AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn relented and admitted what everyone else knew seven months following the 2015 season at Auburn.
It was, he agreed, the worst offensive season of his career. He didn’t need to see the statistics because the Auburn coach felt it in his gut and he knows he has to fix it fast to give the Tigers a shot this fall.
“If you look at the big picture and the history of our offense, we’ve always been very successful with pace until last year,” said Malzahn, who enters his fourth season as the Tigers’ head coach. “And we’ve been very successful at executing at a high level doing pace until last year. We know what it looks like. We really know the changes we need to make and the adjustments we need to make. Really, that’s what I’m focused on and what I’ve decided to work with this offensive group.”
Auburn averaged only 5.39 yards per play in 2015, the second-lowest mark in Malzahn’s 10 seasons calling plays on the college level. More disturbing is the lack of explosive plays, especially on the ground. Auburn went from first nationally (42 plays of 20 yards or more) in 2013 to tied for 99th with only 21 running plays of 20 yards or more in 2015. Interestingly, a deep look at the numbers reveals explosive pass plays have not necessarily been the consistent factor in speeding up or slowing down the offense. For Malzahn at Auburn, it’s the running game that has to produce and the Tigers simply did not have an explosive running back last season as Peyton Barber was elevated from third-teamer to first-teamer for most of the season. He averaged 4.29 yard per carry, the third-worst mark among full-time running backs and 22nd overall in the SEC.
Auburn certainly suffered at the quarterback position, too, which led to tweaks to the offense throughout the season. Jeremy Johnson was ripped from the field after Week 3 and was replaced by redshirt freshman Sean White, who was later injured and missed most of the latter third of the season with ankle and knee injuries.
The Tigers went from a team that rarely substituted in an effort to speed up the game, to a more traditional approach with mass substitutions for certain packages. Simply put, the extra time mixing and matching personnel slowed the offense down, too.
“We really changed who we were because of that and just tried to win games any way you could,” Malzahn said. “Big picture wise last year we lost close games. You’ve got to win close games in this league to win and if you look at the two previous years, we were one of the best teams in the country winning close games and so that’s really a focal point of us getting back to winning close games.”
The pace was excruciatingly slow for Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense, but like any engine, it needs a key to turn the ignition. The Tigers simply did not have it last season, whether it was at quarterback or running back.
Auburn needs big plays and first downs early in drives to pick up the pace and those usually are the result of big runs by the quarterback or running back. That simply did not happen last season. The Tigers tied for second-to-last in the SEC by averaging a play of 10 yards or more on only 5.9 percent of their possessions. Only Missouri was worse in the SEC at 4.9 percent.
“It was a combination of the execution part of not being able to get first downs on a consistent basis and the execution part of explosive plays,” Malzahn said. “We were at an all-time low. We’ve always prided ourselves on big plays and coupling that with the pace. It was a combination of really those three things that all worked together and that’s what we’re committed to getting back to.”
Auburn’s answer this season? Jovon Robinson, who emerged as the go-to tailback near the end of the season with five performances of 90 yards or more in the final six games, and the potential for a new quarterback with dual-threat option John Franklin III.
Auburn’s quarterback battle among Johnson, White and Franklin III will rage through the first two weeks of preseason camp starting in August.