Gus Malzahn is Auburn's first-year head coach only by technicality, having served as the offensive coordinator for three seasons prior to 2012. Of the scholarship players still remaining from last year, only 17 weren't brought to Auburn while Malzahn was on the staff. Only three of those are offensive skill position players.
No other first-year head coach will enjoy this kind of expedited acclimation. So while there will be holes in Auburn football's 2013 edition, there is still cause for hope, and not the rarely honored three-to-five-year-plan kind.
That instant familiarity is certainly a boon, but the greatest reason for optimism might be Malzahn's freedom to finally go as breakneck as he chooses, with total support. That luxury comes from not only earning a head job in the SEC, but also a genuine endorsement from his defensive counterpart.
"I'll tell you, the reason I have no concerns in coaching a defensive unit for Coach Malzahn is because he likes to run the football," new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson says. "He likes hard nosed running, and he likes to run power. It's power football, running the guard and following a lead blocker. Defensive coaches want their offenses to be physical, and that's what his system is."
Outside of Auburn supporters, and allegedly Gene Chizik, most fans wouldn't believe that Johnson is right. Somewhere between the fallout of Malzahn and then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt in 2005 and the rumored power struggle between Malzahn and Chizik following 2010 -- in which Chizik allegedly ordered Malzahn to remove the "hurry-up" part of his hurry-up, no-huddle attack in order to aid the defense -- Gus-ball has become a run-heavy attack. It's done so by defying old-school logic, delivering classic play calls that masquerade as new-fangled finesse.
The "power" that Johnson references (and that sites like Smart Football have documented) is the classic Power-O, an up-the-gut rush in which the ball carrier follows a pulling guard through a hole created by a fullback sealing the defensive end and an offensive line blocking down on the play side. It's a play that helped inspire the term "3 yards and a cloud of dust" when run out of pro sets and I-formations.
It's the furthest concept from the so-called finesse system's stereotypical trickery. Malzahn's version, best displayed by Cam Newton and company in 2010, just never looked that traditional because it was run out of the shotgun, and often the ball carrier was the quarterback, simply because Newton was the best option.
At Arkansas State in 2012, Malzahn's offense averaged 5 yards a carry and favored run over pass by a count of 540 to 411. But no matter if Malzahn broke down and ran the veer for four quarters, stats like time of possession (ASU averaged 29 minutes) were what his critics pointed to when debating his potential success at the highest college level. Defensive stalwarts and conservative head coaches have rebuked the system by claiming it's some sort of Y2K-type doom for Malzahn's own defenses.
From Nutt to Chizik, misinterpreted stats were the red herrings needed to denigrate the hurry-up no-huddle as a high school fad.
Thing is, it is a high school fad. A big one. Ask a high schooler.
"We ran that offense this year," says Carl Lawson, considered the nation's No. 2 defensive end, a consensus five-star prospect and one of Auburn's 2013 signees.
"In fact, hang on..." Lawson says, speaking via phone while riding with a teammate. "Hey, how often did we snap the ball?"
"One play about every 18 seconds," his teammate says.
"Eighteen seconds. I was gassed my freshman year. Now I don't even notice it. Everyone's running it anyway, so it's not something I even thought about. I really like this new defense from Coach Johnson, but I just wanted to go Auburn above all else."
Eighteen seconds for Lawson's high school team, Milton (Alpharetta, Ga.), is textbook Malzahn, literally. In his 2003 manual The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy, Malzahn says his high school teams could "lengthen the game" by increasing the number of plays. Malzahn estimated that in a 48-minute game, most teams averaged only seven to eight minutes of real playing time, whereas his system, pushing an average of 40 offensive plays a game to around 60, added four minutes to the actual playing time total. This created a phantom "fifth quarter," wearing down unaccustomed defenses.
This is nothing new, as Malzahn has now been operating at the college level for almost a decade. But as the future freshman Lawson notes, it's now a college fad, too, and along with variations on the traditional one-back spread, the air raid and the spread option, will account for eight of the offenses the Tigers will face in 2013.
"One of the best things for this defense will be to see that offense out on the practice field everyday," Johnson says. "We're going to have to contend with that style for over half our games anyway, and the conditioning it creates in practice will be beneficial."
For Malzahn, it must be the richest of rewards to hear Johnson's endorsement. Sure, Johnson's a subordinate reciting what's best for the new body politic, but he didn't have to take the gig. After an ill-fated single year as coach of winless Southern Miss, Johnson was in high demand when he went back on the market. An SEC veteran, Johnson most recently directed defenses opposite Sylvester Croom's West Coast offense at Mississippi State and Steve Spurrier's calmer, Centrum Silver edition of the Fun 'N' Gun at South Carolina. His 4-2-5 defense ranked top 15 nationally three out of four years in Columbia.
He could've worked opposite a slower offense at another school, but he claims he wanted to coach opposite of Gus.
"To me this wasn't a home run decision, it was a walk-off grand slam."
The 4-2-5 Johnson will install is what Lawson happily calls "freshman-friendly," specifically because of its design to combat things like the hurry-up, no-huddle. Malzahn's textbook outlines its advantages as the low recuperation time and a shortened adjustment window it offers defenses. Much like the 4-2-5 Ole Miss' Dave Wommack installed during Hugh Freeze's first year in Oxford, the scheme will operate as a mirror on the defensive line.
To combat quick changes, the defensive front won't be saddled with specific roles, such as a strong or weakside defensive end, or a nose tackle and a three-tech tackle. Each player will be trained to execute multiple roles from his position as needed.
"There's a higher learning curve if you play slower, and mainly the system's not that hard from what I've learned so far," Lawson says. "I'm sure about this defense, I'm accustomed to it and it's more accustomed to me, what I can do."
What Lawson and fellow defensive end signee Elijah Daniels are accustomed to doing is blowing up backfields, as the one advantage defenses have found against any hurry-up with a quarterback that's a threat to run is good, old-fashioned impact. That, and Johnson notes, likely to the chagrin of his current boss, a fairer application of the rules.
"For a few years we had to battle what was an unfair advantage, having offenses snap the ball as soon as it was laid down, before it was possible to get ready. You're seeing better adjustment on that now."
While the paramount objective is to overhaul Scot Loeffler's pro-style scheme that ended up 115th nationally in total offense, Auburn needed Lawson, Daniel, stud tackle Montravius Adams and the rest of the 2013 defenders in the worst way, as defensive line was the thinnest position on the entire roster, with five departures following 2012.
The quietly impressive class of 23 didn't steal National Signing Day from dominant Alabama and upstart Ole Miss, but it did manage to give the Rebels pause by flipping five-star Daniels and four-star running back Peyton Barber from Oxford. Combined with the nation's No. 2 overall rated defensive end in Lawson, Auburn finished with a consensus top 15 class despite being hamstrung by a shortened recruiting schedule for its new staff and the dud of its previous season.
During his Signing Day presser Malzahn made a note of complimenting his defensive signees for staying with Auburn in the coaching transition. Lawson, like many others who ultimately stayed on, was initially wooed by the previous staff and bombarded when it was fired. Malzahn said upon his arrival the defensive staff was hired first, and after evaluating existing commitments from the Chizik era and the current roster.
"We did that on a fast turnaround," Malzahn said. "We didn't have the same kind of relationship with these defensive guys coming in. We knew some on offense from recruiting when I was here previously. With Carl ... when a lot of guys went south, went other ways, he hung in there with us. He provided the stability, specifically on the defensive side, for the class."
Malzahn also admitted that the defensive haul in the '13 class would give his offense more freedom.
"Up front they're going to have a chance to play immediately, but they're going to have to earn that ... but yeah, any time you add depth at all positions on defense it helps [the offense]."
The freshman will come with hype, but Johnson is tempering expectations of an instant fix.
"Some of these guys in the SEC, they belong in the [NFL] tomorrow. So we'll rotate those new guys in and some guys from junior colleges as well, but you don't build your season on high school guys starting, or you'll die in the SEC."
Ellis Johnson at Southern Miss, now rebuilt for speed. Chuck Cook - US PRESSWIRE
So say Malzahn heals the damaged Kiehl Frazier in the system the dual threat was initially recruited to run. Say that Barber and Cameron Artis-Payne, a Juco transfer already on campus majoring in philosophy and rumored to be a "Ben Tate clone," are enough to help spell Tre Mason in the running game. All four non-conference games (including the opener against Washington State) are winnable, and the Tigers also catch two conference programs (Arkansas and Tennessee) that are truly rebuilding.
A bowl is doable. There will be pains, and Malzahn will still have to answer claims that his system can't operate effectively without a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback talent like Newton. But Johnson assures there will be no objections from within.
Save for that magical season with Newton, for the first time in SEC play, Gus-ball will push as fast as it can without the defense tapping the brakes.