AUBURN, Ala. — When one thinks of putting a face on Auburn’s turnaround season, Gus Malzahn is likely the first person that comes to mind.
If not the coach, then it is his quarterback, Nick Marshall. But there is a third piece of the offensive puzzle that links those two together, and in Malzahn’s estimation, deserves every bit as much credit: Rhett Lashlee.
After all, the Tigers’ offensive coordinator has been around Malzahn’s offense longer than anyone.
He first picked up on the concepts of Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle scheme as a seventh grader at Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, Ark. In the years to come, he would lead the school to three straight state title games — winning two — and compile various national passing records along the way to a 40-3-2 record. After spending his college career at Arkansas as a backup, he went into the coaching ranks, joining his mentor when Malzahn became the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator in 2006. From there, Lashlee followed Malzahn to Auburn — serving as a graduate assistant on offense in 2009-10 — and then to Arkansas State last year, where he became the Red Wolves’ offensive coordinator.
Now in the same position at Auburn, Lashlee has been part of the Tigers’ record-setting offense this year, as it is averaging 335.7 rushing yards per game, tops in the nation. Those numbers — along with Auburn’s 12-1 record and SEC Championship — landed Lashlee a nomination for the Broyles Award, which goes to the top assistant in college football.
Though he didn’t win it — it was awarded to Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi in a ceremony in Little Rock, Ark., on Tuesday — Lashlee said simply being a finalist was an honor.
“It’s humbling. I feel like we’ve got eight other assistants on this staff who deserve it just as much,” he said last week. “I look at things like this — the same as for our players getting individual recognition — it’s just a reflection of this team and how it’s been this year. We’ve won as a team every week, whether at one part in the game the offense is playing really well and the defense isn’t, so we’re picking them up or we start struggling and they start making stops. We’ve won as a team all year, and it just so happens every now and then I guess someone represents the team.”
Of course, one could say there is no better representative of Malzahn’s offense than Lashlee. The 30-year-old wunderkind has spent seven seasons of his 10-year coaching career working in lock-step with Auburn’s head coach, in addition to his time at Shiloh Christian quarterbacking the offense himself under Malzahn’s tutelage.
Since then, Lashlee has seen it take on various shapes, be it one centered around a physical running game or a high-flying aerial attack.
“When I played, we threw it a lot, mainly just because we could. But coach has always been a little bit more of a run-first guy even when we’ve had years that we’ve thrown for 5,000 yards,” he said. “When he started it, he was more of a running guy, and then he developed our no-huddle system and the passing game and all that over time. When he went to Springdale High School, he had some really good running teams. It wasn’t until the last year or two with Mitch (Mustain) that he started really throwing it a lot more. So he’s always been great at, 'If I need to throw for 400 yards, I can. Or if I need to rush for 400, (I can).”
Lashlee said that core foundation — putting players in an offense that best suits their talents — dates back to Malzahn’s days as a high school coach. Unlike college, he pointed out, you don’t get to recruit players.
You take what you get and go from there.
“One year you might have a quarterback who can throw for 5,000 yards, the next year you may not have a quarterback who can throw at all, or you may just have a guy who has exceptional this talent or you may have a great offensive line,” he said. “You kind of have to adapt to what you have. I’ve been fortunate to be with him and learn that same thing: (you) ask guys to do what they’re good at.”
It’s no different with Malzahn’s coaching staff, as he assigned Lashlee to one of the most important tasks imaginable: developing a relationship with Marshall. That the junior college transfer has continued to improve as the season has gone along didn’t surprise the head coach — not in the least.
In that area, he said, praise should be reserved for Lashlee.
“You're talking about a quarterback that didn't go through spring,” Malzahn said. “What Nick Marshall has been able to do, he's gotten better each week. Boy, he can really run. He's got a good arm. Rhett has done a great job of coaching him."
Never one to keep the spotlight on himself, Lashlee downplayed his influence on Marshall. He compared it to any relationship: the longer two people are around each other, the better feel they have for one another.
It’s a connection that Malzahn and Lashlee have long shared.
The pair split play calling duties, though Malzahn makes the final decision more often than not. That’s why it was an astonishing revelation when Malzahn told a reporter that his offensive coordinator was responsible for as much as 50 percent of the play calls in the fourth quarter of Auburn’s 45-41 victory over Texas A&M in October, which marked the team’s first road win in two years.
When asked about their dialogue play-to-play, the normally-verbose Lashlee had a difficult time putting it into words.
Just call it an innate bond.
“We just communicate. I guess I don't think of it, maybe, as detailed as (others),” he said. “It's a great question because we just do it. It's happened for so long. ... It just works.”
That’s why Malzahn is always quick to mention his protege’s name whenever talk of the Tigers' offensive improvement arises.
“Our overall offense, I get a lot of the credit, but he deserves just as much," Malzahn said. "He does the majority of the game planning and the work that goes with it (as well as) recruiting. I think that he's done an excellent job this year."
So well, in fact, it won’t register as a shock if other schools start looking at Lashlee as a potential candidate for future openings — sooner rather than later. In recent years, schools have shown a willingness to hire young coaches, as three men in charge of Division I programs — Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, Toledo’s Matt Campbell and Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck — aren’t even 35 years old yet. Whenever other schools will begin to court Lashlee is still to be determined.
But there was no such gray area in Malzahn’s mind in regards to Lashlee’s subsequent career path.
"He'll be very successful (as a head coach)," Malzahn said. "That's how he's gotten to where he's at. He's got all the ingredients. I don't know the timetable. Selfishly, I hope we have him for a while."