Back on the Plains: Gus Malzahn looks to reinvigorate Auburn
There are two ways to define an audacious person. There's someone who is audacious as in courageous, who pursues a bold path despite doubts that might cause others to back away. Then there's someone who is audacious as in reckless, who refuses to acknowledge that the self-blazed trail may not necessarily be the correct one.
Gus Malzahn is certainly audacious, but whether fans view him through one definition or the other may say more about them -- if they're optimistic or pessimistic, risk taking or risk averse, or at least if they root for Auburn or Alabama -- than about the Tigers' first-year head coach.
Malzahn is fewer than eight years removed from coaching high school football, yet he's now in command of a team that, recent setbacks aside, won a national championship three seasons ago. His rapid rise up the coaching ladder stems from his innovative offensive mind, which has produced results at every stop he's made. In his first season as a college offensive coordinator, Malzahn helped lead Arkansas to the 2006 SEC West title. In his brief tenure at Tulsa, Malzahn's attack finished first nationally in total offense in 2007 (543.9 yards per game) and 2008 (569.9), respectively. Malzahn's success continued at Auburn under then-head coach Gene Chizik; the Tigers jumped from 17.3 to 33.3 points per game from 2008 to '09 before capturing the BCS title in 2010.
"I got a chance to work under three different head coaches and they all had very good strengths," Malzahn said. "I just tried to take different things and help myself become a head coach at this level."
Malzahn got his first exposure to FBS head coaching last year and spurred Arkansas State to a 9-3 record and a Sun Belt championship. Now, he hopes to reinvigorate Auburn the only way he knows how, by teaching his team to adopt his mentality and by reinstalling his distinctive offense on the Plains.
"We're a two-back, run play-action team with emphasis on throwing the ball vertically down the field," Malzahn said. "That's who we are."
Malzahn's offensive style is well honed at this point, and he even wrote a book about it, The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy, while still at Springdale (Ark.) High in 2003. Although run out of the shotgun-spread formation, the offense remains balanced; Tulsa's top-ranked 2007 attack became the first in NCAA history to have a 5,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers.
"For a team that's in the shotgun 95 percent of the time and playing up-tempo and fast, we probably have the most physical downhill running game of any of the up-tempo teams," said new Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who has spent nine seasons either playing for or coaching under Malzahn. "We've had quarterbacks throw for over 5,000 yards and set records and do all that, but at the same time we've also had 1,000-yard running backs every year."
In addition to an up-tempo pace, Malzahn uses an H-back and relies on quick linemen who can pull around the outside to free up big running holes. Malzahn uses play action, multiple formations and his overarching no-huddle philosophy to confuse defenses and create opportunities for both short and deep routes.
Still, for Malzahn's offense to truly thrive, it needs a quarterback who has mastered the playbook. Heading into 2013, that position remains one of the Tigers' biggest question marks.
Both Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace started last year, neither with great success for an attack that finished 13th in the SEC in passing offense. Frazier possesses more agility than Wallace, though Wallace broke the Auburn freshman record for passing efficiency. New additions Jeremy Johnson, Jason Smith and highly touted juco transfer Nick Marshall could also make a push for playing time.
According to Lashlee, who played for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian (Ark.) School before working under him as an assistant coach at Springdale High, a graduate assistant at Arkansas and Auburn and an offensive coordinator at Arkansas State, the ideal quarterback for Malzahn's offense is one part Tim Tebow, one part Brett Favre and one part Tom Brady -- or maybe all Cam Newton.
"You always want the best athlete you can find ... I like guys that played multiple sports in high school," Lashlee said. "Ultimately I'd like a quarterback that's going to make plays to win the game. I don't want a guy just to manage the game, so to speak. But he has to do that with controlled confidence. He can't be careless with the football."
He also has to be able to adapt, a quality that's sparked Malzahn's success arguably more than anything else.
For Malzahn, the process of teaching a new quarterback his offense is the typical starting point to a season. In his seven seasons as a college coach, Malzahn has worked with a new starter every year, repeatedly generating success despite constant turnover under center.
"We've been fortunate enough to be successful with straight drop-back passers, we've been fortunate enough to be successful with young guys and we've been very successful with dual-threat guys," Malzahn said. "I think we can mold our offense around anybody that is a competitor."
According to athletic director Jay Jacobs, Malzahn's ability to adapt is part of the reason he was hired back at Auburn. Malzahn isn't afraid to divert from the beaten path in order to come up with a solution that works.
"If the rules committee were to come out today and say you can't throw the football, I'm sure that Gus could line up in the wishbone and still beat people," Jacobs said. "He's a perfectionist. He does things over and over and over until it becomes second nature to everyone."
Part of the brilliance of Malzahn's offense comes from its simplicity: For all of the complex maneuverings that go into the scheme's design, the product players must grasp is actually quite simple. Rather than forcing guys to internalize complicated concepts, Malzahn and his staff instead challenge them to run the offense at whirlwind speed.
"It's a lot of fun. He brings a lot of excitement to the game," said Onterio McCalebb, the current Cincinnati Bengals cornerback and former Auburn running back, of Malzahn's approach. "You want to go out there and have fun; you don't want to go out there and be thinking about a lot of stuff."
As Malzahn wrote in his book, his fast-paced offense is "equivalent to the fast break" in basketball and is designed to "control the tempo and get the defense out of their normal routine." When the offense is executed correctly, the ball should be snapped within five seconds of the referee putting it in play.
To prepare for this up-tempo style of play, Malzahn's teams practice at a similarly high tempo, building the necessary stamina and familiarity to perform on game day.
"It gives you an advantage on the defense," McCalebb said. "Every practice we go no-huddle, no-huddle, no-huddle. Once we get to the game, it's easy for us because we can tell when the defense gets tired. That's when we stick the fork in them."
The offense's execution this season should be aided by its familiarity. Many of the Tigers played under Malzahn during his previous stint as offensive coordinator.
"Any time you have a system and you change systems and then you go back to your old system, there is still some time to get acclimated and get familiar again," Malzahn said. "Early in spring, it still took a few practices, and probably midway through the spring, things started coming back to being a little more natural with the older guys."
Added Lashlee: "I don't think we overcomplicate things with the X's and O's. It's just can [the players] be mentally tough enough."
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of Auburn football, and the task of rebuilding the Tigers may have caused many coaches to be hesitant about accepting the job.
Not Malzahn. After returning to the Plains following just one year away, he jumped in with both feet.
"In the first minute, he said, 'We're going to get this place back to winning,'" Jacobs said of Malzahn's reaction to learning he'd landed the job. "Since he's been hired, the Gus Bus is rolling full speed ahead, and everybody is on board."
The task facing Malzahn is certainly daunting: He has to rebuild a team that rarely won last year and was frequently blown out in losses. He also must do so while playing in the toughest conference in the nation, against a level of competition that can discourage a team if it struggles.
"When you go there and you see a team that doesn't play hard or that you think maybe quits and doesn't give the maximum effort, then that's where -- wherever you are, whether it be Auburn or Alabama or Tennessee or Florida or wherever -- that's what the fans and the people have issue with," said Pat Sullivan, who served as part of the three-member search committee that unanimously recommended Malzahn for the Auburn job. "I think that was what kind of took place last year."
Jacobs echoed that sentiment, saying it was largely responsible for Chizik's ultimate ouster last November.
"Not only did we not win, when we lost we weren't competitive," Jacobs said. "I don't know what it's like for everyone else, but it's embarrassing for the Auburn people to only win three games."
Despite last season's grim results, when the Tigers' ranked 115th in the FBS in total offense, expectations remain high this fall. Malzahn says he sees similarities between this year's situation and the circumstances in 2009, when Malzahn arrived at Auburn after a five-win 2008 campaign.
"We were able to turn that thing around pretty quickly, go to a bowl that first year and win it," Malzahn said. "Of course we got a chance to win the whole thing two years later."
Neither Malzahn nor Jacobs will venture to provide a specific timeline for the program's rebuilding project, but Lashlee outlined the Tigers' benchmarks for the next few years.
"We want to go to a bowl game this year and win it," Lashlee said. "I think if we can do that, then much like we did the last time we were at Auburn, in year two and three you can expect us to get back to the level where we can compete for those championships."
Those are lofty goals for a team that was outscored 272-81 in SEC play last season, but they reflect a confidence that Jacobs said helped convince him that Malzahn was the right person for the job. He's audacious, to be certain. But he's consistently produced results. On the heels of one of the most disappointing seasons in program history, he may be exactly what Auburn needs to turn things around.
"He's not going to back down from anybody," Jacobs said. "We may have some deficiencies on our team, but Gus and his players expect to win now."