Coordinator builds on QB’s strengths
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn’s dwindling detractors often point to his not-so-distant past as a high school coach as the crux of their criticisms of him.
But that background has helped Auburn’s coordinator be amenable to tailoring the Tigers’ offense to quarterback Cam Newton’s strengths this year.
“I’m used to building the offense around the strengths of the quarterback,” Malzahn said.
The result is something different from anything he has had in his five years as a college coordinator.
Thanks to the dual-threat capabilities of the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton, Auburn is more run-based this season than any of Malzahn’s previous offenses. The Tigers have run the ball on 70.8 percent of their plays, getting 57.1 percent of their yards on the ground.
The first figure is higher than any of Malzahn’s previous four offenses. The second is beaten by only the 2006 Arkansas team that featured running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones and was only marginally controlled by Malzahn.
“We always want to be a 50-50 type team,” Malzahn said. “And you’ve got to be able to throw it and run it. We strive for balance, and we’ll continue to do that. I really feel like at the end of the year that we’ll be pretty balanced.”
With Newton, that might not be necessary. The junior college transfer signed in December, but Malzahn didn’t get a good idea of what his star pupil was capable of doing until the end of the spring.
That’s when Malzahn began adjusting the offense accordingly: Newton’s running ability would get plenty of attention.
“We knew he was capable of being a very good runner,” Malzahn said. “He never got tackled (in the spring). So, no, we never knew he’d be as effective, but he’s a great competitor. Very physical.
“We’ve got to get him where he runs out of bounds a little bit more. He looks up people. That’s pretty unusual for a quarterback.”
Malzahn hasn’t had a quarterback of Newton’s skill set. He has used five starting quarterbacks in his previous four years as a college coordinator after leaving Springdale (Ark.) High. None would be classified as a running threat.
Casey Dick and Mitch Mustain combined for negative-32 rushing yards for Arkansas in 2006.
Paul Smith ran for only 73 yards but had 12 touchdowns for Tulsa in 2007. David Johnson ran for 186 yards and three scores the next year for the Golden Hurricane.
In Malzahn’s first year at Auburn, Chris Todd was hardly the nimblest of quarterbacks, finishing with negative-116 rushing yards.
Through six games, Newton has 104 carries for an SEC-best 672 yards — more than six times Malzahn’s other quarterbacks combined — and nine touchdowns.
“Sometimes, you just get a quarterback that you weren’t necessarily thinking that he was going to be that big a part of the run game,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “And, as the season progresses, it’s very evident that: a) he can handle it; and b) he’s very effective at it.”
Auburn has gained confidence in Newton’s running as the season has progressed, calling his number in the zone read with increasing frequency.
Excluding the Louisiana-Monroe game, in which the coaches forbid the quarterback from taking off, Newton’s carries have gone up almost every week, from 15 in the opener against Arkansas State to 28 Saturday at Kentucky.
Newton had 10 carries for 48 yards on the Tigers’ 19-play 86-yard final drive against the Wildcats, helping run out the clock and set up the winning field goal.
“We’ve got a good feel for him,” Malzahn said. “In the first couple games, we were trying to feel each other out and all that. But I know how he’s going to respond in certain situations.”