Rhett Lashlee had to leave the Auburn nest at some point.
The young offensive coordinator’s unexpected departure for the same job at UConn, while puzzling on the surface, had everything to do with growth. Four years into a Tigers tenure that started hot but really fizzled toward the tail-end, the 33-year-old had to realize it was high time to step out of Gus Malzahn’s shadow and really challenge himself as a coach.
“Our offenses have achieved great success and he has been a big part of that,” Malzahn said in a statement released Thursday. “This is a great opportunity for Rhett to implement and run his own offense.”
Yes, Lashlee probably had significant behind-the-scenes input at Auburn. The offense flourished under his play-calling, as well, notably averaging 38 points a game during the team’s six-game winning streak. UConn will only pay Lashlee $350,000 in salary, which marks a significant downgrade from what he made in 2016 — especially when you consider he’s taking the same position at an AAC school.
Whether Lashlee left of his own accord or the breakup was mutual isn’t clear, but at this point it’s of minor consequence. Here’s what really matters.
No matter who calls the plays, Auburn still runs the Malzahn offense. And Lashlee, bright as he may be, would never be more than its steward on The Plains.
Look at it this way: Lashlee has spent 10 of his 11 seasons as a full-time coach working under Malzahn. He played high school football under Malzahn. The only exception came in 2011, when Lashlee left Auburn as a graduate assistant to become offensive coordinator at Samford (then coached by former Auburn star Pat Sullivan). The two reunited at Arkansas State the next year.
Samford put up pretty good offensive numbers under Lashlee’s watch. The Bulldogs accumulated 391 total yards per game, third-best in the Southern Conference, and quarterback Dustin Taliaferro finished as the league’s second-leading passer (2,301 yards). They ran a pretty balanced attack.
Balance ain’t part of the Malzahn lexicon. His system executes run-option plays out of the spread very well, but the Auburn passing game has never averaged more than 230 yards per game under his watch. And given the challenges of 2015-16, particularly at quarterback, you have to wonder if Malzahn and his protege completely agreed on the offense’s direction. Since Nick Marshall left, none of the Tigers quarterbacks have been true dual-threats — with the exception of John Franklin III, who apparently can only run.
By joining the Huskies and defensive-minded coach Randy Edsall, Lashlee can run the offensive show without anyone looking over his shoulder. And that’s the only way he’ll truly be able to prove his coaching worth.
Kirby Smart thrived as a defensive coordinator at Alabama, but without that protective Nick Saban net, the jury’s still out on his pure coaching abilities. The same goes for Missouri coach Barry Odom, a four-year coordinator under Gary Pinkel, or longtime Dan Mullen offensive assistant John Hevesy.
You never know until a guy does it himself.
Maybe Lashlee flames out at UConn and Auburn hires a rock-star to replace him. But I think it’s far more likely the Huskies, which fielded the American’s worst offense last year, experience major improvement on that side of the ball.
Auburn fans could wind up missing Lashlee more than they think.