Auburn finished 10th in the SEC in offense last year and, not coincidentally, finished with its worst record (7-6) in the Gus Malzahn era.
So Malzahn is going back to the basics. The coach who made his name as an offensive innovator at high schools across Arkansas, and rode a wave of elite offensive prospects to a job as the University of Arkansas’ offensive coordinator is going to be more hands on with the Tigers offense this year, he promised Monday at SEC Media Days.
“Last year, from an offensive standpoint, really was the first time since I’ve been coaching college that we didn’t execute at a high level consistently, and that goes back on me,” Malzahn said. “At the end of the day, I’m a football coach. That’s my strength, being on the field and coaching an offense. One thing that really hit me pretty hard is that I got to be more active with the daily X’s and O’s and coaching that goes with that. And that’s what I look at as my strength. I’m looking forward to getting back in the middle of things and enjoying the actual coaching on the field.”
Auburn averaged 370 yards per game last year after averaging at least 485 in each of his first two seasons as coach. The Tigers were eighth in the SEC in scoring last year.
“I most definitely see a difference (in Malzahn),” Auburn wide receiver Marcus Davis said. “Being the head coach, sometimes head coaches sit back and watch things happening, but now I think he’s taking more charge and being more involved and more vocal – not just to the players, but to the coaches as well. I’m pretty excited to see how everything goes. I’m used to him sitting back, but now that I see something different, I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Bad news for the rest of the Southeastern Conference: former Alabama assistant Jim McElwain thinks Nick Saban will be coaching for a long time to come.
“I think he can go forever,” said McElwain, who was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator before getting the head coaching job at Colorado State and then Florida. “That’s just the way he’s wired. When we were around each other that week of the SEC Championship game, I didn’t see one less bounce in his step, anything like that.”
Saban is 100-18 in nine seasons at Alabama.
While South Carolina starts the season with three straight road games this year, Auburn begins with five straight home games.
“I hope it’s a good thing,” Malzahn said. “I’m really excited that we’re playing at home. I would put our schedule up against anybody else, especially early. The fact we are playing at home will really help us.”
The Tigers plays Clemson, Arkansas State, Texas A&M, LSU and Louisiana-Monroe at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the first five weeks of the season.
Auburn and Florida are two of the six SEC teams who have yet to decide their starting quarterback.
“The positive is we have three guys that we feel like can execute our offense,” Malzahn said. “The challenge we have is defining and figuring out who that guy is that gives us the best chance to win games. Once we identify who our starter is … you will see us tweak our offense to build around their strengths. We’re always going to have the same philosophy and core beliefs with our offense, but once we make that call on who that guy is, we will tweak and try to build around their strengths and try not to ask them to do things that are maybe not their strengths.”
Auburn has a three-man race between veterans Jeremy Johnson and Sean White and JUCO transfer John Franklin III.
“I want to see how everything turns out, but I’m just ready to have one guy we can get behind and do what we need to do from there,” Davis said.
Florida is choosing between sophomore Luke Del Rio and senior Austin Appleby, a transfer from Purdue.
“It’ll be fun during two-a-days to see who takes that step,” McElwain said.
South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State also are taking quarterback competitions into fall camp.