Tennessee coach Tommy Thigpen talks with the media at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex in Knoxville on Dec. 20, 2012. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Auburn’s resurgence in the Southeastern Conference doesn’t surprise two Tennessee assistant football coaches who worked on the Tigers’ staff last season.
Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen and secondary coach Willie Martinez held the same positions at Auburn last season under Gene Chizik, who was fired after a 3-9 season. Thigpen and Martinez will try to beat their former school Saturday when Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 7 Auburn (8-1, 4-1).
Thigpen said he could sense even before the season that the Tigers were capable of making major strides this year under new coach Gus Malzahn.
“If you go back and look at their recruiting classes, they finished up in the top five or six every season,” Thigpen said. “The personnel was there.”
Martinez says he also wasn’t caught off guard by Auburn’s improvement.
“They won a national championship just three years ago,” Martinez said. “It’s a different team. They obviously have talent. They’ve always had talent. That’s never changed.”
Martinez spent only one year at Auburn, but Thigpen has more of a history there.
Thigpen coached Auburn’s safeties from 2009-11 before becoming linebackers coach last year. Thigpen says he still savors the memories of Auburn’s 2010 national championship season. He calls 2010 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton “one of the most dynamic players I’ve ever seen and probably one of the best character kids I’ve ever been around.”
“You probably get a national championship once in a lifetime,” Thigpen said. “That in itself is something to be remembered.”
Auburn now is winning with another dynamic quarterback in Nick Marshall, who has delivered a breakthrough season in his first year out of Garden City (Kan.) Community College. Last season Auburn started three different quarterbacks who combined to throw 15 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes.
Thigpen says Marshall’s emergence helps explain Auburn’s rise.
“If you watch them on tape, he’s probably one of the most explosive guys you’re going to see in the SEC,” Thigpen said. “He makes a lot of things happen for those guys. It’s like any team in football. If you’ve got your quarterback — you’ve got a dynamic quarterback — you’re going to win a lot of football games.”
Thigpen also believes Auburn is benefiting from its history of success with Malzahn, who was Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11. Auburn won at least eight games each of those three years.
“A lot of those guys that are playing right now have actually played in this system before, so there’s a comfort level,” Thigpen said.
Thigpen and Martinez now are trying to be part of a similar turnaround at Tennessee.
Martinez guides a young secondary that has helped the Volunteers pick off 12 passes, a figure that is tied for 17th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Thigpen has played a major role in helping Tennessee put together a 2014 recruiting class that ranks among the nation’s best.
“Tommy’s a friend of mine,” Malzahn said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Tommy as a coach. He’s got a great mind. The fact that we went against each other numerous times in practice, he knows our personnel very well. He’s a very intelligent coach.”
Tennessee’s players say they’re getting a boost from the familiarity that Thigpen and Martinez have with Auburn’s roster.
“(Martinez) knows some of the players,” UT safety Brian Randolph said. “He knows their personality, he knows their strengths and stuff like that, so he tries to tell us a little bit. It definitely does (help) when you have a coach who knows their offense so well. I think it works to our advantage.”
Sports Writer John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., contributed to this report.