HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense returned to the Plains last season with a bang.
A huge bang.
The Tigers transformed from a toothless offense in 2012 to one that finished in the top 10 nationally in yards per play, total yardage, total points and plays of 30 yards or more.
Explosiveness was definitely not an issue for the defending SEC champions, but they are not completely satisfied with their production in one specific area.
"We led the country in rushing last year," Malzahn said at SEC media days. "When you do that, defenses have to take some chances. We've got to do a better job this year of making them pay when they do take their chances."
There were some bright spots in Auburn's passing offense last season—quarterback Nick Marshall was the nation's highest-rated passer in the final eight games of 2013, and wide receiver Sammie Coates finished third nationally in yards per catch—but the Tigers' run to the national title was that: a run.
Malzahn's patented offensive scheme has always emphasized a strong rushing attack, but his 2013 Auburn team was the run-heaviest of his collegiate coaching career:
|Rushing vs. Passing Play Calls in Gus Malzahn Offenses|
|Team||% of Rushing Plays||% of Passing Plays||Total Plays|
|2012 Arkansas St.||57%||43%||951|
|CFBStats.com and ArkansasRazorbacks.com|
Auburn's reliance on the run game mostly fell on Marshall, who was more effective on the ground than he was through the air for most of 2013.
Although Marshall's passing improved throughout the season, the coaching staff decided to base the offense on the backfield's rushing abilities with a read-option foundation that took the country by storm.
"I think as you're building your strengths around [your quarterback], you find out a lot about your team," Malzahn said. "Last year was a completely different deal because we were learning every single play in every single game until probably halfway through the year."
In addition to what the coaches hope will be a more accurate arm, Auburn's offense will look to Marshall's legs and leadership as he becomes the first returning starter at quarterback for Malzahn at the college level.
"Nick is vocal," senior center Reese Dismukes said. "At first he wasn’t, but now that he’s been here over a year, he’s gotten comfortable. He'll be a leader as well."
Now that Marshall and the bounce-back Tigers will not be able to take anyone in the SEC by surprise this season, Malzahn is adjusting his offense once again for a potential title defense.
"[Offensive coordinator Rhett] Lashlee and the offensive staff worked extremely hard in the spring," Malzahn said. "We feel like we have some receivers that can stretch the field and make some plays."
Coates will be the unit's leader once again and looks to have more of an impact in Malzahn's offense. Although the big-play receiver finished near the front of the pack in yards per catch, his 42 grabs were outside of the top 100 nationally in 2013.
Former No. 1 junior college recruit D'haquille "Duke" Williams, a standout from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, will be another go-to target for Auburn. He wasted no time in introducing himself to the Jordan-Hare faithful this spring by coming down with several impressive catches at the annual A-Day Game.
Georgia game hero Ricardo Lpuis, experienced senior Quan Bray and the sure-handed Marcus Davis will also be expected to lead a receiving corps that did not lose a single player from 2013.
Their development over the offseason, along with a more accurate Nick Marshall, is what Auburn's playmakers hope will be the difference in the offense this season.
"It’s going to be a lot more balanced than last year," senior tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "It’s been fun being in the mix with, in my opinion, the best group of receivers in the nation. It’s a lot of fun to have the opportunity to be in the mix with those guys."
Uzomah is also looking to make a bigger impact in his senior season. The senior's production in 2013 was sporadic at best—he had a few important catches toward the beginning of the season but also went several games without a single target.
But with the Tigers having more of an emphasis on getting the ball in the air this season, Uzomah figures to be a bigger weapon in Malzahn's constantly changing offense.
Thanks to another vertical threat out wide in Williams, the tight end could help open Auburn's playbook even more by providing a reliable receiver in the middle for an improved Marshall.
A bigger role for Uzomah could be another advantage for Auburn against defenses that will be trying to figure out how to slow Malzahn and Co. down.
"We have so many plays under the same formation that look the exact same, so it’s really hard to game-plan for something like that," Uzomah said. "You can try your best to game-plan, and we may get stumped on certain plays on a certain drive. But Coach Malzahn will adjust, and we’ll adjust as a team."
With Marshall showcasing a more accurate arm this spring and the coaching staff intent on calling more passing plays, Uzomah believes those adjustments to the scheme will make Auburn's offense ferocious in 2014.
"That added dimension is definitely there," Uzomah said. "With the work that [Marshall] has been putting in during the offseason, it’s definitely a triple-headed monster for our offense."
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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