AUBURN, Ala. — When Gus Malzahn hired Chip Lindsey to be his offensive coordinator last weekend, some Auburn football fans feared Lindsey would run the same type of offense. But the film doesn’t lie — the former Auburn analyst is his own man as a play-caller.
In two seasons at Southern Miss and one at Arizona State, Lindsey showcased an offense different from what Auburn ran under former coordinator Rhett Lashlee. While some principles from Malzahn’s Wing T attack carried over to Hattiesburg and Tempe, Lindsey ran a more balanced, aggressive offense that emphasized getting athletes in open space.
“We’ve all got our own personality that comes out when you design an offense, but the bottom line has never changed,” Lindsey said last weekend in his first press conference. “The most important thing is find ways to get the ball to your best players. It’s really that simple. That will be our goal every day.”
In this special edition of Ferg’s Film Room at SEC Country, let’s take a look at several key aspects that separate Lindsey from his old-turned-new boss at Auburn — starting with a strategic blast from the Tigers’ recent past.
Know your RPOs
For the most part, Lindsey’s offense uses the same type of running plays as a typical Malzahn and Lashlee offense. There’s a lot of zone runs on the inside and the outside, and Lindsey pulls out counter plays from time to time.
(As James Jones of College & Magnolia notes in his own fine breakdown of Lindsey’s offense, Arizona State also ran a counter trey with two pulling blockers — something that Malzahn and Lashlee didn’t use.)
The biggest difference, though, is how the offense blocks it. Lindsey’s offenses at Arizona State and Southern Miss were built on run-pass options or RPOs, as they’re more commonly known. Instead of plunging straight ahead to block, the receivers normally run routes. While it’s not true blocking, it still does the job of taking away a defender.
Watch what happens in the above inside zone play. One receiver flashes toward the inside as a screen pass while the other two go out for the pass. N’Keal Harry, the receiver on the short side of the field, runs a quick hitch route.
It’s all about reading and reacting for Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins here. Even though it looks like a regular handoff that Auburn runs plenty of times during the game, he has multiple options — hand it off, keep it for a run or pass to several receivers.
The defense dictates what Wilkins and his receivers do. Whenever Arizona State has multiple receivers to one side of the field, one always flashes toward the quarterback for a screen pass. (The first play of Southern Miss’ 2015 season is nearly identical to the one above.)
On the other side, the lone receiver reads the coverage. If the defender is playing off, he’ll run a quick hitch or slant. If the defender is in press coverage, he’ll run a fly route or set up a back-shoulder throw. Here, Harry — a 6-foot-4 true freshman receiver who gets a lot of 1-on-1 chances — beats his man off the line with the fly. (Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Myers both seem like perfect fits for this role.)
Whenever Arizona State was in the shotgun, it rarely ran a true play-action pass or straight handoff. When executed correctly, they keep the defense guessing for several seconds, just like this touchdown pass against Oregon.
Auburn used to run more RPOs with Nick Marshall at quarterback — remember the game-tying touchdown to Sammie Coates in the 2013 Iron Bowl — but they were used sparingly with Jeremy Johnson and Sean White. (Wilkins was a quicker trigger man of the RPO than Marshall, making his decision of run or pass almost immediately after the snap. Dillon Sterling-Cole, the true freshman in the above play, threw on the run more.)
Now that Auburn has more athleticism at quarterback with Jarrett Stidham, Woody Barrett and Malik Willis, the RPO should become a staple of the Tigers’ offense. (Stidham ran plenty of RPOs at Baylor, too.) It makes defenses pay if they sell out too much to the run, and it opens up more running room if they respect the pass.
An advanced air attack
Quarterback development was a high priority for Malzahn in his offensive coordinator search. And Lindsey’s expertise with signal-callers comes out in his offensive scheme.
Lindsey comes from an Air Raid background, and he fused that type of passing game with a Malzahn-looking running attack at Arizona State and Southern Miss.
His offenses run a greater variety of routes than what Auburn is used to under Malzahn and Lashlee. Just in the first half against Texas Tech, Arizona State targets ran option routes, comebacks, flood concepts, pivot routes, double moves and stick-and-nod combinations.
Arizona State ran a lot of swing and screen passes — remember, there’s an option for one of those on almost every RPO — especially when it had to go to true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole at quarterback. Offensive line injuries hit the team hard toward the second half of the season, and Lindsey had to go with quicker passes to keep his quarterback upright.
But shootouts against Texas Tech and Cal showed the full scale of Lindsey’s passing game. Wilkins took a good amount of downfield shots, and his receivers ran more complex routes. As former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic noted on Twitter, drop backs are a bigger part of Lindsey’s offense:
I'm excited to see more straight drop backs in the pass game for Auburn in 2017. Will benefit OL & QBs. ASU used them frequently in 2016. pic.twitter.com/QkxNUcGPFv
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 21, 2017
Lindsey’s formations also featured extremely wide splits, much wider than anything Auburn has used in recent seasons. Spread offenses are all about stretching defenses out to favorable matchups in space, and Arizona State definitely did that at times.
Whenever Wilkins was healthy, he took a lot of shots in 1-on-1 opportunities. Harry was especially the go-to target whenever he drew man coverage. The passing game was far from predictable, which has been a criticism of Auburn’s attack under Malzahn.
Auburn has plenty of young receivers with size and range, and Lindsey’s passing attack should take more advantage of their talents — provided the Tigers get better quarterback play in 2017.
H-back and tight end usage
The most common personnel grouping in a Lindsey offense is similar to what Auburn had with Malzahn and Lashlee — three receivers, one running back and one tight end/H-back.
But what sets Lindsey’s offense apart from Malzahn and Lashlee’s is how the tight end/H-back is used. There’s a reason why this term is combined. Arizona State used both Kody Kohl and Jay Jay Wilson as a tight ends, H-backs and even slot receivers.
Arizona State often went with 4-wide receiver sets with either Kohl or Wilson as a slot receiver. Pre-snap motion brought them inside to H-back, where they served as lead blockers or receivers. They would line up as traditional tight ends or even running backs in two-back formations on the same drive.
That versatility is important. By having a tight end who can play multiple roles, Arizona State could keep its tempo running high. Instead of substituting to bring in a blocker or a passing target — something Auburn did frequently in 2016 with the likes of Chandler Cox, Jalen Harris and slot receivers — Lindsey could just move one player around in the offense and keep the foot on the gas pedal.
And, yes, Lindsey’s offenses throw to the tight end a little more frequently than Auburn. In 2016, Kohl and Wilson combined for 11 catches and 5 touchdowns. After disguising them as blockers for long stretches, Lindsey would open up things downfield on wheel routes and straight shots, like this one against Cal.
Auburn added JUCO tight end Salvatore Cannella this offseason, and it returns both Cox and Harris for 2017. If Cannella can prove to be a consistent blocker, he has an opportunity for huge playing time in Lindsey’s system because of his size and speed as a receiver.
A new kind of Wildcat
Arizona State’s main rivals are the Arizona Wildcats. So Arizona State ran the “Sparky” formation — a Wildcat that was named after Arizona State’s Sun Devil mascot.
According to Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic, Lindsey used Sparky more frequently than he originally expected in 2016 because of the high number of injuries on the offensive side of the ball. In the red zone, it was extremely effective. Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage scored an FBS-record 8 touchdowns against Texas Tech, with 7 of them coming in Sparky.
Wildcat formations are nothing new to Auburn fans, but Sparky is different. Most notably, it doesn’t use six offensive linemen.
Arizona State went with a traditional tight end up front in this formation. Sparky normally consisted of five linemen, two tight ends, two receivers — sometimes stacked, sometimes pulled closer to the offensive line — an H-back and Ballage.
The most common play in the formation was the standard power, as shown above. After a while against Texas Tech, though, Lindsey called for a counter play that sent the Red Raiders scrambling.
And to make things even more complicated for defenses, Ballage got to throw the ball for a touchdown against Oregon.
Will Auburn go with its traditional Wildcat in 2017, or will Lindsey install Sparky?
One thing is for sure — the Tigers have the athletes to run this type of red-zone offense. Kerryon Johnson has plenty of experience running the ball like Ballage from the direct snap. If John Franklin III stays with the team, this could be a tailor-made role for him, too.
Dialing up the trickery
Lindsey was in a tough spot for much of 2016. His offense suffered injury after injury, with all of his key playmakers and several starting linemen missing at least some time.
But Lindsey’s creative play-calling made up for some of those issues. Watch a replay of an Arizona State game from 2016, and there’s a good chance a trick play will be on the screen soon.
Malzahn is a noted lover of gadget plays, but Auburn’s offenses haven’t used a lot of them in recent seasons. That could change with Lindsey, though, judging by his huge bag of tricks at Arizona State.
Here are just three of his best gadget play hits from the 2016 season.
In all three of these examples, Lindsey set up the plays earlier in the game by getting the defense to over-pursue the first action.
Against Oregon, it was the standard swing pass. Against Utah, it was the jet sweep — one that looked like a keeper right until the end. And against Texas Tech, the first example, it was just a well-designed trick play that looked like a standard stretch run.
Auburn might not need to call as many trick plays in 2017 if all of its returning talent stays healthy. But Lindsey has proven to be an innovative play-caller who can keep defenses on their toes, whether it’s through traditional trick plays or more modern RPOs.
Parting shot: Lindsey and Malzahn’s biggest similarity
It looks like new Auburn OC Chip Lindsey might have picked up Gus Malzahn's love for Dubble Bubble during his first stop on the Plains. pic.twitter.com/iZDlFau6E0
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) January 24, 2017