HOOVER, Ala. — Gus Malzahn absorbed every hit last season and when he stood up from the mat, he realized something.
The 7-6 season, flirtation with disaster against an FCS opponent and disastrous offensive performances throughout the year forced the Auburn coach to look in the mirror and re-evaluate the program and himself. After all, this Auburn team, a year ago in this very room at The Wynfrey Hotel at SEC Media Days, was picked to win the SEC championship.
“One thing that really hit me pretty hard is that I’ve got to be more active with the daily X’s and O’s and coaching that goes with that,” Malzahn said Monday at SEC Media Days. “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.”
Malzahn has always had a heavy hand in Auburn’s offense as the head coach, but providing extra credit to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee became the norm last season. A victory at Texas A&M encouraged Malzahn to heap praise on Lashlee calling plays.
This season could be a tad different for Malzahn, who got noticed in college football for his play designs. In a sense, Malzahn is reverting back to the role of an assistant — but is doing so as the head coach.
Auburn’s offense was in the bottom half of the SEC in most categories, providing Malzahn one of the bottom two performances in his 10 seasons as a play caller on the college level. The Tigers struggled to produce explosive plays of 20 yards or more, which led to a slower tempo for Malzahn’s patented hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
“You know, when I look at last year, really the thing that stands out to me is we lost close games,” Malzahn said. “In this league, you’re going to have a lot of close games. The two previous years, we were one of the best in the country at winning close games. And we had opportunities (in 2015).
“Usually it comes down in this league to two or three plays in these close games, and you’ve got to find a way to make them and you’ve got to have your guys prepared and you’ve got to be able to execute.”
Four of Auburn’s six losses last season were by one touchdown or less.
Defensive end Carl Lawson said the team grew complacent last season. He also believes the pressure of high expectations “might have weighed a couple players down” during the season, which ended with two different starting quarterbacks and an identity crisis on offense. Five assistant coaches exited the program December through February.
“Little things,” Lawson said. “If you don’t go to class on time, if you’re late for work. That’s how stuff creeps into the program and the good programs don’t have that. We need to try to get that out this offseason so we can have a successful team.”
Leadership can prove to be the difference. On Monday, the Auburn players said all the right things amidst questions about the future of the program and whether it can contend in the SEC West after losing nine of the last 11 conference games.
“We want to earn your respect,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “We want to get Auburn back to where it should be.”
Adams looks at the upcoming season as an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. Lawson approaches it more as a job — and possibly a job interview for the NFL — entering his junior season after experiencing two major injuries in his first three years on campus.
“If you did bad at your job and you got cussed out by your supervisor, you would be like, ‘I need to do better,’” Lawson said. “That’s kind of the same situation for our football team.”