AUBURN, Ala. — Things won’t slow down for Auburn football’s youngest players when the final exam period ends on campus this week.
When classes let out and students head home for the holidays, the Tigers will begin bowl practices in the Auburn Athletic Complex. In Gus Malzahn’s mind, at least early on, that means underclassmen will take center stage.
“Early on, it will be focused really on us and the fundamentals and just getting better on us with an emphasis on the young guys, the redshirted guys, the guys that didn’t get to play as much,” Malzahn said when previewing the Peach Bowl on Wednesday. “We’ll do some scrimmage-type things, put them in some competition-type scenarios and really give them a little extra head start.”
It’s a critical time period for players who are still considered newcomers. It always has been under Malzahn.
Last year, it was athletes like quarterback Jarrett Stidham and defensive lineman Nick Coe who — though they weren’t preparing to face Oklahoma — took valuable reps and generated buzz in the weeks preceding the Sugar Bowl.
As Christmas and finally New Year’s quickly approaches, some familiar faces like that of wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene, running back Devan Barrett and defensive lineman Big Cat Bryant could be in the spotlight again.
It also means true redshirts like offensive linemen Calvin Ashley and Nick Brahms could get more attention than they have in months past.
Whatever the scenario, Malzahn will be on the lookout for younger players who could have an impact in 2018. No one is exempt. The head coach will be zeroing in on all underclassmen and even backups. Everyone in a uniform has a chance to get his attention.
“My experience this time of year in bowl practice, you see guys raise their level, especially if they’re redshirts, because they see, ‘Hey, I’m competing now.’ So we’re really looking forward to watching those guys as a staff,” Malzahn said. “But I’d say it’s all of them. All the guys that redshirted have the opportunity to show their coaches what they can do, and their teammates.”
Similarly to finals, it’ll be a brief but intense period. After all, eventually Auburn has to flip the page and prepare for its game against No. 12 UCF in Atlanta.
“Then probably day three or four, we’ll transition into our bowl opponent and start gearing up for the game plan,” Malzahn said.
For the second year in a row, it’s an opportunity players won’t be able to squander. And it’s not a meaningless cupcake matchup, either. UCF, the only remaining undefeated team, boasts one of the country’s most dynamic offenses.
Players are going to have to bring their A game if they’re hoping to earn Malzahn’s trust and build their own confidence ahead of what could be a thrilling 2018 season.
“It’s going to be a good one,” Malzahn said. “I know our players and our coaches are looking forward to it. This is the second year in a row we’ve been in a New Year’s Six game, so we’re very excited about where our program is right now and really what the future holds.”