War Eagle, everybody! It’s whirlwind time on the Plains, as fast-breaking news continues to flow from Auburn. We’ve learned this morning that it has taken new head coach Gus Malzhan all of one day on the job to find a new defensive coordinator, and that man is veteran coordinator Ellis Johnson. In addition, it’s been made clear that Malzhan is retaining none of Gene Chizik’s staff of on the field coaches. The fate of strength coach Kevin Yoxall and the support staff has not yet been announced.
Ellis Johnson’s is well regarded as a defensive coordinator, but his record is uhmm… interesting. He’s been coaching for over thirty years, with a fairly disastrous 17-40 record as a head coach. He’s fresh off being fired from Southern Mississippi, producing the worst season in Golden Eagle history at 0-12. In Johnson’s ill fated year, his team gave up 30 or more points 9 times.
In the past 20 years, Johnson has had marginal success as a defensive coordinator at Clemson, Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Johnson’s 1995-1996 defense at Clemson gave up 19.2 points per game. At Alabama from 1997-2000, Johnson defenses gave up 22.3 points per game during the Mike Dubose era. Under Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State from 2004-2007, Johnson’s units averaged giving up 24.4 points per game. At South Carolina from 2008-2011, Johnson’s units gave up 20.8 points per game. Johnson’s USM squad gave up 37.8 points per game this past season, nearly ten more points per game than Auburn gave up!
I suspect opposite a high speed offense like Malzhan will run, Johnson’s unlikely to return Auburn to the days when opponents could not get out of the teens. This hire is interesting, as Johnson has gone on record in the past stating that he does not like hurry-up offenses, and that such strategy “deteriorates college football.” At Alabama, we saw Johnson’s defense get shredded by Central Florida for 42 points. In Starkville, we saw Auburn hang 43, 28 and 34 points on Johnson’s squad. LSU punished the Bullies for 51, 37, 48 and 45. Johnson’s South Carolina stint resulted in teams that gave up 56 points in a game to Florida, 41 and 42 to Georgia, 41 and 44 to Arkansas, and 56 to Auburn. In short, expect Auburn opponents to be on the scoreboard some.
On the positive side, Johnson’s results have come on a lot of teams that had tough situations on defense when he came in. At Alabama, he suffered under an inconsistent Dubose program. Mississippi State was seriously depleted when Johnson joined Croom in Starkville. Defense has been an afterthought throughout much of Steve Spurrier’s career also. Johnson will once again have his hands full rebuilding an Auburn defense that was, quite frankly, soft down the stretch this past season. The good news is that Malzhan is apparently going to allow Johnson to bring in whomever he wants on the defensive side of the ball.
It will be interesting to see who Malzhan taps as an offensive coordinator. In all likelihood, Rhett Lashlee will join Malzhan in Auburn, as he was a grad assistant during Malzhan’s previous Auburn stint, and was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas State last season. Chad Morris at Clemson may also get a call.
The offensive side of Auburn’s football team will be a rebuilding project also. It’s been the better part of a decade since Auburn went into the offseason with a settled situation at quarterback, and this year is no exception. Malzhan has already announced that the position will once again be an open competition. In my opinion, Jonathan Wallace is the likely winner, but I figure the other two guys will have something to say about that. Whomever wins out will have to be far more accurate than they showed on the field in 2011.
Malzhan will have the advantage of a veteran offensive line that was one of the few units that didn’t collapse during the past season. Tre Mason is a serious threat at running back who was criminally under-used, and I can’t wait to see Jay Prosch line up at H-back and demolish more defenders! With Sammie Coates and C. J. Uzomah coming back, Auburn should have some game breaking receivers, if we can get the ball to them.
It’s once again fun to be an Auburn Tiger, as we watch the new era take shape. We’ll jettison the baggage from last season’s horror show, and watch things develop. I’m figuring Malzhan will have a whole staff in place before Christmas, and they’ll hit the recruiting trail hard. Despite being home this season for the holidays, it’s great to see optimism in Auburn again. War Eagle!
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