AUBURN, Ala. -- After last season, Rhett Lashlee’s name came up for more than one coaching vacancy. Both Tulane and Southern Miss were rumored to be interested in the Auburn offensive coordinator, and he reportedly interviewed for the Louisiana Monroe job.
None of it came to fruition, though, as Lashlee ended up back at Auburn.
At the time, some fans wondered if it wouldn’t have been better had Lashlee gotten one of those head coach jobs. Auburn’s offense had regressed in 2015, and the quarterback position, in particular, was a mess. Head coach Gus Malzahn was the one calling the plays, but the offensive coordinator was the perfect scapegoat for the struggles.
As it turns out, Lashlee returning to Auburn was the best thing that could have happened for the program, and it might have ultimately saved Malzahn’s job.
Fast-forward to this season. Auburn was sitting at 1-2 after early losses to Clemson and Texas A&M. The offense didn’t look any better than it did the year before. And there was speculation that if the Tigers didn’t beat LSU to close September, Malzahn’s future would be in serious jeopardy.
So after 25 years of calling plays, Malzahn made the decision to relinquish his playcalling duties and hand them over to Lashlee, his former quarterback in high school and his right-hand man for the past decade.
The two had called plays together in the past. Malzahn even let Lashlee call the plays in Auburn’s victory over Texas A&M in 2015. But this was different. This time, Malzahn was handing over the keys of the offense on a permanent basis for the first time in his career.
“I think if you have any aspirations, you want to call the plays, you want to run the offense, you want to do those kinds of things,” Lashlee said. “But I also know Coach Malzahn and I know my role here, and I know the way he’s always been. I was just trying to do the best job I could in my role to support him.
“When he decided this is what he wanted to do, I was all for it. I’m just trying to do the best I can to give the guys a chance to make plays and be successful now.”
Four games in, the decision couldn’t have worked out any better. The Tigers are 4-0 since Lashlee became the primary playcaller, and they have outscored their opponents 170-37 during that span. After rushing for an SEC regular-season record 543 yards in last Saturday’s 56-3 victory over Arkansas, Auburn now leads the conference in rushing, averaging more than 300 yards per game.
It’s also freed up Malzahn to where he can just coach.
“It's refreshing," Malzahn said. "It gives you a complete different perspective when you’re not having the stress of having to worry about the next play and you can see the big picture. That’s where I’m at in my career, and that’s what best for our team moving forward.”
Lashlee isn’t going to be Malzahn’s offensive coordinator forever. A school will eventually hire him to be a head coach, and it could happen sooner rather than later now that the 33-year-old Lashlee has stepped out from Malzahn's shadow and earned his chops as his own playcaller this season.
But Malzahn already knows that.
“He’ll be a head coach at this level -- 100 percent,” the Auburn coach said. “He’s got the ability to perform under pressure. The bigger the game, the better he performs. That’s a trait that very few have.”
And it’s something Lashlee wants, too. Like any other young, aspiring assistant coach, he wants to be a head coach one day. But he’s willing to be patient for the right opportunity to come around, and more than anything, he’s not going to let those aspirations get in the way of his responsibilities at Auburn.
After all, there's plenty of football still to be played this season.
“When I worked for Pat Sullivan at Samford, one thing I realized when I was there is you’ve got to live in the moment you’re in and do the best you can in what you’re doing,” Lashlee said. “You can’t worry about looking ahead because as soon as you do that, you take your eyes off the here and now and you don’t do a very good job. It really won’t matter what happens down the road.
“I’m just kind of taking it right now with what we’re doing and trying to do the best I can with Coach Malzahn and our offensive staff and these kids to give them the best chance to go out and make some plays. All that other stuff will take care of itself.”