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December 29, 2011

Emory Blake

Gus Malzahn

Tommy Thigpen

Jeffrey Whitaker


MATT GARVEY:  We'll go ahead and get started.  Coach Malzahn, just an opening comment from you, if you could talk about your bowl week experience thus far and maybe how it's compared to other trips.
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  First of all, it's a great bowl.  It's been a lot of fun, I think the experience for our players and for our coaches.  Practice has been very sharp.  Our players have been excited, especially since we got here to Atlanta.  We've had the game plan in for well before Christmas, so it's been kind of fine tuning everything.
Great bowl experience and we can't wait to play the game.
MATT GARVEY:  Emory, at the beginning when you came in, we talked about the 'live, laugh and learn' philosophy of bowl week.  Have you gotten to do that?  What has been your favorite bowl week event so far?
EMORY BLAKE:¬† We've had a great experience here in Atlanta.¬† We've had a great week of practice.¬† We've had a lot of fun at the events.¬† I'm looking forward to the go‑karting.¬† We'll see how that is.
MATT GARVEY:  Coach Thigpen, for your opening statement, talk about what the bowl week experience has been like for you so far.
COACH TOMMY THIGPEN:  Fantastic.  This is one of my most favorite cities in the world.  I've been recruiting this city for about 12 years now.  Always had Atlanta.  Great appreciation for the city.
Actually, this is the first bowl I ever played in as a college player.¬† Played in the Peach Bowl in '93.¬† Best experience of our lives.¬† When we got announced for the Chick‑fil‑A Bowl, was excited.¬† Old memories.¬† Beat Mississippi State in '93 when you first started this bowl.¬† So I'm familiar with it.
First class.  Kids are enjoying it.  We're having a great time.
MATT GARVEY:  Great to hear.
Jeffrey, how about you, your favorite bowl week experience so far?
JEFFREY WHITAKER:  I think just chilling with my teammates, just hanging out, that team bond.  It's been a tremendous experience for me and I know just speaking for my teammates it's been for them as well.
MATT GARVEY:  With that, we'll go ahead and open it up to questions.

Q.  Gus, walk us through what your days have been like here, how much you spend time on Arkansas State and Auburn.
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  The good thing is we had the game plan in before we made the trip here.  It has been extremely busy.  I've been focusing in on Auburn in the morning, practice, coming back and grading it.  In the evening, thinking about Arkansas State as far as hiring the staff, recruiting.
It's been busy, but a very exciting time for me.

Q.  Gus, as far as Arkansas State, have you got much of your staff lined up yet?  How has that been going?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  I'm trying to be patient to get the right fit.  We've hired an offensive coordinator.  We're in the process of hiring some more.  Probably in the next week we'll be close to filling it.

Q.  Gus, when you were at Tulsa, you coached the bowl game and then came to Auburn.  How busy is it now that you're going to be a head coach, transitioning into doing that?  You said you're pretty busy all day.  How much do you sleep?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  Not much.  But the good thing is I do have experience doing this before.  When I was first hired here at Auburn, like you said, we did play in the bowl game in Mobile.  I had the same formula here.  Me and Coach Chizik, we interviewed coaches in the evening, in the afternoons I actually recruited for Auburn, in the mornings, during practice just focused on Tulsa.
It's good that I've had that experience before.  It worked extremely well in that bowl and I'm hoping to do the same thing here.

Q.  Gus, the sense is your last game at Auburn, are you going to go for broke with the way you call the game, the way you guys attack Virginia.
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  I'll tell you this, it's been a great experience for me.  Coaching here at Auburn has been a true blessing for me.  Definitely we want to go out on a high note.
It could be more aggressive as far as play calling goes.  I'm excited.  Want to give these guys the best chance of winning.  It's been a true blessing for me to coach Emory Blake, Lutzenkirchen, the guys that were the first class we recruited.  Going to do my best job to help these guys be successful.

Q.  Gus, how much do you soak up this last week you get with these players you've been around?  Emory, as a player, how much do you soak up enjoying your offensive coordinator for one more week?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  I'm just trying to take it in.  I'm extremely close to our coaches and players.  I'm trying not to get too emotional.  I'll wait till the end to do that.  I'm trying to savor the moment.  Like I said earlier, it's such a blessing for me to be part of the Auburn family.  It will be one of those great memories I'll have for a long time.
This game right here, I'd like to end it on a positive experience.
EMORY BLAKE:  Definitely going to miss Coach Malzahn.  He recruited me.  He told me everything we would do, and we accomplished that.  He told me a lot of people will know who I am, we'll win a national championship.  Everything he told me we accomplished.  Very proud to be coached by him and definitely going to miss him.

Q.  Gus, this is really the only sport, college football, where you have this kind of situation:  straddling two different jobs.  Having been through it already, now going through it a second time, is there a better way to do it?  Is there any awkwardness as you try to get back into Auburn?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  The first thing I always think about is what is best for the players.  It's not about coaches.  It's what's best for the players.  I was thankful Coach Chizik gave me the opportunity to finish this thing right and coach these guys throughout the bowl season and I was thankful Arkansas State gave me the opportunity to do both.
It is a very challenging thing to do, but I think you have to think about what is best for the kids and the players.

Q.  Is there a better way to do it?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  College football is an interesting profession.  I'm a high school football coach, only been doing this for six years.  That's the thing that's unfortunate about this business, there's a lot of coaches that move on and a lot of players that don't have coaches that were with them throughout the year.  That's a tough deal.
Like I said earlier, I'm thankful I can finish this thing with the team I started with.

Q.  Coach Thigpen, how much different do you feel like this team is different from week 12 till now?
COACH TOMMY THIGPEN:  We started probably the second most freshmen in the country this year.  Watching guys like Blackson, Sigler.  A lot of those guys are starting to grow up now.  Tremendous strides.  Last two or three weeks in practice for the bowl game has been like going through spring ball again for us.  So it's a different team.
I always say guys improve from their freshmen year to their second year.  Emory, look at his first season, Whitaker, his first season, they struggle the first season.  Now a hundred percent difference.
Our younger guys are starting to get older.  This has allowed us to get extra spring ball for our young guys to keep playing.  So there's been a tremendous improvement with our defense.
JEFFREY WHITAKER:  The young guys is getting better.  Just the defense as a whole, you can just see the intensity, the tempo, everybody has their mind set on winning.  That's the goal that we've got.

Q.  Thig, with Gene being the defensive coordinator the last few weeks, do you feel he's more personally invested what's going to happen on Saturday?
COACH TOMMY THIGPEN:  Yes, no doubt.  It's showing in the hours, they're spending time on it.  Chiz played linebacker in college at Florida.  He's taken a tremendous interest in our young guys, with Toro.  Toro is communicating the best I've ever seen.  He's out there making checks, having fun.  Chiz is on him.
They're taking a lot of pride in their technique, asking all the right questions.  It's fun to watch them.  Those guys are taking a lot of pride with Chiz out there on their butts every day.
With Chiz out there as our D coordinator, a lot of intensity and a lot of coaching going on and a lot of film work.  Guys taking a lot of pride coming in extra time and study about Virginia this week.

Q.  Thig, talk a little bit about Virginia's offense, what they're trying to do, maybe confusing secondaries.  Gus, talk a little bit about what you see on the defense.
COACH TOMMY THIGPEN:  What we're seeing is a team that doesn't allow you to do much on defense.  With all the shifting and the motions, they create a lot of confusion.  So if you have a young team like we have, it limits you.  You're watching teams that play, not playing much man coverage because of the shifts, motions, misfits.  We have to be pretty vanilla.  Communication is key.
They take a lot of pride in running the football.¬† That's been Virginia's MO ever since I was in high school.¬† I'm from Virginia, so I was recruited by Virginia back in the day.¬† Doesn't seem like they've changed much at all as far as run the ball, run the ball, play‑action.
They do a tremendous job.  Offensive line is big, strong.  Kind of looks like an SEC team.  They run the ball.  Take a lot of pride in running that football.
For us, communication has to be right on point and we can't bust any assignments.
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  Yes, Virginia's defense is very sound.  They're very impressive up front.  They play a great run defense especially in between the boxes.  Try to keep things in front of them.  They try to make you earn it.  Very few big plays.
At the same time they'll pick and choose when they pressure.¬† They do a very good job pressuring.¬† I'm impressed.¬† They're well‑coached.¬† You can tell, the guys know what they're doing, they know the situations and they're going to make you earn it.

Q.  Emory, going back from last year, you were preparing to play for a national championship.  Is this the way you thought it would be for the team this year?
EMORY BLAKE:  As for the team, of course we had higher expectations.  Every team's goal should be to go undefeated and go to the national championship.  For us that wasn't the case this year.  I believe we played to the best of our ability and our coaches coached to the best of their ability.  Here we are.
This week is our focus.  We're trying to win the game.  But as far as me, a little disappointed I got injured.  But injuries happen and you got to bounce back.  I'm just trying to get back to 100%.

Q.  You had the experience last year of coaching here last year in the dome for the championship game.  Contrast that experience for coming for a week to Atlanta, practicing here in the dome, talk about the difference in those two experiences.
COACH TOMMY THIGPEN:  Our operation has always been the same.  Our focus is to win the football game.  We were in the national championship last year.  Our focus was to win that game.  We're treating this the same way.  We come here to win this game against the University of Virginia.  All week long we've been studying film, just like we studied against Oregon last year.  As a matter of fact, I think we're putting more time this year in preparation for Virginia than we did against Oregon.
We started our game plan a couple weeks ago and it's continued on all the way up till last night.  Our preparation has been actually better for us as a team with this young football team that we have.
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  Last time we were here we had a great experience.  There's a lot of great memories.  It is one of our players and coaches favorite places to play.  This is where they play the SEC championship game.  Looking forward to playing here and hopefully we can have another good experience.

Q.  Jeffrey, you guys have maybe the youngest bunch of defensive tackles around this season.  Talk about how far you've come as a group and how you see the future.
JEFFREY WHITAKER:  We came a long way.  Like what Coach Thig said earlier.  This is our second year together, first year starting together.  But last year the struggles and everything.
We're coming along this year.  Started off kind of not that much expectation level that everybody thought.  Just surprised a lot of people.
This group, the potential of this defensive line, it's through the roof.  I mean, to have Corey, Nosa Eguae, Blackson, Gabe Wrights, it looks pretty good.  The future is looking bright.  The deal is we're trying to showcase all the talent Saturday and let everybody know what the future is going to look like.

Q.  Jeffrey, talk a little bit about the Virginia offensive line, what you've seen of them on film.
JEFFREY WHITAKER:  Very big offensive line.  A little like an SEC offensive line.  They're very big, powerful.  They love to run the rock.  They like to come off the ball, use their hands.  The deal is going to be stopping the run.  We know what we got to do.

Q.  Jeffrey, when Kenny Carter got beat out by Gabe Wright, we were thinking we may not see much of him again.  Talk about the way Kenny handled that, got back on top.
JEFFREY WHITAKER:  Kenny handled it well.  He handled it like a professional.  The deal is, just go out there.  The coach makes the decision about who is going to play.  You leave it in the coach's hand and do your job.
Ken kept coming to practice, working hard, kept improving.  He's back in the starting role.

Q.  Gus, can you talk about what your level of interaction has been with the players currently at Arkansas State, how much time you got to spend with them?  Also, in the recruiting world, what has been the response been when you've called people?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:¬† First of all, I got a chance to meet the team, speak to a few of them individually ‑ not as many as I'd like.¬† When I get back, we'll get right on that.
The response has been great.  As a matter of fact, we had some very good players call us.  Very excited about the future.  Really looking forward to taking that program to the next level.

Q.  Coach Thig, you talked about Coach Chizik's intensity taking over the defense.  We've heard that from players.  Can you give any examples of how is he different as a defensive coordinator in that role as opposed to the head coach.
COACH TOMMY THIGPEN:¬† He's very detail‑oriented.¬† Chiz is this way.¬† He's going to ask a question to the player, and you better have an answer, especially if you've been over it.¬† If he asks you that question on the field, you don't answer it correctly, you have to deal with it (laughter).
Makes guys accountable.  When they leave the meeting room, you can see the guys scrambling through their notes, trying to make sure when they go on the football field that they are doing exactly what he told them to do when it transfers over to the field.
It's been intense.  When guys make a mistake, you can see them running over to make sure that he knows that they made the mistake or whatnot but they know exactly what they did.
He's making those guys accountable when they're on the field.  He's doing the same thing for us on the back end as well.  Asks a lot of questions.
As a player, you want that.  You want guys to make you better.  When you go in to lead the field, you want football to keep going.  Kids' minds, when they go to their room, you want them thinking about what calls and checks to make on the field.

Q.  You talk about the experience you had playing in this bowl game.  Talk about how important that is for college athletes to get a chance to do the bowl experience.  Gus, I know you've been a part of a few.  But you obviously coach in the biggest game, too.  Talk about the bowl experience for players and even for coaches.
COACH TOMMY THIGPEN:¬† I've had the experience of being home during Christmastime, and that's the most awful feeling in the world.¬† You want to be somewhere playing, especially in the Chick‑fil‑A Bowl.¬† For me it's another chance for our kids to get better, be around each other, and it's a reward for having a successful season.
For me, I love going to bowl games.  I love the gifts.  I know going to my room and knowing it's going to be Christmastime when I get there.
The bowl experience for me, as a personal coach, you love to get a chance to go win again.¬† That's what the Chick‑fil‑A Bowl has given us a chance to do.
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  You work all year, this is kind of a reward for the coaches and the players.  From a coach's standpoint, it's a lot of fun.  You have more time to prepare, enjoy the experience.  At the same time you want to end on a good note and carry that momentum for the next year.

Q.  Can you talk about the work of McCalebb and Tre Mason and seizing this opportunity.  Do you feel comfortable with a third option?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  We have big shoes to fill for both those guys.  I think they're up for the challenge.  Onterio and Tre are working hard.  We're going to be asking a lot of those guys.  At the same time Quan Bray can get some reps, too.  We'll have to see how the game transpires, but those two will get the majority.

Q.  Gus, do you plan any kind of different rotation for the quarterbacks than what we saw during the season?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  Anytime you have a lengthy bit of time to evaluate, get more reps, you can see a couple different wrinkles, all that.  It will be pretty much starting out status quo, but we will have some different things we didn't have during the season.

Q.  Talk about the milkshake contest, Auburn coming out with their first win.
JEFFREY WHITAKER:  It was a great experience.  We as a team, we sat up there and watched.  They had perfect technique making the milkshakes.  It was good.  It was good.  Everybody had a chance to go and get a milkshake, whatever kind you wanted to get.  So everybody had a chance, coaches, players, everybody.

Q.  Gus, has Kyle improved during the bowl practices?
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  There's no doubt.  We've given him a lot of reps, too, even before we got here.  He's got a bright future.  He's going to be a great quarterback.  It's been good to slow down and work on some fine tuning.  He's responded extremely well.

Q.  Thig, you talked about Toro earlier.  Considering all what he's been through since he got to Auburn, how has it been to see him put it together at the end of his career?
COACH TOMMY THIGPEN:  He has a lot of pride.  A lot of those kids in Alabama, if you follow those kids, they love football.  ZEltoro, football is his life.  Played behind a really good kid last year, Josh.  Going to have some ups and downs.  You expect that from kids that don't play that much.
Eltoro is on the field a lot more, takes a lot of pride of getting the guys lined up, not blowing any assignments.  With Chiz working with him, I think he has a comfortable level that he feels he can ask questions on how to make the checks, what he's looking for.
This is the most I've actually seen him communicate on the football field.  It's been promising to watch him these last couple weeks.

Q.  Emory, bothered by the ankle, have you made some progress having time off?
EMORY BLAKE:  I think I have.  Actually out here in Atlanta, I haven't thought about my ankle all week.  That's a first for me since the ankle occurred.

Q.  Sorry I brought it up.
COACH GUS MALZAHN:  He looks pretty good to me (laughter).
MATT GARVEY:  Thank you.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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