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First impression promises to be lasting for Malzahn

The SportsXchange

After all the "new day" chatter, promises of clearing the 2012 season from fans' minds starts Saturday for Auburn University head coach Gus Malzahn.

The Tigers enter their opener as more than a two-touchdown favorite against Washington State, which finished 3-9 under first-year coach Mike Leach last season. The "Air Raid" offense presents obstacles for Auburn, of course, but this game is about much more than just match-ups.

For Malzahn, first impressions are everything.

"It's very important," he said. "Our effort, our attitude. How we handle adversity, how we handle success -- that's what I'm most curious about. And that's my expectation for our team. We have put last year behind us and we're moving forward. That's kind of been our theme and our motto and definitely this will be our first chance to see how our guys react against an opponent."

Auburn's offense will be led by newcomer Nick Marshall, whose speed and throwing accuracy have been praised throughout preseason camp. He won the starting job just two weeks ago, beating out three others, including four-game starter Kiehl Frazier, who moved to safety before the competition ended in the middle of August.

Auburn's troubles last season mostly dealt with an offense that couldn't score points. The Tigers moved to a pro-style attack after spending the three previous years under Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle system. Malzahn's back after a one-year stint at Arkansas State, of course, and so are many of the same players he recruited to fit in this specific, run-heavy offense.

"Up front we have a chance to be pretty good and we've got some good 'backs," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "We've got a lot of young guys at the skill spots we feel good about. It's just going to be a matter of how quick they come on and pick it up and start making plays."

The biggest concerns lie with the defense, which could suffer with depth issues in the secondary. The Tigers had to move two offensive players -- Frazier to boundary safety and freshman tailback Peyton Barber to safety -- to help combat the problems. The Tigers will attempt to mask those issues against the pass-first Cougars.

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson implemented his 4-2-5 scheme in the spring. The savvy veteran assistant coach very honest with his assessments, too, which provides some clarity and reality check for the Tigers at times.

His expectations for the defense?

"I don't have a clue," he said. "I know they give really good effort. In some aspects, they've completely grasped my system. In other areas, you can see them still trying to get a feel for it. There are a lot of situations that are occurring and they haven't been in that exact scenario. They don't really have the right answer; the right adjustment. So they're sort of in that state. I think we've made a lot of progress. Until you actually compete on a game field against another opponent and see how you perform, I don't think you ever really know."

The Tigers will find out Saturday at 6 p.m.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH VS. WASHINGTON STATE

--QB Nick Marshall makes his debut after impressing coaches and teammates behind closed doors during his first three-and-a-half weeks on campus. Coaches say he has been very accurate on short, intermediate and deep throws, and his ability to escape pressure and run -- 1,095 rushing yards at Garden City (Kan.) Community College last season -- gives the Tigers hope. How will he react under pressure and in front of 80,000-plus fans? He committed 25 turnovers (20 interceptions, five lost fumbles) last season on the junior college level.

--RB Cameron Artis-Payne also makes his debut after showing off his skills in spring practices. He was the Tigers' spring game MVP, rushing for 117 yards and catching two passes for 47 more. He could become the Tigers' go-to tailback in the system, which will rely on two running backs. He's bigger and, perhaps, tougher than returning starter Tre Mason and could be a big difference in the red zone. He also showed off some unexpected speed in the open field in the spring, and could be a threat on screen passes.

--DE Carl Lawson is only a freshman, but he has been one of the most talked about players on defense in preseason camp. The former five-star, blue-chip prospect turned ahead with his junior-like physique. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has already labeled him -- and Elijah Daniel -- as the Tigers' top pass rushers, but it's Lawson who could have a standout performance in Game 1. That's good news for the Tigers, who struggled to get to the quarterback last season.

Notes: S Demetruce McNeal was arrested on a charge of second degree possession of marijuana on Aug. 17 and was booted from the team later that same afternoon. He was the team's leading returning tackler (90 tackles) and had missed 16 straight practices dating back to spring due to "personal issues" and later minor surgery stemming from a staph infection. ... DE Dee Ford will miss the season opener with ligament damage in his left knee. The extent of the injury has not been released, but it could take longer for him to recover. Ford is the Tigers' top pass rusher, sacking six quarterbacks in 2012. ... TE Ricky Parks was booted from the team Aug. 2 for violating unspecified team rules. He was a backup, but was highly recruited out of high school and was expected to make an impact this season. ... QB Kiehl Frazier moved to boundary safety after it became clear he was not going to win the starting job at quarterback on Aug. 12. Frazier is likely the fourth player in the Tigers' rotation at both safety spots, but will likely see time in the first game at boundary safety. ... RB Peyton Barber, a freshman, moved to cornerback to help with depth. ... WR Tony Stevens, a freshman, may crack the rotation this season but is still recovering from a hamstring injury he suffered in preseason camp.
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