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Auburn Football: Dissecting the Tigers' Dominating Zone Read Under Guz Malzahn

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - NOVEMBER 2:  Head Coach Gus Malzahn congratulates Tre Mason #21 of the Auburn Tigers after a touchdown against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on November 2, 2013 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  The Tigers defeated the Razorbacks 35-17.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Brandon OliverContributor IJanuary 10, 2017

When Gene Chizik was hired as Auburn's head coach prior to the 2009 season, he knew he needed to bring an exciting style of offense with him. He did just that by hiring Gus Malzahn as the offensive coordinator.

The offensive success that followed in 2010 was due in large part to Cam Newton's arrival. But it wasn't just Newton who helped the Tigers to the BCS title. It was Malzahn's system being fully implemented and executed to perfection by a veteran offensive unit.

Now that Malzahn is back and working with another experienced group on offense, the Auburn rushing attack is clicking on all cylinders.

The table below shows the drastic improvement from the previous year in Malzahn's first and second seasons as the Auburn offensive coordinator. It also shows the renewed focus on the run this season, Malzahn's first as the Tigers' head coach.

Auburn Rushing Statistics (Rank)
200812469 (52)1,642 (81)12 (101)3.50 (94)136.83 (70)
200913550 (17)2,756 (12)24 (33)5.01 (11)212 (13)
201014652 (6)3,987 (3)41 (5)6.12 (2)284.8 (5)
201113536 (32)2,370 (32)20 (55)4.42 (43)182.3 (31)
201212438 (91)1,781 (85)16 (86)4.07 (79)148.4 (80)
20139440 (5)2,756 (4)28 (4)6.26 (7)306.22 (6)

His offense might seem like an impossible riddle for opposing defenses to solve, but all the big plays, formations and overall success stem from one basic concept—the zone read.

What makes the zone read work so well is the variety of formations it can be run out of and the options that come along with it. Malzahn's Tigers have used the zone read to roll to an 9-1 record and a No. 7 ranking in the latest BCS standings.

Auburn's veteran offensive line has helped pave the way for quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason to have breakout seasons. The pair has developed the chemistry that, coupled with their talent, has the Auburn offense rolling along at a record pace.

On this play against LSU, the Auburn line blocks down, sealing the right side, which leaves Marshall and Mason having to beat a lone defender on the play. While Marshall and Mason are engaged at the mesh point, the LSU linebacker is unsure who has the ball.

Even the slightest hesitation by the defender favors Auburn in a big way, as Marshall can choose to give it to Mason or keep it and walk it in himself for a touchdown.

In this case, Marshall chose to give the ball to Mason, who makes one quick move and crosses the goal line to put Auburn on the board.

When the zone read is properly executed, it can be nearly impossible to stop. If the defenders forget their assignments or the blockers simply do their job, it is almost too easy for a duo as talented as Marshall and Mason to choose the path of least resistance.

This play against Florida Atlantic shows just a few of the options that can present themselves when the zone read is set up properly by each man executing his role to perfection.

With the devastating blocking ability of senior fullback Jay Prosch, the Tigers can line up in the diamond formation and run the power zone read for another wrinkle for the defense to worry about.

By lining up in an offset position, just behind the offensive line, Prosch makes Malzahn's offense even more difficult to defend. He can seal the edge, clear a gap by taking out a linebacker or help to double-team a defender.

The fullback's presence alone often causes enough hesitation by a linebacker to give Marshall an easier read at the mesh point. The threat of the fullback leaking out in the flat or on a wheel route can cause the defender responsible for him to pause for a split second.

Although the offense wasn't at its best in the opening game of the season, one play set the tone for the rest of the season. On Corey Grant's 75-yard touchdown run against Washington State, you can see the high safety and a linebacker still looking at Marshall, who ran up the middle without the ball, causing more confusion among the defenders.

That's all it takes for Marshall to read his keys and make a decision. If he makes the right one, it's big trouble for the defense. Just ask Washington State. By the time the Cougars realize that Grant is the one with the ball, he is off to the races.

The possibilities are endless in Malzahn's offense, and the Tigers are executing it to near perfection. The offensive line is dominant, the quarterback has matured into a very good decision-maker, and led by Mason, the running backs are making big plays.

No one on the Plains is going to forget Newton and the 2010 National Championship team anytime soon, but if the Auburn ground game keeps doing what it has through the first 10 games, the 2013 Tigers might find their special place in Auburn football lore. 

And it's all because of Malzahn's zone-read philosophy, and the Tigers' ability to execute it the way that their first-year head coach envisioned when he stepped on campus in 2009.

It wasn't until Year 2 of the Chizik/Malzahn era at Auburn that the zone read made a big impact on the Tigers' program. Now that Malzahn has complete control of the program and has the perfect weapons to place even more stress on opposing defenses, Auburn hasn't had to wait two years to achieve his desired level of success.



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