It's fair to say that, in his first year as Auburn's head coach and second as a college football head coach at the FBS level, Gus Malzahn jumped into "elite" status among the coaching ranks.
The best may be yet to come.
For the first time in his coaching career—either as a head coach in college or as an assistant—he has a starting quarterback returning for another season under Malzahn. Things seemed to work out for that quarterback in Year 1.
Dual-threat star Nick Marshall.
All Marshall did in his first season on the Plains was throw for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns and rush for 1,068 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, lead the Tigers to an SEC title and within 13 seconds of a BCS National Championship.
Not a bad debut, especially considering the junior college transfer had just five weeks in the offense and two-and-a-half as the starter before taking his first live-game snap in the opener.
What aspects of the Auburn offense will benefit from a full offseason of Malzahn and Marshall working together?
If you thought Auburn played fast last season, get your popcorn ready. They're going to go even faster in 2014.
Auburn finished tied for 62nd in the country last season in plays per game at 73.8 according to TeamRankings.com, and tied for 55th in plays per minute according to CFBMatrix.com with 2.80. It's no surprise that, down the stretch, Auburn played faster 81 plays per game over the last three games—two of which (vs. Alabama and Florida State) Auburn had more than a week to prepare for.
With Marshall now fully comfortable within the offense, it's time for Auburn to step on the gas.
"We think we can be quite a bit faster," Malzahn told Phillip Marshall of AuburnTigers.com. "Last year we had a lot of new people out there, a lot of moving parts. As you get more comfortable, the faster you can get."
How much faster is he talking?
Getting 85 to 90 snaps off per game isn't unrealistic and likely will be the target for the Tigers in 2014. Not only does Marshall have knowledge of the system working in his favor, but he also could have a more diverse passing game.
Malzahn wants to pound the rock and take the top off a defense with the deep pass, but those were really the only two options for the 2013 Tigers. Junior college transfer wide receiver D'haquille Williams and junior Jaylon Denson—who tore his ACL in September—should be back to provide Marshall and Malzahn options in the intermediate passing game.
That means more plays per drive and more plays per game for the Tigers.
Diversity in the Passing Game
In addition to the return of Denson and the arrival of Williams, leading receiver Sammie Coates—who finished third in FBS in yards per catch at 21.48—is back to stretch the field for the Tigers. All three are bigger-bodied receivers who give the coaching staff options with plays and routes, which will keep opposing defenses on their heels.
It's overly simplistic, but it seemed like Auburn's passing plays consisted of the fly route and the screen pass last year, with very little in between.
It's not just on the wide receivers to step up. Marshall's inconsistency in the intermediate passing game was obvious from Day 1. That's not terribly surprising considering the limited time he had in the offense and the fact that he was 18 months removed from playing defensive back for Georgia when he took his first snap against Washington State.
Now that the coaching staff knows what Marshall does well, they can focus on the few things he doesn't—the most notable of which is his touch on short passes.
Malzahn has a reputation for getting creative with his X's and O's and drawing up trick plays designed to be called at specific times when he feels the defense is most susceptible.
A quarterback who already has a firm grasp of the scheme and the plan will allow Malzahn to fine-tune the offense, which may include even more tricks and wrinkles.
Does that mean that we'll see double quarterback passes and triple reverses in games?
Not necessarily. Malzahn's primary goal will be to wear the opposition down with a punishing rushing attack out of the spread.
But those plays will be in the plan, and they'll likely be more of them for him and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to choose from in the game plan on a weekly basis.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
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