AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome to a special edition of Ferg’s Film Room on SEC Country, a deeper breakdown of the stats and the strategy of Auburn football.
The film room is open this spring for two main reasons — the debuts of new Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and projected starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham in last weekend’s A-Day game. Lindsey showed off the new wrinkles he brought to the Tigers offense Saturday, and Stidham put more momentum behind his hype train with an MVP performance.
Stidham only ran Lindsey’s first-team offense for one half Saturday before reserves took over for two quarters of running clock football. This special film room will focus on the action from the Blue (first-team) offense in the first half of the Auburn spring game.
While it came against backups on defense, the first half of the spring game is the most complete look anyone will get of the Tigers offense before the fall.
So, let’s settle in and break down the new faces of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn offense in their public Jordan-Hare Stadium debuts.
Run-pass balance, or how RPOs change everything
Last year, Auburn football was about as run-heavy as a college football team can be — outside of Georgia Tech or the military academies. While the Tigers should run the ball more than they throw it in 2017, the first half of televised action for Stidham in Lindsey’s offense completely flipped the script.
Here’s a breakdown of the 38 first-half play calls for the Blue offense in the A-Day game:
- Run plays: 14
- Handoffs: 11
- QB keepers: 2
- Reverse: 1
- Pass plays: 24
- Passes: 20
- Dropback passes: 11
- RPO passes: 8
- Play-action passes: 1
- Scrambles: 4
- Scrambles on RPOs: 2
- Scrambles on dropbacks: 2
- Passes: 20
Those numbers mean Auburn ran pass plays on 63 percent of their first-team snaps last Saturday. Take away the scrambles, and the Tigers still threw the ball 53 percent of the time. That’s a complete reverse of what Auburn football has been under Malzahn.
Auburn used more pass plays Saturday without completely shifting its offensive philosophy. That’s all thanks to the RPO — the run-pass option. On virtually every handoff, Auburn receivers ran routes. This allowed Stidham to read the defense quickly and make the decision to either hand the ball off, keep it for a run, or pass it.
Watch what Auburn’s receivers do on this standard inside zone run from Kerryon Johnson. Darius Slayton, at the top of the screen, runs a delayed slant after reading the cornerback. Sal Cannella does the same at the bottom, and Eli Stove flares for a quick screen out of the slot:
Now here’s a similar play later in that same drive. Stidham fakes the give to Johnson, pulls the ball back and hits Stove on a quick screen to the right sideline. Cannella carries out the duties of a normal receiver on the screen while Will Hastings runs a hitch. At the bottom, Slayton runs a deep route after reading tight coverage:
Take away Auburn’s standard dropback passes, reverse run and lone play-action attempt, and the first-team Tigers offense ran this type of play 60 percent of the time in the first half. That should be a sign of things to come — this will be the foundation of Auburn’s offense under Lindsey.
With the right quarterback, the RPO is an easy way to get more pass attempts without drastically changing the attack. (In terms of the RPO’s effect on the running game, the Tigers averaged a solid 4.28 yards per carry in the first half.)
Of course, Auburn’s Blue offense faced backups the entire first half, and star running back Kamryn Pettway didn’t play a single snap. That could’ve forced Auburn to rely less on the run Saturday.
However, this was just one half of football, and Stidham attempted 20 passes. That’s more than Auburn had in five entire games last season, and it threw exactly 20 times against Alabama A&M.
Jarrett Stidham’s dazzling debut
Two days before the A-Day game, Lindsey told reporters Auburn’s offense wanted to focus on its base plays and “hopefully get a few balls down the field.”
Lindsey did that in the first half with Stidham. Most of his 20 passing attempts came on basic plays — quick screens and outs, 5-yard hitches and swing passes. But Lindsey turned his new quarterback loose on several occasions, including the second snap of the game:
While Stidham stuck to Will Hastings on quick passes, he got the ball downfield to vertical threats Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Craig-Myers turned out to be one of his favorite targets, as he became the perfect receiver to be on the end of his patented deep throws:
Of his 20 attempts, Stidham truly aired it out five times — and he only missed once, a throw to Jason Smith that had too much air under it. Most of his damage came on traditional dropbacks, which seem to be much more prevalent in Lindsey’s scheme. Craig-Myers notched a 50-yarder and a 34-yarder on fly routes, and Slayton made perhaps the best catch of the half on a 46-yard gain down the sidelines.
Stidham only had four incompletions in the first half — one drop by Hastings, one deep ball to Kam Martin that went through his hands, and two misfires on tries to Smith and C.J. Tolbert. The transfer quarterback brought the overall pass accuracy Auburn had with Sean White last year while adding a bigger arm for downfield throws.
Here’s a full breakdown of Stidham’s 20 pass attempts in the first half of the spring game:
|1-10||Will Hastings||Dropback||5-yard out to right sideline for 7|
|2-3||Nate Craig-Myers||Dropback||35-yard fly route pass for 50 and 1st|
|1-10||Will Hastings||RPO||Quick screen to right side for 4|
|2-7||Darius Slayton||Dropback||5-yard hitch to left sideline for 7|
|1-10||Eli Stove||RPO||Quick screen to right side for 4|
|1-10||Jason Smith||RPO||20-yard sluggo to left sideline, too much air|
|2-10||Will Hastings||Dropback||Quick out to right sideline for 3|
|2-7||Kerryon Johnson||RPO||Quick check-down out to left side for 17 and 1st|
|1-10||Darius Slayton||Dropback||45-yard fly route for 46 and 1st|
|1-10||Will Hastings||RPO||5-yard hitch to left slot for 20, fumbled|
|1-10||Darius Slayton||Dropback||10-yard out to left sideline for 12 and 1st|
|1-10||Ryan Davis||RPO||Quick screen to right sideline on the run for 5|
|2-5||Will Hastings||Dropback||Quick hitch turns to slant for 33 and 1st|
|1-10||Will Hastings||RPO||Quick screen to left sideline is dropped|
|3-10||C.J. Tolbert||Dropback||Quick swing to right sideline has too much air|
|1-10||Kam Martin||PA||40-yard wheel to left sideline, goes through hands|
|3-16||Nate Craig-Myers||Dropback||15-yard post to middle for 17 and 1st|
|1-10||Will Hastings||RPO||5-yard hitch to left slot for 5|
|2-5||Will Hastings||Dropback||Quick out to left sideline for 3|
|2-8||Nate Craig-Myers||Dropback||30-yard fly route for 34 and 1st|
Notice that 11 of Stidham’s 20 pass attempts came on first down. Two of his four scrambles did as well. Last season, the Tigers attempted 6.77 first-down passes per game. Again, the RPO opens up more possibilities — seven of those 11 first-down tries on A-Day came out of RPO looks.
It wasn’t all vanilla
Spring games are notoriously bland when it comes to play-calling. There’s a good reason for that, especially now that every major team has its annual scrimmage on TV. That keeps coaches such as Malzahn extra guarded on game day.
However, Lindsey didn’t stay completely normal in the first half last Saturday. The new offensive coordinator broke out a few interesting plays that gave observers a peek at his creativity.
While the deep ball went right through the hands of Martin, Lindsey unloaded what looked to be a true play-action pass in the second quarter. Stidham faked a sweep to receiver Ryan Davis — who lined up as a pseudo-running back — before trying a wide-open Martin on a wheel route:
Lindsey went to Davis earlier in the quarter on what could best be described as a quadruple option run. On this play, Stidham fakes the ball to Jalen Harris, who is lined up as a fullback. Stidham then reverses the ball to Davis before carrying out a traditional speed option to the right side with Tolbert. The result, and the possibilities off of it, are impressive:
Between the greater passing emphasis with Stidham and the first-time looks — Auburn ran a few new formations, such as a trips shotgun set with stacked receivers on the outside and a tight 4-wide set — the Tigers sent a message in just one half of spring game football.
This isn’t the same old Malzahn offense.