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Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn Press Conference

January 1, 2017

COACH MALZAHN:  First of all, good morning. Happy New Year. Like I said earlier, our team is extremely excited to be here, playing a very good Oklahoma team. We have had a very good week. The hospitality has been great, our focus of our players during practice has been great, and they’re ready to play the game. So I’m looking forward to watching us play and going from there.

Q. Gus, Auburn, over the decades, has built itself into a nationally relevant program, and it’s done so in a state with an already established national power like Alabama. Everybody in college football seems to be playing in their shadow. You have only been here short time, but from your perspective, how has Auburn been able to do that, to rise to the top, two national title games?  And what are the factors that have allowed Auburn to become what it has become?

COACH MALZAHN:  First of all, Auburn is a great program, way before I got there, with a lot of tradition. It’s a great school. It’s a place that you can recruit the best players in the country. You know, I was a coordinator for three years. We won the National Championship in 2010. I have been the Head Coach for the last four years. But I would just say overall it’s a great university and it’s a place that you can get the top players in the country to come to, and it’s the best conference in college football, in my opinion, to play. So I think it’s all of the above.

Q. Coach Malzahn, your team is finally back to close to 100%. How important is that heading into this game against a high quality opponent?

COACH MALZAHN:  I think you’re right. They’re a high quality opponent, one of the best teams in college football, in my opinion. We were a young team starting out and the expectations were extremely low. We were picked either last or next to last in our league or in our division. We played a tough schedule early, lost some tough games. And then we got in a stretch about halfway through the season, and we were playing very good football. We were growing up. The roles were defined offensively and defensively, and individually, from a player’s standpoint.

Then we had a couple of tough injuries, and we played a tough schedule going down the end. But we are close to 100%. That’s really exciting from a coach’s standpoint. You just kind of feel a complete different feel from our players and our coaches ever since the bowl prep started. So, really looking forward to watching our team play.

Q. You mentioned at various points throughout the year how much adversity this team has been able to fight through. With that in mind, first of all, how much have they met and maybe even exceeded your expectations in some ways in that regard?  And also, do you think it’s fitting for them that they should go out with a win in this game?

COACH MALZAHN:  Well, definitely, I have said this all year:  This is one of the top leadership groups I have been a part of, if not the best leadership group. And there was some extreme adversity early. There are always high expectations at Auburn. We expect to win championships. And, when you go through adversity, you find out truly the true character of your team.  And our leadership just took over. And so it would be very fitting for this team to go out with a victory.

Q. Gus, Robert Leff had spoken about exceeding his own expectations even for this season. And there’s been some favorable analysis to see just how impactful he has been, particularly in run blocking. Can you speak to Robert Leff’s season and how strong a season he ended up having his final year.

COACH MALZAHN:  Robert [Leff] has turned into one of our better offensive players. He has really raised his level. You always talk about having good teams. They have their seniors play their best, and Robert was definitely one of those guys. We have a lot of confidence in him not just to run behind him. But he has really turned himself into a very efficient pass protector, and he will have a chance to play at the next level.

Q. Oklahoma’s strength, obviously, is their offense, running and throwing. Just talk about the challenge dealing with that and dealing with Oklahoma’s offense.

COACH MALZAHN:  I think you just said it. They’re very good at running the football. They’re very good at throwing the football. The challenge is making them one dimensional, and our defense has played well all year. They’re going to have to play well again tomorrow night. But it’s a huge challenge. The quarterback is [Baker Mayfield] I’m very impressed with him. Obviously, he is an outstanding playmaker, makes a good decision when things break down. He plays with that edge.  And all of the big time quarterbacks have that edge.  He has that. I’m very impressed with the [Dede] Westbrook kid. He is a phenomenal player when he gets the ball, especially in space.

And then [Joe] Mixon, he is one of the best running backs in all of college football. And not just running, but he is such a good receiver. So he presents a lot of different challenges. I think the first two were in New York for the Heisman, and I think he could have been there just as well. I think they have got some outstanding players.

Q. Coach, can you talk about your quarterback and how Sean [White] has looked after he has come back healthy and what we can expect?  We haven’t seen a whole lot of him.

COACH MALZAHN:  Sean White kind of took over the reins week three, started playing really good football. He was one of the top passing efficiency guys in our league in that stretch before he got hurt. He has practiced every practice that we have had bowl prep, and he is close to 100%. And it gives our guys a lot of confidence. He is capable of throwing the football, and he’s capable of running when he has to, too.

Q. In these days of social media and big salaries and all of those things, the criticism that seems to naturally come with that, how do you as a coach deal with that and how do your players deal with it?

COACH MALZAHN:  Are you talking about from a player’s standpoint or coach’s standpoint?

Q. Both your standpoint and the players’ standpoint.

COACH MALZAHN:  I think for me, personally, I turn off all of my social media throughout the year. That definitely helps. I always talk to our players about doing the same thing and just staying focused. I think that’s a big challenge in college football these days with the new social media craze and the Twitter and everything that goes with it and just staying focused.  So we talk to our players a lot about that. And specifically quarterbacks; high impact players.

Q. Coach, you know running the ball is the mainstay of the offense. But how important is it to implement more of a passing attack against the Oklahoma team that does struggle a little bit against it?

COACH MALZAHN:  I think any time you play the better type opponents, the better balanced you have to be. When we have been our best, we have been capable of throwing the football efficiently. Even if we haven’t thrown it a lot, we were efficient when we did throw it.  And so that is going to be a big key. I mean, we are going to have to throw the ball efficiently tomorrow night to have a chance to win.

Q. Gus, at the Iron Bowl, you had indicated that we could see more of John Franklin, III. And I was curious, not give away the game plan here, but with Sean White back healthy, do you still anticipate being able to integrate John more, particularly in the passing game as you said after the Iron Bowl?  Or with Sean healthy, is that no longer on the table?

COACH MALZAHN:  As you remember, we weren’t really for sure about Sean’s status. But Sean is healthy. And Sean is our quarterback.  John has taken all of the number two reps. And we feel confident, when he gets in there, that he will have a chance to do well. But Sean White is our starting quarterback.

Q. A lot of the bowl games, the kicking game has been very unusual or interesting players. Have you guys spent a lot of time on that in practice?

COACH MALZAHN:  I think so. You look at bowl games, and a lot of times the bowl games look really sloppy. And a lot of times it’s the special teams. And we have really tried to spend more time in the special teams. Oklahoma has a very good special teams unit, you know, in each one of their phases. So we have spent a lot of time, and you know that will be a big part of the game also.

Q. Gus, what has been the difference between Will Muschamp to Kevin Steele?  And how have their approaches led to where you are defensively now, being number 5 in scoring defensive players?  You seem to really, really like Kevin Steele and his personality.

COACH MALZAHN:  First of all, you’re talking about two very good defensive coordinators. Kevin came in, and he is a player’s coach. He really developed strong relationships early with our guys. He adapted to them. We didn’t really change our terminology. He adapted the terminology that our guys already knew. And I think that made a big impact on our players. And they know that he is in it with them. And they really played extremely hard. They have been focused. Kevin is a very detailed guy. He doesn’t miss anything. They really have responded to him. And we have had a very good year defensively. And we have a chance to be even better in the future. So with his leadership, we’re very excited about that.

Q. With the start you guys had in the season, losing a couple of games, was there ever a moment at all where you kind of noticed they were about to go on that run that you guys went on?  And when you’re at that point in the season, how do you know you’re going to enter the Sugar Bowl?

COACH MALZAHN:  Just looking back you know, I had said this when we had the tough two losses that were close at home. I knew we were close as a team. I knew we were capable of being a good team. We just had to do it. Obviously, we played the LSU game and we challenged every one. And we found a way to win that game. And after that, then we kind of were able to get on a roll and have a solid season.

Q. Gus, every game is important. But what would this game mean for you to get this victory in your program moving forward in 2017, considering what you have coming back?

COACH MALZAHN:  It’s very important. We’re playing the Sugar Bowl. Traditionally, the Sugar Bowl, in my opinion, is the best bowl in all of college football. And it really means a lot, especially in the SEC. And playing one of the top teams in the country, against Oklahoma, that presents so many challenges, and to be able to get a victory in this game will be huge. You know, the future is very bright in our program. But obviously, any time you win a bowl game, you get great momentum. So it would be very big.

Q. The last time we asked about Marcus Davidson, that was kind of iffy as to whether he was going to be able to play in this game.  Is there a kind of update there?

COACH MALZAHN:  Marcus Davis, first of all, Stephen Roberts will be our starting punt returner.  Marcus has really battled hard to try to get back. He’s just not able to do what he needs to do to play on a consistent basis. I’m not saying we may not try to put him in there in a specialized role, but you know, Marcus is one of our leaders. He has been a very solid player for us for four years. He tried his best, but it doesn’t look very promising right now.

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