October 01, 2009
Xs and Os on Saturday's Auburn-Tennessee showdown from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
Gus Malzahn, magus of the up-tempo/no-huddle spread offense, has Auburn's once-moribund attack rolling at a breakneck pace. Through four games, the Tigers look like a completely different team than the dysfunctional unit that led to the midseason ouster of AU's last spread whiz, Tony Franklin, and eventually of his boss, Tommy Tuberville. Given free rein by new head coach Gene Chizik, Malzahn has engineered one of the more remarkable turnarounds for an offense in recent memory, with basically the same players that flailed under Franklin -- including much-maligned quarterback Chris Todd, one of the most efficient passers in the country through September after being ditched along with Franklin in the middle of last year's debacle.
Compare: In '08 the Tigers were 104th nationally in total yards per game (302.3) and 11th in scoring (17.3 points); so far in '09, they're third in both categories (526.3 yards and 45.3 points per game). In '08, they ranked 70th in rushing yards per game (136.8) and 99th in yards per pass attempt (5.8); in '09 they rank fifth in rushing (261.3) and sixth in yards per pass (9.4). They've surpassed 500 total yards in three of their first four games after failing to hit that mark in a single game from 2006-08. These improvements have a real effect on playcalling, as well: The Tigers have improved their average gain on first-down runs by over 2.1 yards, making second downs that much easier to convert.
While the numbers are nice, Auburn has yet to satisfy Malzahn's preferred metric: He really wants the Tigers to average 80 plays per game. (So far, they're averaging nearly 75 plays a game, up from 67.5 last year). In Malzahn's offense, tempo reigns over scheme -- he wants the ball snapped on most plays within five seconds of the official setting it for play. If other spread offenses use racecar names for their no-huddle (Tony Franklin called his "NASCAR"), then Malzahn's temp is nothing short of Mach speed on a football field.
He couples this emphasis with a formation-first approach to playcalling, and the effect on the defense -- where they have but a few brief moments to anticipate Malzahn's simple-but-diverse plays in the face of a byzantine formation structure -- can be dramatic. Anticipating the offense this week, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin quoted his colorful dad/defensive coordinator, Monte, that defending Malzahn's offense was "like trying to read a book with someone waving their hand in front of the book -- trying to look at it, what's going on, but you can't really see it. You can't really focus because there's so much misdirection and so much shifting motion."
As will be repeated endlessly on ESPN, Gus Malzahn was still coaching Springdale, Arkansas high school only four years ago. A hotshot offensive mind and author of a tome on the no-huddle offense titled, appropriately, The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy, he was famously hired as offensive coordinator at Arkansas under Houston Nutt. The general consensus, though, was that the plum promotion was a mere recruiting grab by the Razorbacks, who coveted a cadre of players from Springdale's state championship team (including, most notably, current USC Trojans Mitch Mustain and Damien Williams), and the relationship seemed to sour quickly when the Hogs' run-based offense barely resembled anything from Malzahn's book. By the end of that season, the "high school coach" and most of his former Springdale charges were gone and many people considered the experiment over. Gus had a reputation as a pass-first (and second, and third, and fourth) guy at Springdale, and the perception was that his "gimmicky" offense wouldn't work in the SEC, anyway -- especially if it required veteran intervention from above to shift the focus to future first-rounders Darren McFadden and Felix Jones rather than a true freshman quarterback.
In 2007, Gus headed off to Tulsa to co-coordinate the Golden Hurricane offense with Herb Hand under head coach Todd Graham, and promptly built the most prolific offense in the country despite operating with two different quarterbacks in two years and no draft-worthy talent. Malzahn brought his no-huddle philosophy with him, along with a creative approach to spread formations and a power run game he had used at Springdale and at Arkansas, while Hand brought with him roughly a decade of experience with Rich Rodriguez in his own no-huddle approach, which, contra Malzahn, focused on the zone running game. They seamlessly integrated their attacks, though Tulsa's offense was clearly Gus' baby. And when the bigger schools came calling, there was no question Malzahn was eager to prove that a high school coach and his high school offense could have just as much success in the bigger conferences, including -- no, especially -- in the SEC. Saturday is his first chance to prove the point against one of the best defenses in the league, coordinated, no less, by one of the most respected defensive minds in recent NFL history.
The no-huddle is Malzahn's self-proclaimed "philosophy," in the same way that the triple-option forms the core of Paul Johnson's philosophy at Georgia Tech or the zone-read and its variants form the basis of Rich Rodriguez's attack. This emhasis on tempo and rhythm is at odd with coaches who build their offense around certain core schemes, but such is Malzahn's mind. The schemes have always been subordinate to the breakneck pace and myriad formations and motions he wants to force on the defense. His biggest impediment so far at Auburn is that he has to substitute more than he'd like, slowing the game down.
But schemes still matter, and Malzahn is an adept playcaller. The dramatically improved run game focuses on the same concepts Malzahn brought with him and that he learned from Hand -- namely, the power run game, focused on pulling linemen, angles, and down blocks, and the zone run game, focused on double-teams and letting the back find the crease. At Auburn , the quarterback runs a little less than he did at Tulsa, but that's not surprising when the quarterback is Chris Todd, and Malzahn has made up for some of those limitations by using more of the speed option, to good effect. I've previously diagrammed a few of Malzahn's core run plays at my own site, but one I didn't diagram will nicely illustrate an example of what Gus is doing at Auburn -- essentially telling the defense, "You can't cover everything."
Since he was at Springdale, Malzahn has been running a version of the old Wing-T "buck sweep" (also sometimes called the "truck sweep") from the shotgun. Most teams don't use this because it's a kind of slow-developing play to the outside, but Herb Hand once mentioned that it averaged more than 10 yards an attempt at Tulsa for a full season. The play is classic Wing-T: The line, tight ends, and receivers all block "down," or step to their inside to get an angle to cut off defenders' pursuit, while both guards pull and lead to the outside. Meanwhile, the quarterback executes a fake, causing the defense to hesitate for just a moment, and off the runner goes. And if the generic buck sweep is classic Wing-T, the Auburn version is classic Malzahn, an age-old concept combined not just with the shotgun but with a funky formation and receiver motion. He can use a variety of sets and looks, but against Mississippi State running back Ben Tate scored on a long touchdown run on this play where Malzahn brought the receiver in a sweep motion and the quarterback, after handing it to Tate, faked giving the ball on the reverse, then faked again as if he was setting up for a play-action pass, all of which is possible in this system.
This play has been a key part of the running game's explosion, as Tate and freshman Onterio McCalebb are on their way to becoming household names. Below are cut-ups of the run game against Mississippi State, where you can see all of these plays (and more) slicing through a defense that held the same group of players to three points a year ago. Lost is the tempo that Malzahn operates, but the results speak for themselves:
As productive as the run game has been, though, the most shocking performance so far has come from Todd, a player most Auburn fans left for dead and, upon hearing that he had been named the starting quarterback despite missing a good chunk of spring practice with shoulder surgery, immediately began kvetching violently. Yet his four touchdown passes helped lift an at-times stagnant offense past West Virginia, and his yards per pass attempt has nearly doubled.
This rejuvenation and transformation is somewhat fitting, because if there is an area where Malzahn has evolved, it's with his passing game. With a classic slinger like Mustain, he was a true "spread it out and keep it safe" kind of coach, with a passing attack resembling the pass-heavy spreads at Missouri and Texas Tech. Now, however, Malzahn bills himself as a play-action pass guy, and he's right. He runs to set up big passing plays; gone is the true ball-control assault on which he first made his name. The two passes he calls the most are probably the NCAA pass -- a deep-post by one receiver with a deep-square in (or "dig") by another at around fifteen yards -- and the deep-crossing route. Malzahn's version, as always, looks a little funky.
Off of a similar action as the sweep above (and a handful of other plays), Chris Todd will fake both to the running back going up the middle but also to the receiver faking a reverse, before stepping up in the pocket to look for either the deep "go" route or the deep cross. This is not a fancy read: The point is to suck up those linebackers with about 18 fakes and hit the wide open crossing route. So far, so good.
And so good for the Malzahn experiment, so far. A full season of SEC play does have a way of grinding down fancy offensive numbers. Indeed, this week Malzahn, a guy, who was coaching high school four years ago, faces a defense coached by Monte Kiffin, a man who almost could have been Dick Butkus's position coach. The Vols executed Monte's excellent plan for Urban Meyer's offense two weeks ago and still have one of the most dynamic players at any position in the country in safety Eric Berry, so who's to say that this isn't the week that Malzahn's "ludicrous speed" offense starts to sputter?
Yet Malzahn's scheme is not Florida's -- it's certainly more diverse. And if Auburn can have success against Tennessee, then maybe that portends good things the rest of the way in the SEC. If that's the case, people won't be calling Malzahn a high school coach much longer; they'll be calling him a head coach.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football and also contributes to the New York Times' Fifth Down blog. You can reach him at chris at smartfootball.com, or follow him on Twitter.