Malzahn ever so slightly about those deficiencies, he made a face. That face said, "I like you, I want to answer you -- but I'm not answering. That's for me to know, not you." The reality is Malzahn and his staff, still a week and a half removed from their spring game, are not quite sure. He said he's still evaluating, still moving pieces around to see what locks into place.
Once the puzzle picture is visible, what will Malzahn have in 2013?
It seems as if this will be the gist: Auburn should be a better team, particularly with the bar set at the 2012 level, but what will that mean in college football's most difficult division?
The provisional word "arguably" is not even necessary when talking about the SEC West, not when powerhouse Alabama is paired with capable programs such as Texas A&M and LSU, not to mention tough outs at every other turn, including Arkansas and both Mississippi schools.
Where are the wins on the schedule? Malzahn shrugs at that, too.
"That's exactly right," he says, after I surmise that he has an insulated view when it comes to the SEC West, choosing to focus on what's going on in his football complex rather than anything west of the Chattahoochee River and the Plains. I was tapping into the whole self-first worldview of Malzahn by then.
"We're worried about us and getting an edge back," he said. "It's about mental and physical toughness."
He called it a "yellow bus edge." I liked that, even if this Auburn team does not exactly strike me as Oklahoma and Nebraska in the 1980s.
"It's driving somewhere and getting off and playing," Malzahn said, recalling his first game versus the Tigers when he was an Arkansas assistant in 2006. "It was a physical deal. That's who Auburn is. They're blue-collar tough."
That might come as a shock to some, including even some Auburn fans. They are fixated on the idea of Malzahn's contemporary tempo offense, running as many plays as possible. But the misconception, often and not just with Malzahn, is that it entails a pass-heavy system when, really, his offenses have often been run-oriented.
From 2009-11, in Malzahn's stint as the Tigers' offensive coordinator, the team averaged 5.24 yards per carry. That ranked sixth in the country -- and first in the SEC. Now, granted, Cam Newton contributed to that, but the program ranked 11th in the country in yards per carry in the season prior to his arrival. Running is a big function of the system, even if it's something Malzahn's new defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson, once joked -- when he was at South Carolina -- was "soccer in shoulder pads and helmets."
Johnson made that joke then because Malzahn was frustrating to play against with his chess-game, cat-and-mouse style of motion and misdirection. And, again, Cam was the nitrous to a vehicle that already was getting around pretty good.
Some in the SEC are still wondering whether Auburn, even with Malzahn, can be anything special without someone as elite as Newton.
"Look at it, and it's a seven- or eight-win program," an SEC assistant told me this week. "It was that before and after Cam. There are no stars. There are a lot of good players, but there are no stars. This is probably a seven- or eight-win team, too.
"But they're going to have to coach their [tails] off to get those seven or eight."
Independent of the schedule, and division, what is in the stable? I find it intriguing that Malzahn inherits a number of the same players on offense that he once recruited, including running back Tre Mason.
Mason, a junior, had a quiet 1,000-yard season in 2012 -- in part because he ran only 14.25 times a game, averaging 5.9 yards a carry. (He should have gotten the ball more, one way or another. I knew that after Mason went for 100-plus against Clemson in the opener.)
"He has to step up and have a solid year," Malzahn said. There is no reason to doubt it, based on previous results and the fact that Mike Blakely transferred out.
But quarterback, as is the case at most places, is the spring talking point. The staff has established Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace in a dead heat, though most believe Frazier -- one of those players whom Malzahn hotly pursued -- has a chance to be a rehabilitation effort on par with what Malzahn did in 2009 with Chris Todd.
I suggested to Malzahn that some people I know think he is a magician for taking Todd from a QB with a 5-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio before he arrived to 22-to-6 ratio in 2009. He insisted to me that Todd had special qualities that he was able to unearth. So, imagine what the ceiling is for Frazier, who was 47th on the ESPN 150 coming out of Springdale, Ark. -- the city in which Malzahn was once the high school coach.
Then again, that Todd season resulted in an eight-win campaign -- just as that SEC assistant said from afar. But wouldn't any Plainsman sign up for that at this point, a few months removed from three victories and looking around at where those other programs are?
Auburn could be much improved in 2013, even if the win-loss column is not on par with that other school in the state. It's a Dixie Theory of Relativity: What goes down must come up.