Gus Malzahn didn’t seem to care if you knew Auburn’s plan on offense last season. The Tigers would just dare you to stop it, and most of the time you’d lose.
In his first season as head coach at Auburn, Malzahn engineered an offensive turnaround that leaned so heavily on the run, coaches might as well have handed opponents the playbook at kickoff. All that offense did was spearhead a 12-win season, one that included an SEC title.
Few expected the Tigers to steamroll the rest of the league in Malzahn’s first year on the Plains. One season earlier a similar roster stumbled to 19.7 points per game and an 0-8 SEC record under coach Gene Chizik in 2012. But Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle philosophy transformed Auburn’s trajectory with a run-based attack that averaged 72.4 plays and 39.5 points per game. Quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Tre Mason and company rang up at least 35 points on eight occasions, and the Tigers fell one fourth-quarter drive short of claiming the national championship.
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Auburn attempted the fewest passes of any team in the SEC (285) last year. Consequently, it rushed more times (729) than any conference opponent. Malzahn used Marshall, Mason and a stellar offensive line on inside zone and zone read formations, as Auburn to rack up 4,596 total rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and 48 rushing touchdowns on the season, both tops in the SEC.
This time around, Auburn coaches aren’t expecting things to be so easy. The only solution is to evolve.
“We play in the best league in the country,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “Defensive players and defensive coaches are just incredible. You’re not going to be able to do the same thing over and over again without them taking it away. If you’re one-dimensional, they’re going to find a way to stop you.”
Malzahn has been using his signature spread offense since 1996, when he first utilized his attack as a high-school coach in Arkansas. He based much of his early offense on the classic Wing-T formation, and he later wrote a book entitled, “The Hurry-Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy” in 2003.
Despite Malzahn’s service as Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009 to ’11, the implementation of his offense upon his return to the Tigers before the 2013 season was not without growing pains. Like most new staffs, Auburn coaches were not only working to install a new offense, but also searching for the right playmakers to execute that plan.
The learning curve spilled over into the season. In September the Tigers turned the ball over three times in a tight win over Mississippi State before committing three more turnovers in a loss to LSU. Auburn’s run game had yet to hit full speed and averaged only 166.5 rush yards in those two games. At season’s end, the run game was compiling 328 yards per game.
With a full season and another offseason of continuity, Auburn coaches say their current roster is far ahead of last year’s group, in terms of confidence and understanding.
“Last year was a completely different deal because we were learning every single play in every single game until probably halfway through the year,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days. “This year we have a lot of guys back and we already have very good information about how they’re going to react in certain situations, and really, from a coach’s standpoint, what we’re going to get.”
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Despite last season’s clear success, Auburn coaches have been looking for ways to tweak their proven offense. That doesn’t mean the Tigers won’t run the ball. Even with Mason off to the NFL, senior tailbacks Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will again bring plenty of firepower to inside zone plays. Then there’s Marshall, whose 82.2 rushing yards per game in 2013 ranked fifth among the country’s quarterbacks. Of Marshall’s 1,068 rushing yards, 920 came in his final eight games.
The spotlight will be on Marshall’s arm this year, not his legs. Malzahn wants more balance on offense, and Lashlee and the Tigers’ offensive staff have spent much of the offseason turning Marshall into a more polished passer. In his first season at Auburn, Marshall tossed for nearly 2,000 yards, but he averaged only 152 passing yards per game and completed just 59.4 percent of his throws. Both of those marks ranked 11th among SEC quarterbacks. It didn’t take long for teams to figure out Marshall wasn’t a major downfield threat.
The biggest problem coaches found with Marshall’s passing game was his footwork. The senior worked hard this summer on the fundamentals of his drops, his balance and simply stepping to his target on each throw. Last season Marshall relied too heavily on his talent. Auburn’s staff hopes the passer’s improved technique will play a bigger role this year.
“Almost any quarterback will tell you,” Lashlee said, “if you’re not good from the waist down, it doesn’t matter how good you are from the waist up. He was off balance a lot on his throws. A lot of times he threw with all arm, and he made a lot of plays because of his talent, but he missed a lot of them, too.”
That added dimension comes at a good time for Auburn. The Tigers return eight starters on offense, including four of five on a seasoned offensive line. Sammie Coates, Quan Bray and Ricardo Louis reprise their roles in a talented receiving corps that adds vaunted JUCO transfer D’haquille Williams. Combined with a veteran backfield, the Tigers won’t be hurting for offensive talent in 2014.
Players say the gains from last year’s experience are obvious in the locker room. Holdovers from Malzahn’s first stint at Auburn, as well as returning starters from last year, have helped relay the offense to the roster’s younger players. That’s a perfect process for the Tigers: Asked about Auburn’s playbook at SEC Media Days, senior tight end C.J. Uzomah said the offense “is not something you can really learn overnight.”
“We have so many plays under the same formation that look the exact same,” Uzomah said. “It’s really hard to game plan something like that. It’s really hard to say they’re going to stop this play. Then all the sudden, we’re not doing that play, and they’ve left their defense vulnerable.”
Auburn had the advantage of flying under the radar before 2013 kicked off. This fall, Malzahn and the Tigers won’t be as lucky. It’s too early to tell if the roster’s returning experience and Marshall’s revamped passing game will give Auburn an extra edge on offense. For now, the Tigers are content with being a step ahead of last season.
“There’s just a comfort level and a confidence level from our players within the system,” Lashlee said. “This time last year, we didn’t know who our quarterback was going to be. We didn’t know who a lot of people were going to be, to be honest with you. This year, we have a lot of those questions answered. We can really focus on the next level, and that’s trying to execute at a perfect level.”