For Auburn football players, shock over coaching change turns into excitement about future
Shock was the first reaction for Auburn football players on Dec. 13.
That Sunday, less than 24 hours after they danced in the visitor's locker room at Davis-Wade Stadium in celebration of a win over Mississippi State in their regular-season finale, the coach who recruited all of them to play for the Tigers – Gus Malzahn – was fired after eight seasons.
"It obviously caught us all off guard," junior linebacker Owen Pappoe said Wednesday before the team's second spring practice. "We didn't expect that to happen."
It marked the beginning of an offseason full of change. Bryan Harsin replaced Malzahn. Nine new assistant coaches joined him on staff. Multiple contributors left Auburn, entering either the NFL Draft or transfer portal.
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But since the end of January, when the Tigers began their winter conditioning program, that shock has been replaced with excitement.
"The new staff that came in, man, we love these guys," Pappoe said. "They're all great people, every single one of them. Really, the message was for me and different players on the team just to get everyone to buy into the dream that coach Harsin is trying to bring to us. I mean, so far, everything's going good. We love these guys. We're buying into the culture."
That culture is demanding. Quarterback Bo Nix described Harsin as "passionate," "relentless" and as being "very attentive to detail." But that's a good thing, he added.
"Our motto is 1-0 every day," senior center Nick Brahms said. "It starts with being on time, being locked in for meetings and stuff, and learning what you're supposed to do. You carry that over to the practice field and make sure you know what to do. It's a really good atmosphere and environment to be around. I love it, and work, hard work is what Auburn's all about. And I think coach Harsin's got that down."
One of the best examples of how things are different, Brahms explained, is what players are doing in the weight room. Under Malzahn's strength and conditioning coach, Ryan Russell, players did a few reps at a max weight. Under Jeff Pitman, who Harsin brought with him from Boise State, players are doing one-lift maxes at a higher weight.
"Man, we're gonna look like some Marines come fall, I'm telling you," Pappoe said. "Coach Pitman's program is crazy, man. Everybody – I think everybody PR'ed last week when we did it. I know I hit a personal best for every single lift that we had except for clean."
There's excitement about the schemes the new coaching staff is bringing in on offense and defense, too. Nix said the offense Harsin and coordinator Mike Bobo run is "very multiple" in formation and will have him under center more.
The team has had only one practice so far this spring, and not even in full pads, but Pappoe said he and fellow linebacker Zakoby McClain are already "champing at the bit" because of what coordinator Derek Mason is implementing on defense.
"He's a great guy. We love the system that he's bringing in for us, and we love him as a person," Pappoe said. "The run fits that we see right now – I'm just gonna say it, it's gonna be something crazy this year. I really like it a lot, man. The opportunity for us to make a lot of plays is gonna be there."
History may be on Auburn's side. This is the sixth head coaching change the program has made since 1992. The Tigers won more games the following season after each of the first five and won an SEC championship the last time in 2013.
The mark to beat in 2021 is 6-5.
"Change is difficult. Change is hard to go through," Nix said. "But sometimes, if you take advantage of it, on the other side of change, it can present an opportunity. And I think that's what we have right now. We have a great opportunity with our new staff. We're all excited."