War Eagle Extra

Michael Niziolek: Auburn solves identity crisis

Auburn's running backs huddle up before the Arkansas State game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn's running backs huddle up before the Arkansas State game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer

The solution to Auburn’s offensive woes turned out to be a whole lot simpler than finding the next Nick Marshall.

The dual threat quarterback was a key ingredient to the program’s run to the national title game in Gus Malzahn’s first season on the Plains, but as the coach said Tuesday during his weekly press conference — “there aren’t a whole lot of Nick Marshalls running around out there.”

Auburn has rekindled the magic from the 2013 season by turning the offense over to its playmakers in the backfield.

When Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze watched film of Auburn’s recent four-game win streak to prepare for this weekend’s matchup, Malzahn’s long-time friend immediately saw the similarities between this year’s Tigers offense and the one that lead the country in rushing three years ago.

“They have quality in their backs and their offensive line, they’ve committed to it,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said earlier this week. “For Gus, last year was a frustrating year and I think he just made the commitment that we are going to make sure that we are being who we should be and it is surely working for him.”

While offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee isn’t afraid to dial up a run play for Sean White, he’s eliminated the forced gimmicks and substitution patterns Auburn used early in the season to generate rushing yards at the quarterback position.

Lashlee has concentrated on putting the ball into the hands of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson since taking over as the team’s play-caller.

Their success combined with the emergence of explosive options out of the backfield like Stanton Truitt, Kam Martin and even freshman receiver Eli Stove has given defenses plenty to think about without the presence of a true dual threat quarterback in the mold of Marshall or backup John Franklin III.

“They’ve changed from like game one and two a little bit, but this is what they’ve always been where ever Gus (Malzahn) has been with them and Rhett (Lashlee) has been with them a long time,” Freeze said. “That’s what you see now is really what he’s always done. There may be a few different wrinkles here and there, but it is really what they’ve always done so it is no different.”

Franklin’s success in blowouts shows Malzahn and Lashlee still appreciate the junior college transfer’s skill set, but the more well-rounded White allows Auburn to play the mistake-free football needed to let the backfield thrive.

Malzahn defended the offense’s early season growing pains this week saying it was the result of an inexperience offense — filled with “green” underclassmen — trying to find their identity.

After punching opposing defenses in the mouth the last three weeks, it’s safe to say Auburn has solved its identity crisis.

Michael Niziolek: 334-332-8572, @wareagleextra