Malzahn swiftly hires vet, protege as coordinators
New Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was flanked by his fresh-faced protege, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, and silver-haired defensive boss Ellis Johnson on Friday.
He introduced the 29-year-old Lashlee and 60-year-old Johnson at a news conference three days after his hiring. Lashlee will make $350,000 a year while Johnson received an $800,000 salary, though Auburn hasn't released the lengths of their deals or other terms.
Lashlee's hire seemed almost a foregone conclusion.
He spent three years as Malzahn's quarterback at Shiloh Christian High School in Arkansas and has worked under him in the prep ranks and at three different colleges, including their initial stop in Auburn.
"He's one of the bright, young and up-and-coming offensive minds in all of college football," Malzahn said. "He's been my right-hand man at three different stops in college. At Arkansas he was my right-hand man. I relied on him a lot here at Auburn. He deserves a lot of the credit for our offensive success that we had and of course this past year at Arkansas State, just did a phenomenal job. I know exactly what I'm getting.
"He's going to give me the flexibility to help with the offense and at the same time be a head coach and do the things that head coach has to do."
Malzahn said the two will collaborate on play calling duties in an offense built upon a relentlessly fast tempo and a style that is heavy on the run and play-action passes. It worked well enough in 2010 that the Tigers won a national title and quarterback Cam Newton took the Heisman Trophy. Lashlee spent last season as Malzahn's offensive coordinator at Arkansas State after a year running the offense for FCS team Samford.
"Our identity as an offense will be to play fast and physical," Lashlee said. "That will be ingrained in our guys from Day One. You can't have one without the other. We will play extremely fast and we want to be very physical at every position.
"We'll have a physical downhill running game, we'll also be explosive in the passing game and be very aggressive taking vertical shots down the field and stretching the field horizontally. That's our philosophy. We want to make teams defend the whole field. I think the biggest intangible and thing we've got to instill as an offense, and this has always been our philosophy, is discipline."
They've got an uphill battle. Auburn ranked 115th in total offense last season. Lashlee and Malzahn are familiar with all three quarterbacks who started games: Kiehl Frazier, Clint Moseley and Jonathan Wallace.
Lashlee said that familiarity is a plus but they'll still install the offense "like they've never heard it before."
He broke the national record with 171 career touchdowns passes under Malzahn and led Shiloh to three state championship games and two titles.
"One of the most beneficial things I have is that I played quarterback in this system and now coach in it," Lashlee said. "When I'm coaching quarterbacks, I can identify with them even moreso than most. I know what they're seeing. I know what they're thinking. I've done those drops. I've thrown that route. I know all that. Not only am I telling them, `here's what you should do,' but they know I've done it.
"It sometimes adds some credibility and resonates better. I get what they're going through."
Johnson, whose hiring was announced on Thursday, can relate to the challenge of defenses facing Malzahn's offense.
His South Carolina defense faced Malzahn and Newton twice in 2010, losing in the regular season and the Southeastern Conference championship game. Johnson would grumble that the proliferation of hurry-up styles "is starting to deteriorate some of college football."
He's backtracking now.
"Did I say that? Translated into Latin, that means, `Somebody help us, we can't stop this,'" Johnson said. "All of us defensive coordinators complained over the last 5-15 years. Gus wasn't the first one but he kind of put it in warp speed."
His base defense is a four-man front with two inside linebackers and five defensive backs.
"It will be our foundation," Johnson said. "But Coach Malzahn wants an attacking, multiple defense, and that's what we're going to be. You can only be as multiple as your talent allows you to be. As we evaluate personnel on this football team, we'll find ways to create packages that complement that 4-2-5."
The coaching change has potentially taken a toll on a recruiting class that has been ranked among the top 10. Recruiting Web sites reported Friday that five-star linebacker Reuben Foster of Auburn High School has decommitted.