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Auburn Athletics photo / Auburn junior linebacker Owen Pappoe is eager to be the defensive leader for a program transitioning from Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to Bryan Harsin and Derek Mason.

They are the only two five-star remnants from the Gus Malzahn era.

New Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin may have wiped the slate clean after being introduced last Christmas Eve, but nobody was surprised to see junior quarterback Bo Nix and junior linebacker Owen Pappoe representing Harsin's Tigers last week at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama. The two were starters as freshmen and continually have displayed leadership skills that carried over following Malzahn's firing last December and Harsin's subsequent hiring.

In fact, Pappoe wasted no time in zipping into Harsin's office to introduce himself.

"He was going to be our new head coach, so I wanted to go over there and personally meet him myself and let him know who I am," Pappoe said. "We've got a lot of respect for each other. Outside football, he's a really good man and has a lot of knowledge. In our team meetings, we really talk about life a lot.

"We have a thing we do called 'Real Life Wednesdays,' where speakers come out and talk to us, or even he'll talk to us himself. He's a really sharp guy, and I've got a lot of respect for him."

Harsin has been charged with being more competitive than Malzahn, who in eight seasons as Auburn's coach won three times against Alabama, claimed two SEC West titles and won one overall league crown. In what certainly qualified as a national search, Auburn athletic director Allen Greene focused on Harsin, a former Boise State quarterback who spent the past seven seasons compiling a sparkling 69-19 record at his alma mater.

Yet Harsin lacked familiarity with the SEC, so he tabbed former Georgia and South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo for the same role with the Tigers and landed former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason to run his defense.

Auburn's offense has its line returning to complement Nix and sophomore running back Tank Bigsby — "You've got to come at him with everything," Pappoe said — who rushed for 834 yards and 6.0 yards per carry last season. Receiver is the biggest concern following the departures of Anthony Schwartz, Eli Stove and Seth Williams, but Georgia graduate transfer Demetris Robertson should at least steady the position somewhat.

AUBURN

Last year: 6-5 (6-4 SEC)

Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. Akron in Auburn (7 on SEC Network+)

Fun fact: New Auburn coach Bryan Harsin lost just three conference games over the past four seasons, same as Alabama’s Nick Saban.

Up next: Florida

Nix will be under center a good bit in Bobo's scheme, which will be in sharp contrast to Malzahn's fast-paced attack.

"At times we were really good last year, and other times we were just a few first downs away from having different outcomes of the game," Nix said. "So if you look at last year, we could have been 8-2 or 9-1, realistically, but things just didn't go our way at times, and we ended up losing a few games. This year, we're just excited to be around different coaching staffs, and I'm excited to do different things and to have a different offense that maybe won't be as — like Coach Malzahn was at Auburn for a while.

"Obviously, over time guys started playing well against him, and so now just it's refreshing to be able to do different things that will give us an advantage."

Mason is implementing a 3-4 defense, but Pappoe said the transition hasn't been sizable from what predecessor Kevin Steele was doing. The Tigers are not lacking for experience with Tyrone Truesdell and Derrick Hall up front, Pappoe and Zakoby McClain at linebacker, Roger McCreary at cornerback and Smoke Monday at safety.

Auburn also has added cornerback Dreshun Miller (West Virginia) and safety Donovan Kaufman (Vanderbilt) through the transfer portal, but Pappoe is taking it upon himself to take charge of the unit.

"It's just that I've finally found that confidence that I needed to go out there and make plays," said Pappoe, who tallied 93 tackles last season. "I feel that my confidence is through the roof. I feel really it's a different energy coming in this offseason from preparation, film study and all that.

"I'm really excited to see what happens this season, and I feel really good about it."

Last season's 6-5 finish that ended with a lackluster showing in the Citrus Bowl has Auburn under the radar as the fifth-place pick in the SEC West, and getting back on the radar won't be easy with trips to Penn State, LSU and Texas A&M and with home games against Georgia and Alabama.

Of course, Terry Bowden and Malzahn once inherited Auburn programs in far worse shape than the Citrus Bowl and had spectacular debut seasons. Can history repeat for Harsin?

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

 

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