When Auburn won that wild game against LSU on Saturday that ultimately cost Les Miles his job, Gus Malzahn wasn’t calling Auburn’s plays for the first time this year. Malzahn’s an offensive mind by trade, but he ceded play calls to his 33-year-old offensive coordinator, Rhett Lashlee. It sounds like that’s a permanent arrangement.
The reason? Malzahn apparently felt a bit overloaded and distressed during Auburn’s first three games. The first three weeks left the Tigers at 1-2 and with a total of 29 points in their two games against Power 5 opposition – losses to Clemson and Texas A&M.
Via AL.com, here's Malzahn discussing the LSU win.
"I wasn't coaching angry out there Saturday," said Malzahn, who admitted to doing so "at times" during the first three games of the season. "I think that's very big. It was very refreshing for me. That's what I'm going to do moving forward. ... I felt like I was too negative the first couple of games. (I was) living and dying with every play."
Malzahn’s blood getting hot is understandable. His job security seems tenuous, and SEC head football coaches have lots of things they have to deal with during their games. Malzahn’s identity has always been his offense, but he’s got enough things to worry about that turning things over to Lashlee makes some clear sense. The idea goes that Malzahn can tend to more things and do them better if he’s not overly wrapped up in the plays.
"In this day and time and in this league, I don’t think it’s realistic," Malzahn said at his press conference Tuesday. "That’s what hit me and that’s how we got to this point. I feel very good about moving forward with where we are. We have the potential to grow a lot on offense, and like I’ve said before, these guys have been with me a long time and I have confidence in them."
Auburn’s not going to be a lot different, but maybe the passing game can work better.
Lashlee’s been Malzahn’s coordinator since 2012, when Malzahn was the head coach at Arkansas State. They have a 38-18 record together, and it seems fair to say they have similar offensive philosophies. (Lashlee even played for Malzahn in high school.) They "march to the same beat," Auburn once declared. Malzahn-Lashlee offenses have always been based on the ground game, and Auburn’s not suddenly going air raid.
But Lashlee’s at least got a great track record with quarterbacks, and maybe his having control of the play book will help Auburn’s quarterbacks be better. In his lone year as the coordinator and QB coach at Arkansas State, Lashlee got a career year out of senior Ryan Aplin. Upon getting to Auburn, he got two great years out of Nick Marshall, a transfer quarterback whose background was in the defensive backfield. Malzahn likely had a hand there, too.
With Lashlee at the switchboard against LSU, Auburn QB Sean White had the best of his three outings this year against Power 5 opponents. White was 19-of-26 passing for 234 yards (9 per throw) and no touchdowns or interceptions. He wasn’t great, but he was pretty good in light of the combined 5.5 yards per throw he posted against Clemson and A&M. His 73 percent completion rate was a lot better than the 58 percent in those games, too. Everything seemed smoother and more efficient.
Auburn’s offense hasn’t been good enough, but Lashlee knows what he’s doing. Any change that empowers him and relaxes the boss seems awfully smart.