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Three Components to a Successful Offense

(photo:Thomas Graning/AP)

When commenting on a recent article, I realized I should just write my own post. I’m an avid reader of all things Auburn, and I’m tired of careless, almost arbitrary, commentary/analysis on the team I love. I have always been on the fence regarding Gus Malzahn’s ability to win championships, but I believe a lack of success can be attributed, in large part, to either terrible defensive play (see 2013/14/15) or the components of the offense that I highlight below.

Too often, writers spend time talking about the head coach or ~10–15 players, BAH! Stop! Auburn doesn’t have a personnel problem. We’ve been recruiting at a high enough level to win 10+ games/season for at least a decade. At Auburn quality players are a given. Coaching isn’t.

The head coach is where all major questions end up, but with a guy like Gus who has basically been learning on the job, it’s been quite a roller coaster. My hope is that he’s got the pieces in place and understands better what his role is.

From an offensive standpoint, at least one of the components has been missing since 2014 (the last time our offense was truly unstoppable; 2017 came close): 1. appropriate personnel usage, 2. appropriate play calling (and preparation), and 3.  good line coach (read: J.B. Grimes). If I’m not mistaken, in 2013 Malzahn was calling all the plays and the Tigers’ glorified G.A. “Offensive Coordinator” was put where he was supposed to be: spying defensive formations at the 2nd and 3rd level.

Combine Malzahn’s play calling for Nick Marshall and Tre Mason’s exquisite execution with Grimes’ line coaching, and we were absolutely dominant. 2014 was largely similar, with Rhett Lashlee taking more ownership of the play calling (but with the same exact format and personnel). 2015 and 2016 were so terrible they made my eyes bleed because these components were WAY OFF.

Rhett Lashlee tried two years in a row to teach a kid how to be a quarterback. Any success he had with Sean White was so sporadic that it’s hardly worth praising. Gus’ football genius starts and ends with formations and plan (and motivation, but that’s not totally quantifiable); he desperately needs someone who can execute his vision for the line/HB/TE (blocking) and QB/RB (ball movers). Grimes (2013–2015; 2018– ) is an executor; Herb Hand (2016–17) and Lashlee (2013–2016) were not.

Enter Chip Lindsey. 2017 saw massive improvement and not just because of a veteran line (more on that below), Jarrett Stidham and Kerryon Johnson/Kam Pettway. Auburn actually had a play caller who worked with the players. In 2013/14, any success from a play-calling standpoint with Marshall was due to Gus’ understanding of running (or Rhett Lashlee’s mimicry), and any success with White was due to Lashlee’s marginal understanding of a modern passing offense (combined with a terrifying O-line from 2013–2015).

Please take a moment to study the spreadsheet I attach below. Auburn’s terrible 2015 season was actually better than 2017 in terms of line play. From a efficiency/scoring standpoint, 2017 was so drastically different because the Tigers finally had an offensive coordinator who understood the role Stidham would be playing. But, Auburn had massive flaws in the O-line coaching that resulted in one of the worst sack rates in the Football Bowl Subdivision (94th).

Talented players like Darius James were either brilliant or clueless. Braden Smith was out of position all too often. The only reason we had any success on the line was because upperclassmen Casey Dunn/Austin Golson/Smith/Michael Horton weren’t completely ruined by Hand’s spurious coaching, AND (perhaps most importantly), Lindsey adjusted to Hand’s terrible O-line preparation/coaching by calling plays that let the line do what it naturally did anyway: not block. Hence, 84 catches for Ryan Davis (good for first in the SEC by a long shot, 10th in FBS). Still, the difference between line play at home and away was so stark that you could easily see this wasn’t a very well-coached unit (38 points per game at home vs 29.7 away/neutral, even with two No. 1’s at home). Exit Hand. Enter Grimes.

Now, Auburn has the 2013/14 components again: 1. A play caller equipped to call, 2. a QB who can execute, and 3. an O- line coach good enough to prepare a line to execute the incredibly nuanced moves required at this level. If our line is excellent, it will take a few games for that to happen, and it will have very little to do with the NFL-talent-worthiness of the individual players. Moreover, I’m fully convinced that most 3-star+ talent at running back is able to pick up 1,000+ yards in a season if these factors are present, so I don’t really worry about that position.

I’d love to hear any comments/critiques of this analysis. I want Auburn to go 15–0 this year. However, Auburn has a very tough schedule, so I don’t see the Tigers escaping without at least a loss or two. We need to get through the LSU game with no losses, and I like our chances of making the College Football Playoff. But consider it a ~45% chance we win both UW and LSU. Greyfox Stats attached.

11 Comments

  1. sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

    While I like the work you’ve done, and the perspective of the three components is spot on, the differences in your table between 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 could also be attributed to the incredible mobility and field sense of Nick Marshall with the ball in his hands and even just a yard of open field in front of him. Time and again, I saw him scoot through seemingly non-existent gaps between defenders and make five or six yards off what would have been a negative play for any other QB on the roster.

    In 2015-16, there was no way any of our quarterbacks could do the same, and other than Cam Newton, I doubt if there was another such Auburn quarterback since Dameyune Craig who was even close to that level of running threat. Without that threat, Auburn’s offense became much more manageable to defend as there wasn’t much precision passing either during those years.

    But I do share your enthusiasm for Grime’s return and think that Stidham will be the top QB in the conference by season’s end because of it. The three components of coaching you illustrate will definitely give us the potential for great things in 2018.

    War Eagle

    • greyfox says:

      I completely agree with Marshall’s talent, and this (OC/QB relationship) is a larger component than line play. But…it’s also 2/3rds of my component requisite (which is why, with both of those in place last year, we had plenty of success). A lot of Marshall’s success bred more success and our line/blocking had a ton to do with that. His scrambling ability was employed more on P/A plays. But all of that was based on the fact that it took a herculean effort to stop us from doing what we wanted to do when it came to running the ball. 15/16 were atrocities bc Auburn had no one on staff equipped to coach a non-running QB.

      Here’s a fun one for you, though? Would Hand have been able to coach a line well enough to do what we did in ’13 and ’14? I distinctly remember many drives where we successfully ran the same exact play multiple times in a row, even toward the end of the season when everyone knew what we were trying to do. In this day and age, the coaching and execution it takes to impose your will is so rare. I hope we can bring it back.

      War Eagle!!!

  2. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..There were two things I feel like Lindsey brought that worked consistently, last year. The first was the little simple RPO things. All Stidham had to do was count players in the box. 7 or more? Flip it out quickly, usually to Ryan Smith, and let him run. 6 or less in the box? Give it to Pettway or KJ and let them do their thing with a numbers advantage. Auburn worked this to death, mixed in with a few deep shots, as the defense got frustrated.

    …..The second thing was drastic improvement in Auburn’s short yardage offense. Lindsey wasn’t trying to run 3rd and 1 handoffs from the shotgun, with 3 or 4 wide receivers. On short yardage, he went heavy. Common sense. One of the reasons Daniel Carlson broke scoring records is because SO many of those short yardage things failed before 2017, and we had to attempt SO many field goals!

  3. AtkinsonTiger AtkinsonTiger says:

    Well thought out, good post Greyfox and I appreciate Acid Reign's thoughts above too (always do). I was excited to see the return of J.B. Grimes to TEACH the linemen … expecting big success from them this year.

  4. wpleagle wpleagle says:

    If Herb Hand is such a terrible coach, why is he seemingly in demand? Seems as if he voluntarily left Auburn for a pretty darned good program!

  5. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Herb Hand had some revolutionary stuff going on in the mid 2000-s-2010 era, at West Virginia. There were weird assignments, huge gaps, but unexpected hits from odd directions from offensive linemen. Quick skill players like West Virginia and Tulsa had back then, thrived in this system, which slowed defensive reaction to a crawl. It was a great fantasy that Auburn was going to rebirth this, in the SEC. The problem in this league, is that not only can SEC linemen shoot these gaps accurately, they will track down your runners or quarterback and plant them in the dirt. Hand isn’t going to help Texas’ case this year, either, on offense.

  6. Derrick Roberts Derrick Roberts says:

    I would swap out Mississippi State for LSU as far as “early” games I’m concerned about. We get LSU at home, while we travel to Starkville to face possibly the most loaded MSU team we’ve seen the past few years. I know MSU has a new head coach, but by the time we play them they could really be hitting their stride on offense. That game will be much more difficult than facing LSU at home in my opinion.

    • greyfox says:

      At 6 games in, we better have things figured out or we have bigger issues to solve.

      As far as State’s strength, you definitely have reason to be concerned. They return a good bit of a team that did well last year. All signs point to improvement across the board, but I think it’s a little premature to assume they will be a top-10 to -15 team. The bigger issue here has to do with their particular matchup with us: they match up very very poorly against this Auburn team. Their strength on offense is predicated on Fitz running and scrambling. We destroyed him when the field got small. They ate up clock and yardage btw the 20s but couldn’t really score. I don’t see them scoring more than 15 points against us this year.

      On defense, their front is surely formidable, but I think we’ll either see more of the same from the back 7: opportunism. Moorehead may bring a little temperance to the squad, but this may work against them overall. State will eat smaller teams for lunch but will struggle with powerful, well-rounded offenses like ours (State did very well against a passing-anemic Alabama, but lost by roughly the same score to pass-happy Ole Miss). In fact, in 9 games against FBS p5 teams, 150 yards passing was the metric of win/loss for State. All over beat State; all under lost for a 5-4 record (with the exception of Louisville in the bowl game; Lamar Jackson threw 171 yards…but had 4 INTs). To further illustrate this point, State allowed 223 yards passing from a 4-8 UMass team, winning 34-23. Again, any team with a passing offense beat State, generally; I expect that to continue this year.

      I’ll go out on a limb here and say that this State team is the most overrated team in the SEC. They’ll have several guys go pro, but Fitzgerald will be worse without Mullen and they’ll win 8 games. 7 is just as easy as 9.

      • Derrick Roberts Derrick Roberts says:

        Agreed on all counts regarding MSU. My point was that they’ll make for a better barometer for how we stand in the SEC West and playoff picture than LSU. If we trip up against LSU in our SEC opener, at home, after an embarrassing loss to them last season we’re going to be shopping head coaches instead of thinking about a playoff. That’s just one game, in my opinion, Auburn won’t be unprepared for.

        • greyfox says:

          Fair enough. You could definitely be right. But I see LSU and State being fairly equal in terms of potential. I think LSU has the higher ceiling and could be a tougher challenge for us, which is why I’m more concerned about them. If our line takes 4-5 games to work the kinks out (which I think it could), then LSU might be a much harder game for us. So while you’re right in that we won’t let that game “sneak up” on us (and it’s not in Death Valley!), I think the readiness of our line could be a big factor to our success/failure.

          I wouldn’t be surprised if “fire Gus” was a talking point if we’re 1-2 after LSU, but there’s no way that happens. If he goes on to lose 3-4 more (including, perhaps, State), I think there might be wheels on that bus.

          • Derrick Roberts Derrick Roberts says:

            Agreed on both teams having similar ceilings (and LSU’s being potentially higher). I just feel like with LSU we’ve got revenge and home-field advantage motivating us – if you wanted to point out a tweener game that could potentially trip us up, I would look also to Arkansas. Their shelves are bare and I get that Bielema wasn’t setting the world on fire when he left BUT Chad Morris is a proven offensive talent and if that game lands on an 11:30 kick I would argue all bets are off regarding Auburn’s performance in that game. Trap. City.

            Of course, there’s also the significant chance that Auburn steamrolls them no matter when that game kicks off. After all, trap games becoming L’s are hardly ever the most likely result to any given scenario. That’s why they’re trap games.

            I’ve gone around the world I know, but I guess what I am getting at is although I respect the hell out of what LSU brings to the table, I fully expect Auburn to handle their business in that game regardless of how well LSU’s season turns out. That’s game this coaching staff has to win – no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. If we’re serious at all about competing in 2018, that game is a lock. If we drop that, then we’re looking at a rocky road leading into November.

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