AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn says he has never met his predecessor Tony Franklin, is not familiar with his system and, quite frankly, couldn’t tell you much about his fellow offensive guru.
It’s too bad. The two probably would have a few things to talk about.
The similarities between Franklin and Malzahn — offensive coordinators of Auburn past and present — are too striking to be ignored.
Both fine-tuned their respective fast-paced offensive systems at the high school level. Both got their chance at the biggest Division I school in their respective states (Franklin at Kentucky; Malzahn at Arkansas), only to leave after successful, yet aggravating tenures.
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Both revived their careers and gained national acclaim by directing juggernaut offenses at non-BCS schools (Franklin at Troy; Malzahn at Tulsa). And both got a second shot at SEC glory at Auburn.
So is Malzahn destined to head down the same path to destruction Franklin did last year? Not necessarily. Malzahn has something Franklin never did in his volatile 10-month stay on the Plains — a unified staff.
“It starts with all your coaches on the same page,” Malzahn said. “When your coaches are on the same page, the players believe it better. I think there’s great power in that. I’ll tell you right now, our coaches are all on the same page.”
That wasn’t the case last year. Fighting and distrust among Tommy Tuberville’s staff led to an abrupt and unceremonious end to Franklin’s seven-game tenure midway through the season. The Tigers were 4-2 before Franklin was fired and 1-5 after, a collapse that set off a series of events that ended with Tuberville’s resignation and the hiring of Gene Chizik.
One of Chizik’s first calls went to Malzahn, whose Tulsa offenses put up staggering numbers in his two years as co-coordinator, leading the country in total offense both seasons. They then went to work finding offensive assistants on board with Malzahn’s vision, pulling Curtis Luper and Trooper Taylor from Oklahoma State.
Make no mistake: Malzahn’s aim is to be the fastest offense in the country, with the goal being to snap the ball within five seconds of when it’s placed in play by a referee.
Franklin, who’s now at Middle Tennessee, had nearly identical goals prior to last year but never truly implemented his system.
But there are major differences in the schemes. Franklin’s offense used the pass to set up the run, while Malzahn has repeatedly stressed his desire to be a run-first team.
Franklin’s shotgun formation put the running back directly next to the quarterback, meaning any handoff required lateral running before making a cut upfield.
Malzahn’s system puts the running back slightly behind the quarterback in the shotgun, allowing for easier downhill running.
And while Franklin wanted his offensive linemen to be light and limber, able to move and pull at will, the new staff has encouraged its linemen to bulk up. Left tackle Lee Ziemba and center Ryan Pugh both packed on more than 30 pounds in the offseason, hoping to get a chance to return to Auburn’s smashmouth roots.
“We’re a run, play-action team,” Malzahn said. “We want a physical, hard, downhill edge. We want them to be as big and strong as they can, and keep their athleticism.”
While no one would mistake the two coaches’ personalities — Franklin never had a thought he wouldn’t verbalize, while Malzahn is reserved with his words to the media — they have similar motivations, one bred from myriad skeptics who never thought former high school coaches could make it as a major college offensive coordinator.
“Obviously, there were doubters,” Malzahn said. “When you’re a high school coach and you go into the SEC, yeah. I’m extremely motivated. It really doesn’t make any difference as far as that goes. I have very high expectations and just really focus on my job at hand, so I don’t really get caught up in it.”