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Origins of ‘mad scientist’ Noel Mazzone’s up-tempo, spread offense date back to time at Auburn

Former Auburn assistant Noel Mazzone on the sidelines during his tenure as the program’s offensive coordinator from 1999-2001.
Former Auburn assistant Noel Mazzone on the sidelines during his tenure as the program’s offensive coordinator from 1999-2001.

Noel Mazzone’s three-year stint on the Plains barely registered. The former Auburn assistant ran the offense for coach Tommy Tuberville from 1999-2001.

Auburn won an SEC West championship (2000) during Mazzone’s brief stint on Tuberville’s staff, but the Tigers lost both of their bowl game appearances and went 1-2 in the Iron Bowl.

Mazzone bounced around for more than a decade after Tuberville cleaned house following a 16-10 loss to North Carolina in the 2001 Peach Bowl.

Players Mazzone helped recruit would help Auburn win an outright SEC championship by going undefeated in 2004.

Mazzone found the success that eluded him at Auburn when Jim Mora Jr. hired him at UCLA. The offense rewrote the record books during Mazzone’s tenure on the West Coast with the Bruins setting single-season records for total yards, scoring, passing yards and plays runs.

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin poached Mazzone off UCLA’s staff for a fourth go-around in the SEC setting up the assistant’s return to Auburn this weekend.

Change of pace

The up-tempo, spread offense Texas A&M will show off at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday will look different than the one Mazzone ran at Auburn.

At least on first glance.

Texas A&M is ranked 14th nationally through the first two weeks of the season with 170 total plays. The Aggies have also excelled at generating explosive plays with 21 plays of 20-yards or more.

Former Auburn quarterback Ben Leard traces the origins of Mazzone’s current approach to the assistant’s time on the Plains.

“He was kind of a mad scientist,” Leard said. “He was dabbling to see if it worked. It was kind of unheard of at time except for maybe Kentucky with Tim Couch just trying to run as many plays as they possibly could.”

Leard pointed to memorable wins over Georgia and LSU in 1999 as examples.

“It (the spread) wasn’t a lynch pin for us, but when the game plan called for it we would throw in five-wide and no huddle sets,” Leard said.

The quarterback threw for a career-high 400-plus yards and four touchdowns in the 41-7 win over Georgia. The Tigers offense ran 46 plays in the first half before slowing the tempo down up 31-0.

Auburn’s visit to Death Valley followed a similar pattern with the offense pulling back on the throttle late in the third quarter leading 34-0.

“It was so loud at LSU that we actually went to the no-huddle, no snap count, Cole (Cubelic) couldn’t even hear me at the line of scrimmage,” Leard said. “All the offensive linemen went to wrist bands and I would just pick a number and point.”

Mazzone turned to a more pro-style offense in 2000 to welcome junior college transfer running back Rudi Johnson to campus.

“It’s funny how much it completely changed, but Rudi was that type of back,” former Auburn wide receiver Jeris McIntyre said.

The change in styles impacted Auburn’s leading receiver Ronney Daniels more than most, but Mazzone never shied away from pushing the ball down field.

“When we needed a play, coach was looking my way,” Daniels said. “We wanted to run the ball, but anytime I would catch one-on-one coverage, I would signal to Ben and make things happen. Coach trusted me as a receiver that way.”

Sudden exit

Auburn had the nucleus of a SEC championship offense in 2001 — freshman quarterback Jason Campbell, sophomore running back Ronnie Brown and freshman back Carnell Williams — but Mazzone didn’t get much time to develop it.

The 2001 season was a transitional year for a 7-5 Auburn team that lacked the offensive identity of the previous two years.

“We were breaking in new quarterbacks and the guys (Daniel Cobb and Campbell) were trying to get used to everybody,” McIntyre said. “Anytime you don’t have that one guy step up and take charge it can effect the whole team. We kind of went back and forth that year.”

Auburn’s offense bottomed out at the end of the season as the team lost four of its final five games. The offense averaged 12 points during the stretch culminating with a toothless performance in the Peach Bowl.

The Tigers were shutout through three quarters and finished the game with 176 total yards.

“It was a strange,” McIntyre said. “We kind of heard some rumblings going into the last game, but it was still like ‘wow, coach is gone.’ It woke me up to the real world of college football. It wasn’t just him, but we weren’t playing up to expectations. It’s a business.”

With the way Mazzone helped rehabilitate Leard’s career, the former quarterback has little doubt his mentor could have had similar success as Al Borges did for Auburn in 2004.

“I would have loved to see him have more time,” Leard said. “Loved to see him coach Jason, Carnell and Ronnie throughout. He had the expertise to coach those guys. I put Noel and his ability up with anybody.”