AUBURN — If Gus Malzahn was still Auburn's offensive coordinator, "I would not have a smile on my face right now," he said Thursday inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn had just finished its first scrimmage of fall camp, and while all eyes were on the offense to see which quarterback (Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix) would emerge as the starter for an Aug. 31 opener against Oregon in Arlington, Texas, the main takeaway was how dominant the team's veteran defense looked.
The seventh-year head coach can be happy about at least half of that, though.
"From a head coach's standpoint, you want the defense to be as good as it can be and the offense to be as good as it can be," Malzahn said. "On days like this, my experience is that the one group that doesn't do well one day, they need to respond the next time. We'll see if they respond. That's the good thing, from a coach's standpoint. Because the reality is, we're pretty good on defense."
Overall, Malzahn said, the Tigers had a good first scrimmage on an extremely hot day. They did live punt and punt return, turned up the stadium music and went through third down situations, then ran 84 plays of base offense and defense between the first-, second- and third-team units.
"We got a lot of great information today," Malzahn said. "We’re asking the guys coming back, even if they’re this and that, we’re asking them to raise their level. So it’s going to be some really good information to watch as far as that goes."
Here is some of what we learned:
The defense 'dominated'
Auburn's defense has often won the first scrimmages of the spring and fall since defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been on staff, and Thursday was no different.
A group returning seven of 11 starters from last season forced three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) and nearly had a fourth when a running back fumbled a ball out of bounds.
Senior corner Javaris Davis returned one of the interceptions (which was deflected off a receiver who "had a chance to catch it") for a touchdown, and safety Smoke Monday came up with the other on a "great play." The fumble that was recovered by the defense was after a completed pass.
Defensive lineman Nick Coe let slip that there might have been a third interception, too, but Malzahn didn't address that one.
"The thing I’m excited about the most is the turnovers," said Malzahn, who added that the defense's run fits were good, as well. "Attacking the football and breaking on the football and getting after it. That’s been a focus, too.”
The offense 'didn't move the ball very well'
It wasn't just turnovers; Auburn's defense dominated every aspect of the scrimmage. There were four touchdowns scored, only three were scored by the offense, and only one of those came against the first-team defense.
Wide receiver Shedrick Jackson scored one of them. Running back Harold Joiner scored another on a long run while Nix was in at quarterback. Wide receiver Matthew Hill scored on a 10-yard catch and run, but that one is being disputed.
"We had a sack, and then... they didn't call it a sack," Coe said. "I can't tell. It was a little adversity moment, but I'm going to say, yeah, maybe. I saw it as a touchdown, but I didn't really see it as a touchdown."
Overall, Malzahn said, "there wasn't even enough first downs" to even evaluate how the first-team offense performed.
"Offensively we have to be better, really, as a whole," he continued. "That’s really what stood out to me. Not just one group. We just, they didn’t move the ball very well."
"It was really hot outside, and I think we let that get the best of us as a unit," senior left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho added. "I think, like, the O-line and offense entirely, we didn't play up to our standard. We've just got to improve. Good thing we've got another scrimmage coming up."
No movement on QBS
Anyone thinking that Thursday's scrimmage might provide some answers as to which of Gatewood or Nix would start against Oregon in a little more than three weeks is in for disappointment — Malzahn said he "100 percent" needs at least one more scrimmage before he would be ready to name a one of them the winner of the competition.
"They’re going to need as many reps as they can get back there behind. They’re going to need to feel that," he said. "There’s nothing like a scrimmage for a quarterback. That’s what they look forward to and what coaches look forward to. You find out a lot when you call plays and you spot the ball and bring it back and you run another play, but there’s like being out there, down and distance, and being able to think like a quarterback and really be thinking like a coach, too."