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AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The Auburn defensive players have two big tasks heading into the Outback Bowl: Preparing to face Melvin Gordon and trying to make a good first impression on their new coordinator.
The 19th-ranked Tigers have had a few days of practice with Will Muschamp mostly observing. They've watched videos of the animated former Florida coach giving his players chest bumps, hugs and fiery tongue-lashings alike.
"It's been mostly sitting back and observing us right now," linebacker Kris Frost said. "Seeing videos that guys show us and also just meeting him and talking to him, you can just tell he loves what he does. He's a perfectionist at it. It's about us doing all we can to please him, and we know that next year it's going to be a really fun year for us."
The new year starts with the bowl game against Gordon and No. 17 Wisconsin. Safeties coach Charlie Harbison, not Muschamp, will preside over the beleaguered defense through New Year's Day.
The practices and games are virtual auditions for players trying to win or hold onto starting spots leading up to next season.
Coach Gus Malzahn fired veteran Southeastern Conference coordinator Ellis Johnson after a late-season slide that left the Tigers ranked in the bottom half of the league in most major defensive categories.
The Tigers run defense faces a huge challenge in Gordon, a Heisman Trophy finalist who has rushed for 2,336 yards and 26 touchdowns.
They were pounded for 100-plus yards by both Georgia's Nick Chubb and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon in their last two SEC games.
While getting ready for Gordon and the Badgers is the primary challenge, Auburn players are also keenly aware of Muschamp's presence.
"You're starting fresh, so it's a good thing for everybody," cornerback Jonathan Jones said. "Whereas some coaches might already have a certain opinion about you, you're able to change their perception. It's a great thing being able to start fresh."
Two of Auburn's top defenders, junior linebackers Frost and Cassanova McKinzy, are also considering skipping their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft. Frost said he hasn't made his decision yet.
"We've both been talking to each other through this whole entire process," he said. "It kind of feels like recruiting all over again. We've both been weighing out the options of coming our early or staying. It's all about how we feel, going into this bowl game how we play, what's right for us, what's the right business decision for us and our families. "
Whether they stay or go will be big for a defense already short on linebackers. The Tigers will switch back from Johnson's 4-2-5 base defense to the more standard 4-3, which employs a four-man front, three linebackers and four defensive backs.
Muschamp's initial take on Auburn's defense upon his arrival was that the linemen and linebackers were "very strong." He also pointed to the season-long absence of defensive end Carl Lawson, the team's top pass rusher, with a knee injury.
"I recruited a bunch of them, so I am looking forward to coaching some of them who turned me down," Muschamp said. "When you lose a guy like Carl Lawson, a pass rusher like that, that is going to affect your coaching ability, I can tell you that right now. I'm looking forward to working with those guys, but we've got a good enough combination of guys. We'll be fine."
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