September 28, 2010

Players respond to Chizik's challenge

The offensive linemen didn't want anyone to know it at the time, but being called out by head coach Gene Chizik for not being physical enough had a significant effect on them.

"I'm not going to lie to you," left tackle Lee Ziemba said. "I had my pride hurt. I tried not to show it (in interviews). But we were all hurting pretty bad."

For an offensive lineman, it is essentially the biggest insult someone can dish out.

"It's our job to be physical," Ziemba said. "When you're told you're not physical, it hurts."

Chizik said the reason he challenged them was because he knew they were capable of playing a lot better than they had been.

It was just a matter of getting them to respond to his request.

The first step in that direction came in last Tuesday's practice as the Tigers prepared for South Carolina. The tone was set early that it was going to be a long, physical night.

"We had to bring a new mindset out to practice," Ziemba said. "Just get a kick in the butt and be reminded what our job is and how we're supposed to do it."

After that practice, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn seemed pleased to report that the team "got after it" and played hard. Players agreed that it was the most physical practice they'd had to date.

The effects of that practice were lasting. Auburn went on to defeat South Carolina four days later and coaches, including Chizik, acknowledged the improvement up front.

Each Tuesday practice is now designated as being physical. Tonight was no exception. The team wore full pads and practiced for about two hours.

"Today's practice was great," said senior center Ryan Pugh. "We got after it physically. We're starting to make a statement that every Tuesday practice is going to be a physical one. We've just got to come out prepared and focused, not just on being physical, but we've got to work on technique."

The win over South Carolina saw the offense rack up almost 500 yards on a strong defense. The Gamecocks' rushing defense was expected to be a challenge since it was ranked No. 1 in the conference at the time. But by the time Auburn was finished with them, it was ranked eighth.

That accomplishment gives the Auburn offensive linemen something to build on, but they're far from satisfied.

"There's pressure on us not to be a one-hit wonder," Ziemba said. "The way we got called out last week is something you don't forget after one game."

This week as Auburn takes on Louisiana-Monroe, the Tigers will have an opportunity to work on some aspects of their game. The offensive line in particular wants to pick up from where it left off against South Carolina.

"I'm glad we got things changed around," Ziemba said. "(But) you can't let the challenge stop there. You've got eight more games for sure.

"We've still got things to prove. We've got to keep this thing going every week."



Whitaker working to prove himself




True freshman defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker has played in every game so far this season.

He admitted that going into the first game, he was nervous about how he was going to play and making sure he was doing the right things.

But with the guidance of coach Tracy Rocker, going into game five he's got a different frame of mind.

"You're just ready to get in and show what you can do," Whitaker said.

By his own admission, Whitaker hasn't done much up to this point. He's recorded one solo and one assisted tackle so far. But he is planning on changing that soon.

"I'm just going to keep working hard," Whitaker said. "Working hard."

Seasoned veterans man most of the starting defensive line positions. Whitaker said he considers those players to be his big brothers and he welcomes any and all advice they offer him.

"They take care of me when I'm messing up," Whitaker said. "They're on me when I need to do this, when I need to rip and need to get over to the LB gap, little keys and this and that. I just think it's big and it's a great situation to be in. A lot of other guys are coming in somewhere else as a freshman and probably starting right now, which is good. But I'm coming in with veterans that have a lot of experience. I just thing all the help they've shown (the young players) and everything, we're going to be a step ahead in the long run."

But even though he is a freshman on the roster, he doesn't feel like one on the field because of what he's learned up to this point. And even though the older players have a few more years of coach Kevin Yoxall's strength and conditioning program under their belts, Whitaker's not intimidated about going up against "the big boys."

"They put on the girdle, I put on the girdle," Whitaker said. "They put on pads, I put on pads. I'm not backing down, I'm not running away, it's football. Either you gonna win or I'm gonna win. It's plain and simple."

Earlier in the week both Chizik and defensive coordinator Ted Roof said players will be rewarded for good performances. Nosa Eguae, for example, got the starting nod last week against South Carolina for working hard in practices and in games.

But Whitaker doesn't need a reward to motivate him to work hard each day.

"I look at it like this, and I think I can speak for every defensive lineman," Whitaker said. "You've got to bring it everyday. You're going up against a lot of weight every time you're coming off the ball. There's a sense of urgency already."

The Warner Robbins, Ga., native said the defensive linemen are a close group, but there is a lot of competition especially among the young players.

All friendly, of course.

"I told Corey (Lemonier) and Ken (Carter) the other day… I said, 'Hey, when we leave, I'm going to have more tackles than you, I'm going to have more sacks than you, I'm going to have more tackles for loss than you,'" Whitaker said. "And so they're look at me like, 'Naw, it's not gonna be like that.' So now, it's a competition. So when Corey goes and robs another sack from me, he's trying to have more than me at the end of the career."



Quick-hitters




*** To keep himself humble despite the recognition and questions about Heisman talk, Cameron Newton thinks about where he was before he got to Auburn.

"Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, where was I? I was in Brenham, Texas. Nobody really cared about what I was doing."

*** Also helping him stay grounded is Gus Malzahn and his wife Kristi. Newton said Mrs. Malzahn texts him regularly to check up on him. He said she is one of the most honest people he knows and she has helped him a lot. She often provides him with a female opinion on things, which is helpful since he's always around football players. Newton said both of them worry about him when he's on his scooter.

"If they're weren't worrying, then that's when I would be worrying because I know they have my best interests (in mind) and I'm trusting them every single day," Newton said.

*** On taking advantage of what the offensive line allows the players behind it to do…

"It's a slap in the offensive line's face when they're working hard and whoever has the ball doesn't run the ball well or well enough or hard enough," Newton said. "I just try to do my part and I'm pretty sure all the running backs try to do their part because every play the offensive line is hitting it and trying to create something to give us momentum. Those guys always go overlooked and I really thank those guys. A lot."

*** On the defensive line's goal to rack up the sacks this year…

"We're going to be living in the backfield," Whitaker said. "That's the plan."

*** Whitaker said coming to Auburn was the best decision he's made. He said coaches were straight up with him from day one and told him exactly how it was going to be at Auburn. And so far it's been exactly what they said it would be.

*** Pugh admitted that the team had slacked off in practice in the week before the Clemson game. But they have picked it up since then and it showed in the South Carolina game.

*** Ziemba on finding the fast pace on offense and how it affects the defense…

"When you see the defensive guys arguing with each other, not even getting in a stance, looking over to see what the defensive call is while we're calling the snap count out, you know you got 'em. There's not a better feeling. You forget about how tired you are. You want to go faster. You can't go fast enough. That's the goal. That's what Coach Malzahn's been talking about."

*** The Tigers will practice at 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday. There will be no media availability after the Thursday practice. Saturday's kickoff against Louisiana-Monroe is set for 11 a.m.



 

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