AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn won’t say his starting five yet, but he’s glad he has options.
The Auburn head coach said in his Tuesday morning press conference that a decision on the starting offensive line for this week’s home game against No. 17 Arkansas (6 p.m. ET on ESPN) until later in the week.
“We’ll get that all figured out here this week,” Malzahn said. “But the good thing is that we’ve got six guys that have actually started in an SEC game and won. I think that’s a really good thing as far as depth is concerned. But we’ll make that call later in the week.”
Auburn started Austin Golson at center and Darius James at left tackle in its last two wins against Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State. Xavier Dampeer, who started the first four games of the season at center, was held out of those victories with an undisclosed injury he suffered in the second half against LSU.
In those two wins, Auburn has had its best production inside the red zone for the entire season and heavily cut down on its negative plays.
Like Malzahn, Auburn left guard Alex Kozan said he’s confident in whoever lines up next to him at center against Arkansas this weekend.
“I mean, I think we’ve got six really good players,” Kozan said Tuesday. “Darius has really stepped up when he’s gotten his opportunity here in the past couple weeks. So we’re going to have a good, hard week of practice and Coach Malzahn and (offensive line coach Herb) Hand and (offensive coordinator) Lashlee will all make the best decision for the team. I think we’re ready to roll with whoever’s in there.”
First-year offensive line coach Herb Hand has put an emphasis on trying a lot of different combinations on the front five during practices instead of focusing solely on the first-teamers. When Dampeer needed time off to heal from his injury, the Tigers were ready.
As Golson moved back to center — a position he started at last season for Auburn — Hand moved Texas transfer Darius James to left tackle. James started the season as Auburn’s “sixth man” on the offensive line in unbalanced packages.
“We’ve been pleased with him,” Malzahn said. “He’s tried to be physical. His competitive side came out. I thought he’s been pretty sufficient for the first time starting, especially in our league.”
But the what-if scenarios on the offensive line have continued to be a major theme in practices, even after the switch to Golson at center and James at left tackle.
“We’re doing like we do every week, we’re mixing and matching guys for scenarios that can come up,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday. “I think (Dampeer) is getting closer to 100 percent … He’s moving around pretty good. We feel like we have all those guys ready to roll, however we need to do it.”
Auburn isn’t expected to announce its starting offensive line for Arkansas until Saturday’s game. The Tigers say they’ll still evaluate the different lineups throughout the week now that Dampeer is practicing again.
Kozan said he believes that the improvement in the offensive line over the last few weeks isn’t completely based on the lineup change. No matter who starts at center or left tackle, the veteran guard sees the deeper unit clicking as a whole now that it has a half of a season of experience together.
“I think every offensive line in the country plays better toward the end of the season than they do in the beginning of the season, just because you have more cohesion, more communication and you can really work with the guys next to you,” Kozan said. “You get better the more snaps you play together.”