AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football could return as many as 17 starters for the 2017 season. That’s a huge amount of experienced talent — arguably the most the Tigers have had in a dozen years.
But Auburn coach Gus Malzahn doesn’t want his established team to get comfortable inside all that familiarity. Malzahn has made it clear that every player, regardless of experience, still has a ways to go in terms of development this offseason.
“We need our best players to improve,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “That’s the challenge I gave the whole bunch, offensively and defensively and special teams. No one has arrived. We’ve got to all take that next step.”
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If there was a theme to Malzahn’s press conference following Auburn’s sixth spring practice, it was “next step.” The Auburn coach said it seven times in the span of 10 minutes Tuesday evening.
“We challenged our guys that are returning starters (to) take that next step, take that next step to be an impact player,” Malzahn said. “Then, of course, we challenged our young guys and a handful of young guys that we feel like after five practices — we’ve kind of figured out, man, those guys have a chance to help us — they need to take that next step.”
Auburn’s players heard that message loud and clear. Sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson stressed its importance in his own time with the media.
“Just like our coach was telling us today, become an impact player,” Davidson said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to take on that role. It’s kind of hard, you know, because you don’t know too much about it.”
Darrell Williams is another returning starter who echoes Malzahn’s desire to improve across the board.
Auburn returns all three of its starting linebackers — Williams, Tre’ Williams and Deshaun Davis — for the 2017 season. Top backup Montavious Atkinson boasts a solid amount of experience as well. And while Auburn’s only loss at linebacker was reserve transfer T.J. Neal, the unit knows what its job is this spring.
“We’re just building on the great things that we accomplished last year and just want to take that next step,” Williams said. “Take everything to another level, you know what I’m saying? That was just one year under (linebackers coach Travis Williams). You can see his enthusiasm on being an even better coach than what he was.”
According to Williams, from the most veteran faces to the newest additions — for the players and the coaching staff alike — the message is the same.
“So we’re all just trying to take the next step,” Williams said. “What can we do to get to the next level of our full potential?”