DOTHAN, Alabama — Gus Malzahn has never led a team or been part of one as an assistant that possessed a top-10 defense.
Malzahn enters his 11th season overall as a college coach with a stronghold on offensive football, though the Tigers certainly struggled last season (75th in scoring offense) amid a crisis at quarterback.
Still, that didn’t stop Malzahn from repeating a stance former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp held before the 2015 season as he spoke Wednesday to Auburn fans on his annual Tiger Trek tour.
“My No. 1 goal, is to get our defense to play top 10 defense. It’s not offense. It’s not ‘this or that.’ It’s for us to play top 10 defense,” Malzahn said, according to Auburn’s official website. “The way we’re going to be good for a long period of time is defense, and that’s just the bottom line. That’s a focus in recruiting.”
Reporters were not allowed in the room to listen to Malzahn’s speech, but he reiterated his belief when asked about his comments Thursday before a speaking engagement in Dothan. He specifically pointed to Auburn’s past defenses — most notably under Tommy Tuberville — as evidence that a top-10 defense can be built on the Plains.
“When I came here as a coordinator in 2006, I believe when I was at Arkansas, they were No. 2 in the country in defense and this is a place you can do that,” he said. “I think we’re on our way to building it.”
Auburn finished the 2006 season ranked seventh overall in scoring defense (13.8 points per game) during a stretch in which the Tigers allowed 18 points or less on average for six straight years (2002-07). Auburn hasn’t ranked in the top 10 on scoring defense since 2007.
The year the Tigers’ defense took a tumble? The season Malzahn was hired as the offensive coordinator in 2009. Auburn went from 14th nationally to 79th in one season and hasn’t quite recovered since, ranking no higher than 48th overall (24.7 points per game) in 2013, the season Malzahn led Auburn to an SEC title and an appearance in the BCS National Championship with the nation’s top-ranked rushing offense.
Auburn’s defense, however, did show improvement late last season, holding two hurry-up teams to one combined offensive touchdown while limiting Memphis to a field goal in the Birmingham Bowl.
“The second half of last year you saw that kinda change,” Malzahn said. “The way we played in the bowl game was very encouraging. That is a goal of ours and we’ll work extremely hard to do that.”
Former LSU coordinator Kevin Steele replaces Muschamp as the Tigers’ defensive play-caller and takes over a team with a strong defensive line led by end Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams. Steele has yet to coach a top-10 defense, but he has led three top-25 units in five seasons as a coordinator.
Steele was pleased with the progress he witnessed in the spring game, pointing specifically to the lack of missed tackles. He was also extremely positive about the future when he was introduced as the Tigers’ coordinator in January.
“We will go through spring practice and do everything we can to build a championship-type program and a championship-type defense,” he said. “Auburn has a history of being a hard-nosed, physical defense for years and years. Ever since I was a young guy growing up in this state and had a high school coach as a father, I certainly know the history and the tradition of Auburn is hard-nosed defense and I am looking forward to being a part of that.”