Gus Malzahn is returning to Auburn, but he won’t be keeping any of the current assistants on staff unless his new coordinators say so. Malzahn broke the news to his ex-colleagues yesterday, according to special teams coach Jay Boulware:
“(He didn’t say) much, that he’s just hiring his offensive and defensive coordinator, and he’s going to go from there. He said if we were interested, he’d let his coordinators choose. So it is what it is.”
Malzahn has already interviewed ex-South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, but it’s been reported that he’s also a possibility at Florida State. Former Auburn player and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker has also gotten a call.
Who the new Tiger coach hires as D-coordinator will definitely be one to watch as many defensive minds aren’t enamored with up-tempo, spread systems. And in the SEC — unless you have Cam Newton at quarterback — you typically have to have a darn good defense to win the league crown. And that’s the goal at Auburn.
But while the defense will play a huge role in determining Malzahn’s ceiling, his own offensive system will be what makes or breaks him as a head coach.
Malzahn has inked a five-year, $11.5 million dollar contract with the Tigers to — in the words of search committee member Bo Jackson — build AU’s program from the ground up:
“I think what Gus Malzahn is facing right now, he’s facing an empty lot. He’s got to go move dirt. Lay a foundation and start to build a house. He’s got to rebuild that house. That’s what he plans on doing.”
Just two years removed from a BCS championship and with several top recruiting classes landed in recent years, that’s a pretty strong knock on the job Gene Chizik did on the Plains. But is Malzahn’s system really something that can serve as a championship-caliber foundation for an SEC program?
Malzahn first arrived as offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2009. That season the Tigers finished fourth in the league in total offense (against SEC defenses only) and fifth in scoring offense. Auburn’s defense ranked eighth in the 12-team SEC that season.
In 2010, with Newton behind center, Auburn was second in the league in total offense (SEC foes only) and first in scoring offense. The defense improved to fifth in the conference.
In 2011, without Newton, the Tigers ranked seventh in the SEC in total offense (again, against league foes only) and eighth in scoring offense. Defensively, AU fell to 10th.
Looking at 2009 and 2011 in particular — because it’s unlikely Auburn will have a new Newton every single season — the defense struggled. Can those struggles be blamed on Malzahn’s offense? Well, the Tigers ranked 11th in the league in time of possession in ’09 and seventh in ’11.
With Newton running the show in 2010, Auburn actually had the third-best time of possession advantage in the league. That was also the season in which the Tiger defense climbed from the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack, allowing AU to capture the BCS crown.
You do the math.
Malzahn hiring makes sense in terms of knowing all of the pluses and minuses and hidden land mines associated with the Tiger job. He knows and recruited many of the players on the current roster, as well.
And with a special quarterback, he’s proven that his offense can not only move the ball and score points, but eat clock against SEC foes. Without a special quarterback… not so much. And that obviously hurt Auburn’s defense.
Studying all of that and knowing that most spread teams do tend to have issues on defense, Malzahn’s ability to find hot-shot, dual-threat quarterbacks might be even more important than his ability to lure in an A-list defensive coordinator.
UPDATE – Ellis Johnson has accepted the defensive coordinator position at Auburn. Good catch. Now, to find that quarterback.