War Eagle Extra

As defense searches for answers, Gus Malzahn throws support behind Ellis Johnson

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson recently informed his unit they had joined two inauspicious fraternities: The "400 Club" and the "30 Club."

The former stands for yardage, which the Tigers have allowed opponents to surpass each of the past five games. The latter represents points, a total every Auburn foe during this same five-game stretch has topped.

This forgettable quintet of contests followed a steady, stingy start to the season, where the Tigers didn't allow more than 21 points or 400 yards in their first five outings.

How did the sudden, steep decline happen?

As always, multiple factors are involved.

"We have not made enough critical plays to get those kinds of yards off the field," Johnson said. "We talk about it and one week it'll be tackling. One week it's busted assignments, (like) somebody turning somebody loose or something on a coverage assignment, or maybe a blitz. So, it's been a variety of things and the players are frustrated, too."

So are fans.

With each passing week of diminishing returns defensively, the Tigers' fan base has become more and more vocal about whether Johnson is the right fit. Be it message boards or Twitter, fans have a variety of avenues to voice their displeasure.

Johnson isn't oblivious to the murmurings.

"You hear it, obviously, when you're in hearing distance," he said. "But we kind of live in a cave and I got an old buddy that sent me something that other day that said, 'All Southern men know how to win a NASCAR race and coach football.' I've been coaching for 40 years. I've coached at a lot of different places, and everybody doesn't (have to) like me."

He isn't bitter, though. Johnson said criticism is merely "part of the business." If it bothered him, he admitted he would have stopped coaching long ago.

After more than four decades around the game, this is just one more storm to weather.

"I can understand some of it," he said. "We're frustrated. Players are frustrated. Obviously fans are frustrated. ... But if they can teach me how to win a NASCAR race or coach football, I'll take it."

But he acknowledged if anyone wants to assess blame for the defense's recent shortcomings, he's the only name that should be included. When things aren't going right, he said, a coach is always going to think he — and he alone — is the reason.

"If you don't, then you don't have any solutions. ... When you have that issue as a coach you always take that upon yourself," he said. "I have to teach it better. We've got to rep it more frequently (or) we're doing too much. Somehow, he's not understanding it. If you get to a point where the players just can't perform, then you've got to make a change there. (But) the first thing you're going to do is make sure you're coaching it and teaching it right."

In that area, Gus Malzahn has no reservations. Auburn's coach was asked Tuesday whether he still had "confidence" in Johnson and the rest of the defensive coaching staff given the regression shown in the past month.

Despite speaking in the same monotone he always uses, Malzahn's reply had an edge to it.

"It's the same defensive staff that led us to 13 seconds away from winning the national championship (last year)," he said. "We've got some deficiencies, obviously, and we've just got to do a better job of hiding them. But I have confidence in these guys. We're going to finish this thing strong."

As for the fan unrest aimed at Johnson, Malzahn took a realistic approach. In college football — especially in the rough-and-tumble SEC, where fan bases are as fervent as anywhere in the country — memories are short. As a coach, you're only as good as your last game. Malzahn knows Johnson can handle any flak he receives.

What goes unnoticed by most on the outside, Malzahn said, is how many others are affected.

"The unfortunate thing is, usually, as a coach, you're doing your job and you're insulated," he said. "It's just unfortunate for the families more than anything."