Three Components to a Successful Offense
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.