Back to the drawing board for Gus Malzahn

AUBURN, Ala. – It’s not completely starting over, but it’s close.

In a lot of ways, it takes Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn back to his high school coaching days, which wasn’t that long ago.

“We will be one of the least experienced offenses in the entire country,” said Malzahn, who was coaching at Springdale (Ark.) High School as recently as 2005. “At the same time, we have some young talent coming in. It’s a matter of when they grow up and when they figure it out.”

One thing’s for sure. Malzahn will earn his new $1.3 million salary next season.

He’s faced with replacing a Heisman Trophy quarterback, all but one starter on an offensive line that was the best in the SEC last season and the Tigers’ top two receivers.

“It’s a lot like when we first got here,” Malzahn said. “We know more about the guys that are here, but we haven’t seen very many of them on the playing field, whether it’s old guys who’ve been here or the young guys coming in.”

Of course, there was a time during January that Auburn coach Gene Chizik thought he might be starting over with a new offensive coordinator and going down this road without Malzahn.

Vanderbilt came after Malzahn hard and offered him a deal that would have paid him in the $3 million range annually to be the Commodores' head coach. It was close enough that Malzahn went to bed one night thinking he was going to take it, only to wake up the next morning and have a change of heart.

Conventional wisdom said that Malzahn would strike while his coaching star was so bright, especially with Auburn being gutted on offense.

But Malzahn is anything but conventional (see his offense), and he’s also undyingly loyal.

“First of all, this is great place. I love coaching here,” said Malzahn, who became the SEC’s highest paid assistant after electing to stay at Auburn. “I’ve got two daughters who go to school here. I want to be a head coach some day. I really do, but I’m not in a hurry. It just needs to be the right situation and really the right time.”

The antithesis of a self-promoter, Malzahn can make light now of a label that once galled him.

During the first part of his career, the knock on him was that he was a gimmicky high school coach whose system would never cut it against real defenses.

Well, Auburn finished seventh nationally last season in both scoring and total offense. The Tigers rushed for more than 300 yards against six straight SEC defenses.

Granted, Cam Newton would make a lot of offensive coordinators look good. But even in 2009, with Chris Todd playing quarterback, the Tigers were ranked in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total offense.

In 27 games under Malzahn, Auburn has totaled at least 500 yards of offense 12 times. Prior to Malzahn’s arrival, Auburn hadn’t had a single 500-yard game since the 2005 Georgia game.

“I’m just a high school coach that God has blessed and given me an opportunity to coach a lot of great college football players,” Malzahn said.

This will be the sixth straight year Malzahn has had to break in a new starting quarterback.

Junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley are battling for the job this spring. Heralded freshman Kiehl Frazier, more of a run-pass quarterback in the mold of Newton, will join the fray when he arrives on campus this summer.

Trotter says what makes Malzahn so good is the way he fits everything to his personnel.

“He’s going to find what each player is best at, but he’s still going to make you defend everything,” Trotter said.

Even though the Tigers’ top playmaker from a year ago (Newton) is gone, Malzahn likes the running back combo that returns in Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb.

Junior Emory Blake was one of the more underrated receivers in the league last season with his team-leading eight touchdown catches, and several other receivers look like they’re poised to make big moves this spring.

Redshirt freshman Trovon Reed would have been an integral part of the offense last season had he not injured his knee, and receivers coach Trooper Taylor said it’s been a promising start to the spring for DeAngelo Benton.

Malzahn would like to come out of the spring “with some order” at the quarterback position, but he’ll also take a long look at Frazier, who ran Malzahn’s offense at Shiloh Christian in Springdale, Ark.

“That’s my high school background, taking what you have and trying to make the best of it,” Malzahn said. “Now, we’re still going to have the same core offense. But at the same time, whoever our starting quarterback is, we’re going to try and build around his strengths.”