Gus Malzahn has yet to lead the Auburn Tigers in live action as head coach, but he has already left his imprint on the program.
He addressed “cultural” change at last month’s SEC media days, saying: “A lot of our players, they have background on me. They know a lot about me. They know our expectations.”
McNeal was one such player, having played the last three seasons, including two with Malzahn on staff. He was a member of the Tigers’ national championship team in the 2010 season, appearing in 13 games that campaign.
Malzahn drew a decisively line in dealing with the veteran safety on Saturday.
McNeal, Auburn’s second leading tackler in 2012 with 90, was arrested on a marijuana possession charge along with former teammates Jonathan Evans and Jawara White. Further details are not public record at this time. His is a significant loss for a Tiger pass defense that allowed an opponent pass completion percentage near 66, and gained just two interceptions.
The Tigers gained just 13 turnovers overall in a disappointing 3-9 finish. McNeal was responsible for one of those turnovers when he forced a fumble.
Removing him from the secondary creates a sizable void, though follows in the decisive tone Malzahn has taken as Auburn’s head coach.
Among the candidates to fill in for McNeal is Kiehl Frazier, whose move to safety was announced earlier this week. Frazier’s change of positions suggested a tightening in the Tigers quarterback race, and Malzahn’s aforementioned declaration of Marshall as the Week 1 starter against Washington State confirmed that.
Malzahn faces a meat grinder in his debut season as Auburn head coach. The Tigers are coming off a 3-9 finish and play in the most challenging division in college football. Five of the last six BCS champions have come from the SEC West, including the 2010 Auburn Tigers team for which Malzahn served as offensive coordinator. The division has also produced three of three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners.
Recent precedent proves new head coaches have a very small window to prove their worth to increasingly demanding fan bases and boosters. Malzahn may be mortgaging immediate results with the dismissal of a defensive leader and naming a first-year JUCO transfer as the starting quarterback, but he’s laying his program’s foundation authoritatively.