Auburn Football: Despite Offensive Tempo, Auburn Defense Can Be Elite Once Again

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Auburn Football: Despite Offensive Tempo, Auburn Defense Can Be Elite Once Again
Gus Malzahn and Ellis Johnson. Photo credit: Todd Van Emst

Despite the hurry-up, no-huddle style of offense that Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn will bring back to the Plains in the fall, Auburn can buck the trend and field an elite defense like it has for much of its history.

Football traditionalists will be quick to tell you a team that runs an up-tempo offense like Auburn will employ in 2013 cannot have an elite defense. 

The logic is sound. Shorter offensive drives leads to the defense being on the field for more plays, and the result is a worn-out defense by the fourth quarter. 

It is one reason that former head coach Gene Chizik moved away from the up-tempo offense when Malzahn, who was then Auburn's offensive coordinator, left to become head coach at Arkansas State. 

When former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler was hired, he claimed that his philosophy was to "protect the defense" (h/t AuburnTigers.com).

Having a mediocre defense does not have to be the rule for up-tempo college offenses.   

Judging by previous statements and his recruiting strategy, it appears that shoring up Auburn's defense is one of Malzahn's top priorities. 

"Everybody pictures me as an offensive guy -- I like to win, OK? We've got to have that great defense," Malzahn told the Greater Birmingham Auburn Club on Feb. 12 (via Charles Goldberg, al.com). "I'm very committed to getting our defense back where it should be."

In the 2013 recruiting class, Malzahn brought in 11 players that will play on the defensive side of the ball. Included in that class are four highly rated defensive line prospects. 

Gerry Hamilton, a national analyst for 247Sports, ranked the Tigers defensive line class the best in the country. 

Playing on the defensive side of the ball for Malzahn surprisingly is attractive for pass-rushers like 5-star defensive end Carl Lawson. 

"His offense, simply put, scores a lot of points, and to be able to produce points in a defensive-heavy system in the SEC is something special," Lawson told ESPN's College Football Live before signing day (via Joel Erickson, al.com). "It coexists with what I do. I like to rush the passer, and I can't do that if no points are being scored."

Carl Lawson. Photo via 247sports.

Lawson is exactly right. 

As Jay Tate of AuburnSports.com correctly points out (subscription required), defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson can be more aggressive in his 4-2-5 defensive scheme knowing that it is a near certainty that his offense will put up some points. 

Auburn's offense was only kept out of the end zone one time in Malzahn's tenure as the Tigers' offensive coordinator. That came in his last regular-season game against Alabama in 2011. 

The ability to take more chances and bring increased pressure with players like Lawson will yield positive results for the defense. 

The return of an elite defense on the Plains begins with getting the defensive players conditioned for the style of play. Malzahn has brought in Ryan Russell to replace the legendary Kevin Yoxall as Auburn's strength and conditioning coach. 

With a new face has come a new philosophy. 

"No-huddle training. That's kind of our philosophy," Malzahn told the Birmingham Auburn Club (via Goldberg).

With similar up-tempo offenses like Texas A&M and Ole Miss permeating the SEC, Auburn's familiarity with the pace should give it an inherent advantage in defending those high-powered offenses. 

In his introductory press conference, Johnson said the following about the pressures of being on the defensive side of the ball for Malzahn (via Auburn Athletics)

College football is unique. The professional teams can go have exhibition games, high schools can have scrimmages, but college football, you work against who you are on both side of the ball. If your offense is missing an element of the option, missing an element of tempo, missing an element of power, then your defense is going to suffer.

It's not about how fast you go - it's how fast you go well, and Coach Malzahn has proven he knows how to do that. That is going to help our defense in the long run.

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

A top-25 defense seems like a long way away after watching Auburn struggle mightily on the defensive side of the ball the last two years.

It may not return to the elite level Auburn fans want in year one, but it is wrong to assume that the Auburn defense will continue to flounder in mediocrity simply because of an up-tempo offensive attack.

With the talent that it is bringing in and the talent that is already there, it is a safer assumption to think that the defense will return to the elite status it had under Tommy Tuberville than it is to assume it will stay down. 

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