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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn staying patient in search for Will Muschamp’s replacement

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn isn’t making any rash decisions in the wake of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp bolting for South Carolina.

Malzahn fielded questions about the search following the Birmingham Bowl press conference Thursday at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

“This is a big decision,” Malzahn said. “I want to make sure we get it right.”

When asked for specifics about the process and potential candidates, Malzahn was evasive.

He declined to identify internal or external candidates under consideration and deflected questions about specific names including Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, Auburn linebackers coach Lance Thompson and former assistant Travaris Robinson.

“I’m not going to get into any kind of names,” Malzahn said. “I’m going after the best guy.”

Malzahn wants to hire someone “sooner rather than later,” but a quick timeline isn’t a driving force in the search. He was adamant that he hasn’t offered the position yet to any coach.

His top priority is finding a candidate that will bring continuity to a defense that is looking at its third different coordinator in four years.

“That’s more important to me than anything,” Malzahn said of hiring someone that will stay at Auburn for a while.

Ellis Johnson was Auburn’s defensive coordinator for Malzahn’s first two years as head coach. Johnson was fired following a disappointing finish to the 2014 season that saw the defense give up more than 30 points in its final six SEC games.

Malzahn moved quickly to hire Muschamp and make him the highest paid assistant coach in the country with a three-year, $5.1 million deal.

The USA Today reported Wednesday the Tigers’ budget for football assistants was the second highest in the country at $5.3 million.

Malzahn was asked if he would have similar resources in replacing Muschamp, but talked around the question.

He said his focus is on identifying the right person for the job and coming up with a final plan for who will coach the defense for Auburn’s bowl game. 

“We are still working on that,” Malzahn said. “I’m hoping by Monday I can let everyone know exactly our plan for the bowl. Who will be calling the defense and all that. Like I said earlier, we’re going to make sure we keep building upon our same defense that we had last year.”

It leaves open the possibility if Auburn hires someone this weekend that person could coach the Tigers during its 15 bowl practices and the game on Dec. 30 at Legion Field.

Malzahn acknowledged the challenge in front of Auburn’s defense would a difficult one without a coaching search going on.

The Tigers face a Memphis team in the Birmingham Bowl that scored more than 40 points a game during the regular season and has a quarterback Paxton Lynch getting buzz as the country’s top NFL prospect at the position.

“We are playing one of the best offensive teams in college football," Malzahn said. "We are playing one of the best quarterbacks, if not the best guy for the next level. He’s phenomenal. What really stands out to me is his touchdown to interception ratio, not just this year, but last year. He protects the football and he’s got a big arm.”

The coaching staff met with the team’s defensive leaders to make sure the group stays focused as the team regroups for bowl practice.

“I think they will respond fine, that’s a group that stuck together and you saw them get better at the end of the year," Malzahn said. "We talked to the leaders, we got very good leadership and they are looking forward to this bowl.”

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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