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July 23, 2010Gene Chizik can sense it. After the Auburn coach made several stops this offseason speaking to and with Tiger fans around the Southeast, it was hard not to.
Coming off of his first year as head coach on the Plains, a year in which the Tigers won eight games including the Outback Bowl and signed a top-five recruiting class, fans have higher hopes for Auburn in 2010.
"There's a sense of excitement, an extreme sense of excitement," Chizik said Friday morning at SEC Media Days in Hoover.
Chizik wasn't talking only about the upcoming season. He expects to improve on the eight-win season of '09. He has a senior-laden offensive line, a championship-caliber quarterback, a proven senior tailback and his top two receivers back. And that's just on offense.
On defense, he has more depth, albeit young and inexperienced. His starting linebackers are back and won't have to play nearly every snap of every game as they did a year ago. Also back are senior defensive backs Aairon Savage and Zac Etheridge and junior Mike McNeil.
And the entire coaching staff remained intact.
But Chizik is also looking more at the bigger picture. He's looking more into the future, more at the direction the program is headed. And still, he likes what he sees. According to him, so do the fans.
"And rightfully so," he said.
The Tigers begin two-a-days Aug. 4. The day before, 25 signees from the '10 recruiting class will officially report to campus, although the majority has been in Auburn since June. In addition to the returning starters, Chizik and the Tigers will have more talent at their disposal. Auburn will be as close to 85 scholarship players, the NCAA maximum, as it could get.
That's a result of Auburn bringing in as many new players as allowed. Auburn will have added 30 players to the roster by the start of practice. Not only did the Tigers' have a top-five recruiting class, they had all but one qualify academically.
"That's rare," Chizik said. "That is a rarity. Roster management was probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges when we got here. We needed to get the numbers back up and we're getting real close (to 85).
"We feel like this is a great foresight into the type of young men that we want to come to Auburn. We're extremely happy that we were able to have that many. We have high expectations for them as a student at Auburn."
The expectations for the incoming class don't stop in the classroom. Chizik said most would be counted on to contribute immediately on the field.
"I met with all of the freshmen yesterday and basically the message was that we recruited them and we expect them to play," he said. "We hope that we eventually get to the point where we say if some of them are good enough to step in and help us, that's great, but if they're not and they can't do it right now, that's fine, too. But we aren't really there.
"We're more to the point of, 'I expect all of you to play and if you prove to me you can't then we'll proceed from there'. But they know our expectations of us needing them to fill a role somewhere on either offense, defense or special teams."
Chizik said having the entire coaching staff return would only help. Continuity among the coaches isn't something Auburn players are used to.
"The majority of our team has never had an offensive or defensive coordinator for more than one year," Chizik said. "I think they are excited about that. To be able to walk back in the meeting room and have the same guy who coached them the year before, there are a lot of guys on our team that haven't had that.
"We know the players. The players know us. At this time last year, we were trying to figure out who our football team was. We were trying to break the huddle. We feel like now we are trying to focus on being a great football team."
Savage, after sitting out the past two seasons because of injuries, received news earlier in the year that he'd been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Etheridge learned earlier this week he'd been cleared by the doctors to return from a neck injury suffered last season against Ole Miss.
"I'm really, really excited for (Etheridge)," said Chizik. "He's a great, great person. He's very blessed. It's been a journey, a lot of ups and downs, emotional for himself and his family. We're going to take this one step at a time. We're going to be very prudent on how we proceed with him.
"We're glad he's back. He brings a leadership element and experience element to our football team that is hard to get. He's got a high level of respect from all of his teammates. I think it's big for our football team."
The addition of Savage is just as big, said Chizik. The former All-SEC performer, like Etheridge, brings experience and leadership, two things teams can't get enough of.
"He's a great story. He's going to finish his master's degree before he stops playing here," Chizik said. "He's been through so many things. It's really neat because I recruited him. I recruited him when I was here before. He has a very special place in my heart just for what he's been through, our relationship before I left and to see him be able to come back and get his sixth year here."
*** Chizik brought Savage, senior linebacker Josh Bynes and senior offensive lineman Lee Ziemba to SEC Media Days to represent Auburn. All three were easy choices, he said.
"(Ziemba) could've come out for the NFL draft," Chizik said. "He could've made a lot of money, but he chose to come back to Auburn because he loves Auburn. I have a lot of respect for him.
"(Bynes) is a guy who literally took every single defensive snap we took last year. Even in our nickel and dime packages, he was our mainstay on the defense. He was our leading tackler. He played beat up. He played tired. We were on the field a lot on defense and he was always out there."
*** Chizik also addressed the hot topic of Media Days, NFL agents. Chizik said Auburn's compliance department should be credited for keeping the Tigers' players educated on the rules regarding agents. And if a player breaks those rules, there is only one person to blame.
"The way I see it, a lot of this has to go back on the young guy," said Chizik. "He has to have an allegiance to his school, to his teammates, to his coaches. I think everyone probably does a pretty good job of trying to educate their kids, but if the kid knows right from wrong and they choose to do wrong then they don't have those allegiances."
*** Auburn begins two-a-days Aug. 4. The Tigers' season opener against Arkansas State is one month later, Sept. 4, with a kickoff time of 6 p.m. The game will be televised by Fox Sports South.