AUBURN, Ala. — When it comes to figuring out his starting lineup for Auburn football, Herb Hand might resemble Bruce Pearl more than Gus Malzahn.
Hand is in charge of Auburn’s offensive line, which starts five players — just like Pearl does for the basketball Tigers. But instead of a standard football two-deep for his offensive line, Hand says he takes a page from the hardwood in crafting his plans.
“You always want to have a contingency plan to have your best five guys on the field,” Hand said Thursday. “It’s almost like from a basketball sense — you’ve got your starting five and then you’ve got your sixth man, your seventh man. What happens when the sixth man comes in? Who has to adjust? Those aspects of it make it a little bit to manage, but it’s also nice when you have options.”
Hand said he’s “honing in” on a starting five for his offensive line. Auburn’s second scrimmage of fall camp, which takes place Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium, will go a long way in figuring out the first team and the next ones in line.
For Hand, an injury to a first-teamer doesn’t mean he will automatically sub the second-teamer in his place. That strategy was especially true in 2016, when starting center Xavier Dampeer went down with a midseason injury.
Instead of starting inexperienced backup center Kaleb Kim, Hand moved Austin Golson — then at left tackle — to the inside and inserted former Texas starter Darius James into Golson’s old spot.
Hand wants that out of his veterans, and he has a lot of them on the 2017 roster. Auburn has three returning senior starters in Golson, James and Braden Smith. Graduate transfer Wilson Bell can play both guard positions. Returning reserves Mike Horton, Marquel Harrell, Kaleb Kim and Prince Tega Wanogho have worked at multiple positions.
“Rookies, young guys, you try to get them locked into one spot and let them learn that spot,” Hand said. “But as they get older, they have to be able to move and adjust so that you can create depth with fewer players — quality depth, SEC-winning depth with fewer players.”
It’s a delicate balancing act for Hand, especially in fall camp. Malzahn said he wanted the position battles on the offensive side of the ball to be determined after the second week of fall camp, which ends with the scrimmage Saturday.
So while Hand might have a starting five set within the next week, that won’t stop the mixing and matching he’s famous for in practices.
“As we move forward, we want to get guys into their primary positions where they can start really working together a lot,” Hand said. “But you also have to have contingency plans. There’s going to be guys that are, throughout the whole year, going to play multiple spots. … Guys have to practice that way.”
In order to do that, Hand meticulously plans out each practice with a system he calls “The Matrix.”
Hand takes a notepad and lines up headers for each position in order — left tackle, left guard, center, right guard and right tackle. He then fills in names at each spot, down the line, until he gets several combinations he wants to try in practice. After that, it’s time to review the results of his experiments.
“I look at the film and go, ‘OK, how did these guys work together? How did this rotation look? How was our communication here?’ ” Hand said. “When you have options, it allows you to do that. I like that a lot better than when you go, ‘I’ve got these guys, and that’s it. Nobody get hurt!’ ”
“The Matrix” will be back in action Friday when the Tigers return to the practice field, and Hand might pull it out for scrimmage preparation Saturday. Like any good basketball coach, he wants to go through all the rotation patterns he might have to use in a game.
So whether he lines up James at right or left tackle, Smith on the inside or the outside, or Wanogho at any spot, he knows he’s getting closer to his goal. He wants to turn all that depth and experience into an SEC-ready force.
“When you have guys that have that, it’s a good luxury,” Hand said. “You always get your best five on the field.”