Malzahn brings the spread back to the Plains

March, 6, 2009
3/06/09
2:38
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

The spread is back at Auburn.

That's right. Another spring, another new offense.

 
  AP Photo/Dave Martin
  Gus Malzahn's version of the spread offense has worked wherever he has coached.

This time, it's Gus Malzahn bringing his version of the spread to the Plains. He's not real interested in what they've done before at Auburn, how miserably the spread failed last season at Auburn or how his offense might be perceived around the SEC.

It's worked everywhere Malzahn has been, and that's good enough for him.

"Nowadays, there are so many versions of what people call the spread," Malzahn said. "We're going to have a physical, hard-nosed attitude, and that's the No. 1 thing we want to do. You look back at the history of Auburn, and that's kind of been their trademark. We'll focus on running the ball downhill and be a run/play-action pass team. That's a little bit different than what they did here last year.

"It's a new start, and we'll see what happens."

First-year Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who has a defensive background, didn't have to look long to find his offensive coordinator. He wanted somebody who was creative and wanted somebody who was proven.

Those prerequisites led him straight to Malzahn, whose offenses at Tulsa were ranked first nationally in total offense each of the past two seasons. Malzahn had also previously coached in the SEC when he was at Arkansas as offensive coordinator in 2006. Moreover, he's one of the people who engineered the rebirth of the single wing that's now the rage in college football.

At Arkansas, they called it the Wild Hog. They call it the Wild Rebel at Ole Miss, and it's also known as the Wildcat package. Even the Miami Dolphins ran some of it last season with Ronnie Brown. Malzahn's been running it since he was coaching at Springdale High School in Arkansas.

Malzahn has already identified some candidates to run it at Auburn, namely Mario Fannin.

But a more pressing priority this spring is finding his quarterback. Notice he didn't say "quarterbacks." Malzahn wants one guy and hopes to find him this spring. The Tigers open practice on March 24.

"We're a quarterback-oriented offense, so you've got to find somebody who's a leader," Malzahn said. "That's what we'll be looking for."

Even though junior Kodi Burns ended last season as the starter, Malzahn insists that he's wiping the slate clean. He's a little more familiar with Burns because he coached against Burns in high school in Arkansas. Malzahn was at Springdale while Burns was at Fort Smith, and Malzahn recruited Burns the year he was coaching at Arkansas.

He's also familiar with junior Neil Caudle, because Malzahn took his Springdale High team down to a 7-on-7 league in Hoover, Ala., and he had a chance to watch Caudle play there.

"I know more about those two than I do the rest," Malzahn said. "But we'll go into this wide open and hopefully be able to narrow things in a short period of time and have a guy at the end of the spring who's our quarterback ... if that's possible and somebody earns it."

What he's looking for at the quarterback position is an "operator."

Malzahn wants to run at least 80 plays every game, which means he's got to have a quarterback who can keep up.

"We run plays at a fast pace, and we need somebody that can make plays," Malzahn said. "You don't have to be a 4.4 or 4.5 guy (in the 40-yard dash), but you have to be able to make a play on your own sometimes when things break down. Obviously in this league, that holds truer than most."

The Tigers signed just that kind of player in prized high school quarterback Tyrik Rollison of Sulphur Springs, Texas, but Rollison doesn't arrive until this summer.

Job No. 1 this spring is evaluating the Tigers' talent. Malzahn and his staff have been careful not to pigeonhole players based on what they've seen out of them on tape from last season.

"We'll also put in our base offense this spring and try and execute base plays, and then we'll get to all the fancy stuff later," he said.

Having coached in the SEC, Malzahn knows exactly what he's getting into when it comes to the speed of SEC defenses. This remains a defensive league.

And there are some who remain skeptical that a spread offense without a quarterback not named Tim Tebow can make it big in this league consistently.

A year ago, Tulsa averaged 569.8 yards per game in total offense. Meanwhile, all but two SEC teams allowed fewer than 330 ypg, and 10 of the top 35 defenses nationally belonged to SEC clubs.

Malzahn's not coming in expecting to put up Tulsa-like numbers in the SEC. But he's not saying it's impossible, either.

"To put up those kind of numbers in this league would be a much harder challenge," he said. "It would be a lot tougher, but that's yet to be seen."

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