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July 17, 2013

Notes: First-year head coaches take the stage

HOOVER, Ala -- Head coaches are about the only ones at Southeastern Conference Media Days not required to wear a credential identifying their name and affiliation. On Wednesday, nametags might have been helpful.

Four of the six coaches to take the podium on Wednesday were first-year head coaches in the SEC. One by one, Kentucky's Mark Stoops, Tennessee's Butch Jones, Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Arkansas' Bret Bielema all took their turn at the podium on Wednesday.

One by one, they talked about taking things one day at a time in their first year in the SEC.

"Everyone asks me, What's it like to be in the SEC? My constant phrase is, The best analogy I can give you is every day in the SEC is it's like fourth and one for the national championship," Jones said. " It doesn't matter if it's practice, recruiting, game time which I'll experience soon, the competitive structure of this football conference, the difference between winning and losing is very slim.

Bielema, Jones and Malzahn have all served at least one season as head coaches before. The process each of them will take into their new jobs will be similar to what made them successful at previous stops, but they'll still have to make adjustments.

Tennessee plays five teams that finished last year in the top 10 in a six-game stretch. Kentucky's first three league games are against Florida, South Carolina and Alabama, while Arkansas faces a four-game stretch of Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. Malzahn and Auburn have to contend with Alabama down the road.

With those challenges facing them, they're singing similar tunes.

"What I told our football team is we have to focus on the process," Jones said. "We can't worry about the end result right now."

"We understand there's a lot of hard work that lies ahead," Stoops said, "but we're embracing that process and working hard each and every day to improve this team."

"The big thing from my standpoint is we need to improve each practice and we need to improve each game," Malzahn said.

Their teams have similar expectations as well. They went a combined 14-34 overall last year, and 3-29 in the SEC.

"I do know this: we have a team that's very hungry, a group of coaches that are very gifted, we have a staff that is very talented and a lot of years to back that up," Beilema said. "I do excel in situations where people think very, very little of us. For those of you that want to, vote us lower. I mean that with all my heart.

"Then, just sit back and watch."

Nick Saban may want college football to slow things down, but his biggest rival wants to keep up the pressure.

"We're a two-back run play-action team that will run our offense at a two-minute pace the entire game," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. "Our goal is to play faster than anybody in college football. We feel like if you can execute our offense at a fast pace, it's a big advantage."

He has plenty of company. Four of the six teams represented on Wednesday are known for their fast-paced offenses or are planning to run fast-paced offenses this year. Texas A&M and Manziel took the league off-guard in their first year while running a high-tempo spread. Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn have installed systems designed to push the pace and keep defenses from resting.

Saban, who takes the podium on Thursday, and other coaches have argued that there should be a period allowed between plays for defenses to make substitutions. He says the fast pace can lead to more plays, decreased form on tackles, and increased injuries.

"In my opinion, I do think there needs to be, and I believe we're working towards that, some time to let us get situated and put the ball down certainly when substitutions involved," Stoops said.

Among the four up-tempo schools represented on Wednesday, Kentucky is the only one helmed by a coach with a defensive background. While he'd like to see some time allowed for substitutions, he hired Neal Brown as offensive coordinator after seeing how difficult it was to defend spread offenses.

He'd like to see more research done before reaching any conclusions about whether fast-paced offenses can lead to more injuries, but he chose a fast-paced offense that fit within the current rules of the game. Defenses that practice against up-tempo offenses have their own advantages. They can be better conditioned and more prepared to face teams that give other opponents trouble.

But Bielema, who had sparred verbally with Malzahn in recent days, didn't look at it that way. He said he'd do everything within his power to protect his players.

"I've had a situation where I've had to call a parent because their son may not make it through because of an injury, not make through life, but the next day, whether he can play football or not," he said. "To me that's real. That's the job I have to protect."

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel drew the biggest crowd at media days, immediately facing questions about why he abruptly left the Manning Passing Academy over the weekend.

"I simply overslept. There's nothing more to talk, and the rumors about the other things weren't really true," the Heisman Trophy winner said. "I just overslept and missed a meeting. I absolutely lived up to it. There was no excuse for not having my phone charged or having an alarm set. I was disappointed to not go on after being a camper there three or four years prior."

He wasn't the only one who dealt with a swarm of inquiries about his off-field activities. Seven of the nine questions asked of head coach Kevin Sumlin pertained to Manziel's Heisman-winning season and his actions since then. Both of his teammates in Hoover, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., had to answer questions about their quarterback.

Sumlin didn't make excuses for his star quarterback. He said the Aggie staff and athletic department continues to work with Manziel as he grows and develops through college.

"I think off the field, there's no question that he's made some mistakes," Sumlin said. "I think today will be a great experience for him … I think he's done some things he's not very proud of, has made some poor decisions. He's made some good decisions. Unfortunately, the poor decisions are the ones that are really publicized."

Matthews, who blocked for Manziel all of last season during his Heisman trophy run, was predictably protective of his quarterback.

"When he comes out there, he's always giving 100 percent," Matthews said. "… He's so hard on himself, he never wants to make a bad play. All those things make him a guy we want to follow."

--Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said he's pleased with the decision to move the Bulldogs' rivalry game against Ole Miss to Thanksgiving night.

"I think certainly when you go around the state of Mississippi, it will make Thanksgiving night this fall a pretty important day throughout the whole state," he said. "Not that it hasn't been before, but I think it is going to draw a lot more attention to it nationally, how important and big that rivalry is for everybody in our state."

The rivalry has seen significant swings since he arrived in Starkville in 2009. Ole Miss had won five of seven in the series before he took the job at Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs won the Egg Bowl in each of his first three years.

Mississippi State's program rose through the SEC and surpassed Ole Miss initially, but the Rebels beat Mississippi State last year before landing a highly-ranked recruiting class. Those dramatic shifts in the rivalry, coupled with Ole Miss' success and the move to Thursday night, could make the Egg Bowl even bigger in years to come.

"I think it's certainly sparking the rivalry even more," Mullen said.

--Tennessee left tackle Antonio Richardson responded on Wednesday after South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said he had to resort to holding to try and slow him down last year. Clowney had four tackles and a sack against the Vols last season.

"I'd like to think of myself as the ultimate competitor, a true competitior," Richardson said. "It's in my blood. It's the way I was raised. Jadeveon Clowney is a great player. He has all the physical intangibles that you could ask for. To be able to run a 4.6 40 at 270 pounds, that's amazing, but I'm ready to go up against him."

--Bielema begged off when asked to compare the SEC to the Big 10. The former Wisconsin coach has taken criticism for speaking about his former conference since taking over for the Hogs.

"See, the problem you guys got me in, the good things I say about the SEC, everybody else gets pissed and vice versa," he said. "I'm in a quandary here."

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