Checking Under the Hood…
War Eagle, everybody! It’s been an exciting winter, in Auburn sports! Less than three months ago, it was definitely looking like gloom and doom, but reality turned out to be a whole lot better than we thought! In men’s basketball, we girded up for a battle for the SEC cellar, after a painful home loss to Mercer, and losses to Dayton, Northern Iowa, and Xavier. As winter blew on, we swept Alabama, and posted an impressive run to secure a bye in the SEC tournament. The women’s basketball team, expected to be pretty good, knocked off Tennessee at home, and roared to a regular-season SEC Championship. The men’s swimming and diving team secured a 13th straight championship. And in football, new head coach Gene Chizik has folks buzzing, having assembled an exciting new staff, and drawing a much greater than anticipated recruiting class.
Gene Chizik’s hire had the Auburn Nation shaking their heads. Was history repeating itself? Was this another Barfield hire? Would Auburn fans support this man? So far, Coach Chizik has made a lot of great moves, and has everyone excited about Auburn football again. As the weather warms up, we look forward to Spring Camp, and news of football from the Plains! Today, we’ll look at Chizik’s new team of on-the-field coaches, and compare them to the group we had at this time, last year.
Position coach breakdown, after the jump!
On the defensive line, Auburn All-American Tracy Rocker replaces the tandem of Don Dunn and Terry Price. Frankly, Rocker has a ways to go, before he has a resume as sparkling as Dunn and Price assembled during their Auburn tenure. Throughout Tuberville’s ten years, Auburn never had a bad defensive line. Almost always, it was the strength of the team. There are a whole lot of NFL linemen who came through the coaching of Dunn and Price, including Marcus Washington, Leonardo Carson, Reggie Torbor, Spencer Johnson, Jay Ratliff, Stanley McClover, Quentin Groves, and SenDerrick Marks. Rocker has done a good job in his six years in the SEC, also, though. In his five years with the Razorbacks, the Hogs were in the upper echelon of SEC defenses, particularly against the run. Rocker coached a few stars, also, including Jeb Huckeba, Keith Jackson, and Jamaal Anderson. Anderson had 14 sacks in 2006. At Ole Miss, both Greg Hardy AND Peria Jerry were named to All-American teams. I’m going to cautiously call the comparison a push, and we’ll be eager to see how Rocker handles this new challenge.
Coaching linebackers, Ted Roof replaces James Willis. There’s no denying that Willis brought an energy, and some recruiting pop to the Plains when he replaced Joe Whitt a few years ago. Still, I questioned on several occasions, whether he was getting the job done as an on-the-field coach. I felt this way, even before Willis defected to Tuscaloosa. Particularly last season, I felt like our linebackers were missing in action, far too much. Linebackers last season tallied only 14 tackles for a loss, in 12 games. In 2004, by comparison, linebackers accounted for 25 such plays. Ted Roof has seriously upgraded every linebacking corps he’s worked with. One can’t help but be excited to think of such a great teacher working with the likes of Stevens, Bynes, Herring, Pybus, and Freeman. Linebacker coaching gets a BIG upgrade!
In the secondary, it’s difficult to call. It’s hard to grade Paul Rhodes as a defensive backs coach, when he had to hold the unit together with spit and baling wire last season! We played several games with no cornerbacks healthy. While I despised the 10-15 yard cushion zone, somehow, Rhodes kept us down to 18 points per game given up. That’s two points per game better than say, Jon Lovett ever did on the Plains. Auburn replaces Rhodes with two position coaches, Phillip Lolley and Tommy Thigpen. Lolley was mostly a high school coach, before joining the Tigers. He spent two years helping Gene Chizik with the secondary, then moved into the office as the “Director of NFL Relations.” Tommy Thigpen joins the Tiger staff as a recruiting coup, having been one of the best recruiters in the ACC. Thigpen coached linebackers in his previous job, but does have experience coaching corners at Bowling Green. Given the fact that head coach Gene Chizik’s specialty is the secondary, I think the new combination will be OK. And we never really saw what Rhodes could do with a full unit, so this comparison has to be given an “incomplete.”
Special teams, under coach Tommy Tuberville, were the purview of Eddie Gran. Even the incoming guy, Jay Boulware, admits that Gran’s unit was pretty good, last year. While the struggles of kicker Wes Byrum were well-chronicled, Auburn finished in the upper echelon of the SEC in other special teams areas. The Tigers were second in yards per kick return, 4th in yards per punt return, 3rd in net punting (coverage figured in!), and 4th in kickoff coverage. While Gran also coached running backs, Boulware will coach tight ends. Boulware has five years of experience as a special teams coordinator, and had Iowa State’s units near the top of the Big 12. Boulware will have to prove that he can do it in the SEC. Until then, Gran’s the man.
On Tuberville’s staff, the gruffest of the gruff, the most hard-nosed coach was said to be offensive line coach Hugh Nall. While last year’s offensive line had its share of fiascoes and penalties, Nall’s units have generally been pretty good. Notable alumni of the Nall regime include Kendall Simmons, Marcus McNeil, Ben Grubbs, and Tim Duckworth. If there was a flaw to Nall’s system, I think, it was a lack of utilizing depth. Nall’s starters went the distance, every game, unless it was a blow-out. There’s much to be said for the cohesiveness, and unity, that Nall’s system creates. On the other hand, we were often one injury from disaster on the line. Incoming line coach Jeff Grimes has certainly talked just as tough as Nall. He expects his players to go hard. Grimes has also emphasized the need for cross-training on the line, which I think will help, particularly against the modern game’s shifting fronts and schemes. While Grimes has talked a great game, he comes in with a good West Coast pedigree, having coached lines at Boise State and Colorado. Grimes has little experience against SEC defenses, although I was impressed at the line play when Colorado faced Alabama in the Independence Bowl, some 14 months ago. Bama got the big lead early, but had a tough time stopping the Colorado offense, and getting pressure on the quarterback. Grimes fielded a unit in 2007, that started two true freshmen, due to injuries. I think the two coaches are about even, but Grimes is likely a better fit for what will be happening in the SEC in 2009 and onward.
Coaching tight ends for the past five seasons at Auburn has been Steven Ensminger. I haven’t been terribly impressed. In the first half of Tuberville’s Auburn tenure, Auburn had exciting, play-making tight ends, such as Lorenzo Diamond and Robert Johnson, coached by Joe Pannuzio. Under Ensminger’s watch, the number of missed blocks and dropped balls has escalated. While I’m no Ensminger fan, I don’t know what to make of incoming coach Jay Boulware. He has nothing in his bio about coaching tight ends. This comparison has to be another “incomplete,” as we trade the “evil that we know,” for the unknown.
Departing receivers coach Greg Knox has been one of my whipping boys for a long time. While he was at the center of Tommy Tuberville’s recruiting successes, as an on the field coach, I didn’t like him. The biggest complaint is that we have dropped SO many good passes over the past ten years! NFL scouts consistently label prospects from Auburn with the “poor route runner” tag. Recently, information came to light that Knox’s players didn’t particularly like him, either. He supposedly has a tendency to “get in players’ heads,” rather than teaching them to improve. Even incoming receivers coach, Trooper Taylor, said of our current receivers, “They have some ability, but they are raw.” Getting Taylor was a HUGE coup for Gene Chizik. In the interest of keeping an already-too-long post down, I won’t try to list all of Taylor’s accomplishments in coaching, but it seems like every year, his players set records and get on all-conference teams. We got a SERIOUS upgrade, at receivers coach!
As a running back coach, Eddie Gran was most Auburn fans’ favorite position coach. Gran has coached a long line of successful runners who made the jump to the NFL, including John Avery, Deuce McCallister, Joe Gunn, Rudi Johnson, Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams, and Brandon Jacobs. It’s difficult to point to any failings at the running back position under Gran, except that maybe he didn’t leave us as many players as we need at the position, particularly lead blockers. Curtis Luper replaces Gran, and he comes in with impressive recent history. At New Mexico, as running backs coach, he had the all-time career Mountain West rusher, in DonTrell Moore. In his years at Oklahoma State in the same capacity, Luper’s guys have led the Big 12 in rushing. Gran certainly has more players in the NFL than Luper, but Luper won’t be trying to run all of the special teams, in addition to his running back duties. Advantage: Even, with Luper having an enormous upside as a recruiter.
Our final comparison will be between quarterbacks coaches Tony Franklin and Gus Malzhan. As far as actual SEC quarterback coaching experience, Franklin has only his 5 games with Chris Todd and Kodi Burns. At Kentucky, Franklin was the running backs coach. Gus Malzhan has… Casey Dick. Both coordinators are said to be innovative schemers. As college quarterback coaches, we’ll have to dig a bit deeper. Franklin’s best producer was Troy quarterback Omar Haugabook, who in 2007 averaged 6.26 yards per pass, and threw 18 touchdowns vs. 15 interceptions, playing in the Sun Belt conference. Malzhan’s quarterback, in 2008 at Tulsa, averaged a whopping 10.15 yards per attempt, and threw 46 touchdowns (FORTY SIX!) against 18 interceptions. And I’d say that Conference USA is slightly better competition than the Sun Belt. I think it’s clear that we’re getting a guy, in Gus Malzhan, that’s going to be a teaching upgrade!
As to coordinators, I like Roof’s experience over Paul Rhodes, and I like Malzhan’s offense a lot more than Franklins. In summary, in the position coach area, we scored clear upgrades at 3 positions. If there is any dropoff at any position, it might be on special teams, but I think we’ll be even there, as well. Tommy Tuberville’s guys were generally more experienced, but Chizik’s guys have done very well in recent history, too. I think the younger staff will bring an energy that’s been lacking, in recent years. As for right now, I can’t wait for spring ball! Are you ready? I am! War Eagle!
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