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Marshall: It's finally here

It is here - or almost here, anyway.

Malzahn will lead the Tigers into fall practice Friday.

The start of preseason practice at Auburn.

Finally.

Let me tell you a story that should make many of you even more excited that preseason practice has arrived.

On Monday, a good Auburn friend of mine invited me to hear Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn speak at Boys & Girls Club of North Alabama Leaders & Legends Dinner in Huntsville.

I left the dinner with a couple of overriding impressions: Malzahn is plenty big enough for the Auburn job. He is more than equipped to handle it.

And this: Anyone who wants to deride Malzahn as “a high school coach’’ better get ready for a serious change in attitudes.

Malzahn, unlike some previous Auburn head coaches, will be unlikely to show much mercy once he gets a sizable lead. I imagine he’ll keep mashing the accelerator.

His speech on Monday began with a summary of his coaching career, beginning with his first head coaching job at Hughes High School in the Arkansas Delta. Malzahn was 26, coaching in a town of 1,400 in northeast Arkansas, one of the poorest sections of the state.

The job was so undesirable, in fact, that Malzahn discovered he was the only person to apply for the job. Two years later, Malzahn had Hughes in the state championship game, ultimately losing when a last-second drive fell short.

From there, it was on to Shiloh Christian and Springdale high schools and more state championship game appearances, including two titles at Shiloh and one at Springdale. Malzahn introduced his now-famous hurry-up, no-huddle offense at Shiloh, where he won consecutive state championships.

Malzahn touched on his first college jobs - offensive coordinator at Arkansas and Tulsa - then moved on to his three seasons as Auburn’s offensive coordinator. He called those seasons the most enjoyable of his coaching career.

One of Malzahn’s better stories was how he coached Cam Newton. In his pursuit of perfection, Malzahn said he made Newton do more “up-downs’’ - grass drills - than any player he coached in 2010.

As good as Newton was, said Malzahn, he never glared at Malzahn out of the corner of his eye. His standard response was “yes sir,’’ Malzahn said.

Imagine how that affected the rest of the team. The best player on the field - the best player in recent Auburn history - was pushed as hard or harder than anyone, and he responded in a way that surely lifted his teammates.

Something to remember about Malzahn: He has won a championship or appeared in a conference championship game everywhere he has coached.

Last season, his first as a head coach, he led Arkansas State to a 9-3 record and the Sun Belt Conference title.

This season, Malzahn has the challenge of trying to resurrect a program that perhaps had more mental scars than physical ones after a 3-9 season. More and more, though, it appears there has been healing.

At first, said Malzahn, it was as if he and his staff were doing their best attempts at “Dr. Phil.’’

But no longer.

Now, there are regular reminders “to get our edge back’’ and play the physical style of football that Auburn has been known for.

He constantly urges players to set their goals high and to “use their influence in a positive way.’’

Now, it is here - or almost here, one day away from the start of preseason practice.

How high should Auburn set its goals this season? I’m not sure.

But I’m convinced of this: There will, in fact, be a time under Malzahn when Auburn will be able to set its goals as high as it wants.

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