He saw several of his young players step up and deliver in the victory, giving the team some momentum heading into off-season.
But since the calendar has flipped to 2012, the Tigers have had all sorts of changes to deal with – none more difficult than the June 9 shootings at an Auburn apartment complex that took the lives of three men, including former players Ladarious Phillips and Ed Christian. Current Tiger guard Eric Mack also suffered injuries in the shooting.
During Chizik’s opening comments at SEC Media Days in Hoover on July 18, he thanked everyone for the outpouring of support throughout the team’s difficult time.
“I’m very proud of our football team,” Chizik said. “I think in the midst of some very difficult times, they’ve really bonded together and done a great job of trying to move forward. They, without question, are still dealing with some of those issues. We’ve got to still plow through some of those tough days, and we know that. We’re providing all the resources for them possible to keep them moving in a positive direction.”
The Tigers are also having to adjust to the styles of new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and new defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder.
The 37-year-old Loeffler takes over for Gus Malzahn, who is now the head coach at Arkansas State. A former quarterback at Michigan, Loeffler has worked with several quarterback standouts throughout his coaching career, including Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Chad Henne, Drew Henson and, more recently, Tim Tebow.
In addition to being an assistant coach at Michigan (2002-07), Loeffler also has some pro experience with the NFL’s Detroit Lions (2008) and the University of Florida (2009-10). He spent last season as the offensive coordinator at Temple, where he helped the Owls go 9-4. Loeffler was hired at Auburn in late January.
“Scot has come in and run a little bit different type of offense than we’ve been used to doing, but it’s not completely different in every phase,” Chizik said. “He has had a lot of different experiences in his background as an offensive coach, and he’s a tremendous quarterback-developing type of football coach. That’s very important.”
Loeffler has two returning quarterbacks in which to work with: junior Clint Moseley and sophomore Kiehl Frazier.
Moseley passed 800 yards and five touchdowns last season. Frazier, in a situational role, was only 5 of 12 for 34 yards, but he also rushed for 327 yards and three scores – two of which came in the victory over Virginia.
Chizik said he’s not going to put a timeline on naming a starter.
“It’s going to be a battle,” he said. “Obviously in two-a-days is when that’s going to be decided. However, I will say the sooner the better.”
Whoever’s behind center will have plenty of weapons to utilize.
Returning to the Tiger backfield is senior running back Onterrio McCalebb. McCalebb was the Tigers’ second-leading rusher a year ago with 641 yards on 112 carries with five touchdowns. He also caught 32 passes for 344 yards and two scores.
Senior wide receiver Emory Blake and senior tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen give the Tigers two experienced pass catchers. Blake was Auburn’s top receiver last year, with 36 catches for 613 yards and five touchdowns. Lutzenkirchen was third on the team with 24 receptions for 238 yards and seven scores.
Both Blake and Lutzenkirchen are excited to see what changes Loeffler has in store for the Tiger offense.
“It’s more of a pro-style offense, more under center than what we did last year. I like it,” Blake said. “It’s going to give me more opportunities to make some plays and more plays in the passing game in general.”
Added Lutzenkirchen: “It just goes back to a more traditional standpoint. Week in and week out, depending on the defense, we’ll do a number of different things. You’ll probably see more under center from us this year, more two-back with a true fullback with (junior) Jay Prosch.”
Lutzenkirchen said his role in the offense returns him to “a more traditional tight end.”
“I’m still doing a lot of the same stuff as I’ve done in the past, being in the backfield, motioning around, and the same type of blocking, but I’m also more involved in the pass game this year as opposed to what I’ve done in the past.”
The Tiger defense also has its share of adjustments to make with Van Gorder.
Van Gorder comes to the Tigers after spending the past five years with the Atlanta Falcons. He also coached linebackers with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005.
Van Gorder also has plenty of college coaching experience, including the head coaching position at Georgia Southern in 2006 and defensive coordinator for the University of Georgia from 2001-04.
“We go back a long ways,” Chizik said of Van Gorder. “Philosophically, we’re on the exact same page with what we believe in defensively and what we think is the right mixture of a lot of different things, coverage and front-wise. Another guy who has SEC experience and NFL experience, so that’s a great thing.”
Like Loeffler with the offense, Van Gorder has plenty of talent in which to mold on defense.
Darren Bates, the Tigers’ top-leading tackler from last season, returns at linebacker. Bates posted 104 total stops with 2 ½ sacks and a fumble recovery in 2011.
Senior T’Sharvan Bell leads the Tiger defensive backfield. He tallied 45 total stops with seven pass break-ups, two interceptions and forced a fumble.
Anchoring the defensive line is 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior end Corey Lemonier. Lemonier had 47 total tackles (13 ½ for lost yardage), forced five fumbles, recovered another, blocked a kick and posted 9 ½ sacks last season.
Lemonier said he’s anxious to put Van Gorder’s system into play.
“I think the whole new attack-style defense, especially defensive line-wise, is just to go attack the tackle and tight end, just be a ball player,” he said. “I think that’s going to help us out a lot.”
The changes the Tigers implement on offense and defense will get their first test on Sept. 1 against Clemson in the Georgia Dome. Auburn lost at Clemson last season 38-24.
“It’ll be a real good test for us with our younger line and our new coordinators,” Lutzenkirchen said. “We’ll just have to see how that goes. I think if we escape out of those first three games of the year undefeated, then I think this team has a really good chance of doing something special this year.”