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Michael Niziolek: Can coach Gus Malzahn resist falling back on bad habits?

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn talks to quarterback John Franklin III before the team’s game against Arkansas St. Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn talks to quarterback John Franklin III before the team’s game against Arkansas St. Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

A fluke or a sign of things to come?

Auburn’s offense is as much of a mystery heading into its pivotal SEC opener against Texas A&M Saturday as it was two weeks ago.

The muscles it flexed in a near record-setting performance against Arkansas St. — 51 points, 706 total yards — conjured images of the pain coach Gus Malzahn’s inflicted on opposing defenses in 2013.

Projecting sustained success for the group is hard to do given the Jekyl and Hyde nature of the offense from week one and two. Coaches are chalking the improvement to the natural progression of what Malzahn describes as “an inexperienced offensive group.”

That’s certainly one way to look at it, one that completely ignores a disastrous game plan in the season-opener that Auburn coaches are still reluctant to write off as such.

“The frustrating thing last year and really the first game is that we didn’t execute at a high level,” Malzahn said. “That’s our goal and like I said offensively, we’re still a work in progress.”

The closest Malzahn came to disavowing the game plan was to tepidly say “we wish would’ve done a little different” in the loss to Clemson. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was less interested in finding fault in their decision-making and play calling.

“No,” Lashlee said if he regrets not letting quarterback Sean White take the majority of snaps in Auburn’s season-opening loss.

With Auburn’s brain trust unwilling to fault in their own missteps, it’s hard to be confident they won’t fall back on bad habits if White struggles Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Coaches are understandably intrigued by what junior college transfer John Franklin III can do, but a rotation under center isn’t the answer for Auburn’s long-term success.

Malzahn doesn’t need to abandon what made one of the most highly-respected offensive minds in college football by calling the game conservatively, but he needs to be sensible and stick with White through any bumps in the road.

At least one former Auburn quarterback agrees.

“I hope he took that (Clemson) game plan and put it in the camp fire so to speak,” Auburn alum Ben Leard said this week.

Leard vividly describes the importance of getting into a rhythm at the position.

“It’s kind of like the Matrix,” Leard said laughing. “You want it where everything slows down around you and you can get into that flow. If you are constantly looking over your shoulder or worrying which package is yours that’s completely disruptive to the rhythm.”

Malzahn didn’t suggest he was planning to shake up Auburn’s offensive game plan this week, but will get that itch if the team has a couple three and outs on Saturday? What if White turns it over early?

If Auburn’s offense is a work in progress as Malzahn suggests anything can happen this weekend, for better or worse.

“We’ve got to keep improving,” Malzahn said. “We’re starting to kind of put the pieces to the puzzle, but we’re still learning about our guys. Hopefully in a short period of time we’ll have everything with what we’re going to do moving forward.”

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