STARKVILLE, Miss. — Herb Hand is not one of those coaches that focuses on getting his starters as many reps as possible.
He’s more of a doomsday-prepper.
Instead of sticking to one unit to dominate practice time in the offseason, the first-year Auburn offensive line coach emphasized rotation and creating new combinations up front. He played the “what if” game over and over again, even going so far as training players at different positions.
“Some coaches will stick to the same five for every drill no matter what from spring to fall camp,” Auburn left guard Alex Kozan said. “Coach Hand likes to rotate guys. Not just because he thinks one player is better, it’s just that if somebody goes down with an ankle (injury) or tears something, God forbid, we need to be ready with guys to step up in certain spots.”
Auburn has been in one of those spots over the last two weeks. Senior center Xavier Dampeer played through an undisclosed injury in the second half of Auburn’s Week 4 win over LSU, forcing the Tigers to move left tackle Austin Golson back to his old position and bring in Darius James on the blind side.
The move worked in Week 5 against Louisiana-Monroe, when the Tigers had their best offensive day of the season in the red zone. So when Dampeer was less than 100 percent for Auburn’s visit to Mississippi State, the offensive staff decided to go with the new-look lineup again.
“We have a lot of confidence in Xavier,” Malzahn said. “But he was somewhere between 75 and 80 percent. We knew they were going to play a lot of zero nose with a guy that weighed about 320 pounds. We felt like that would be tough on him.”
The reshuffled lineup worked again for Auburn in a 38-14 win on Saturday. The Tigers dominated what was supposed to be a strong Bulldogs defense at the point of attack, paving the way for 335 first-half yards — their most before halftime since the 2014 Iron Bowl shootout.
I like Auburn's OL with Austin Golson at Center. Dominating State DL. #AUBvsMSST
— Jim Dunaway (@jimdunaway) October 8, 2016
Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway carried the ball a jaw-dropping 39 times against Mississippi State and punched it in for 3 touchdowns in red-zone situations. The Tigers finished with 224 yards on the ground.
“We talked about needing to run the ball downhill against these guys,” Malzahn said. “Our offensive line really did a great job getting push. They played a lot of odd fronts, so that put a lot of pressure on our center and tackles to get movement at the point of attack to create some seams.”
The new-look offensive line has done more than just create more opportunities up front for Auburn’s rushing attack.
The addition of James to the left side of the offensive line has provided better security in pass protection. Auburn allowed just 2 sacks and 3 tackles for loss Saturday against Mississippi State, which were by far the fewest against a Power 5 opponent in 2016.
With James at left tackle, quarterback Sean White has completed exactly 80 percent of his passes for 443 yards and 3 touchdowns. His performance against MSU was the most efficient against an SEC opponent in his young career.
“Darius has played great,” Kozan said. “I thought he did some good things in the run game today, and in pass pro, he’s done pretty well, too. Darius has really stepped his game up and become a better player.”
James entered the season as Auburn’s “sixth man” on the offensive line, repping at an extra tackle spot when the Tigers went with unbalanced sets. But Hand worked James at both left tackle and right tackle in case of emergency, just like he did with Golson at center.
Golson started 11 games at center last season for Auburn, but the Tigers moved him to left tackle in the offseason to provide more stability in the wake of Shon Coleman’s departure to the NFL. Now he’s back over the ball and meshing well up the middle with guards Kozan and Braden Smith.
“I feel like we went out and executed, and we had good communication,” Golson said. “We ran inside zone and that’s kind of what our goal was, to go out and run inside zone, and I think we did a really good job of it today.”
Now Auburn will enter the bye week with a tough decision to make. Will the coaching staff stick with Golson at center and James at left tackle whenever Dampeer gets back to 100 percent? Auburn has played its best offensive ball of the season with its new-look lineup up front.
No matter what the Tigers do, they’ll be able to lean on the numbers and chemistry Hand built in the offseason with his constant experimenting.
“It’s a blessing to have a guy that started (at center) last year,” Malzahn said. “We’re developing some depth up front. That’s always critical.”