Auburn Football: True Strength of Gus Malzahn's Offense Is in the Trenches

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Auburn Football: True Strength of Gus Malzahn's Offense Is in the Trenches
USA TODAY Sports

They do not fill the stat sheets like Nick Marshall, Tre Mason or Sammie Coates.

They are not the faces of legendary plays like Ricardo Louis and Chris Davis.

They were not the biggest stars of head coach Gus Malzahn's patented hurry-up, no-huddle offense in the Tigers' SEC title run last season—and they will not be the biggest stars of this year's offense.

But Auburn's offensive linemen are the strength of one of the nation's most feared offenses.

After a 2012 season in which it was the weakest link for a toothless offense, Auburn's front five roared back to life in 2013 under Malzahn and his staff.

"Any time you get to [the national title game], you’re going to be pretty good up front with your offensive line,” Malzahn said last December. "In 2010, we had a veteran group, one of the strengths of our team."

Last year was no different as the line paved the way for a record-breaking rushing attack and bought valuable time for an inexperienced quarterback in Marshall to make the most of his occasional chances through the air.

And this year should be no different for Auburn, thanks to the unit's elite strength in three key areas of offensive line play.

 

Experience

247Sports

Auburn may have lost its star offensive linemen early to the pros—an early announcement that paid off in a big way for former left tackle Greg Robinson—but the other four starters from 2013 are back on the Plains for another season.

According to AL.com's Joel Erickson, if the Tigers went with the most experienced combination of linemen for the upcoming season, one that included former starting right tackle Patrick Miller, then they would have 113 combined career starts to begin the campaign:

Career Starts of Returning Offensive Linemen for 2014
FBS Rank School Career OL Starts
1 Appalachian State 145
2 UTSA 143
3 Indiana 130
4 Minnesota 129
5 Washington 124
6 North Texas 123
7 Louisville 121
8 UNLV 117
9 Idaho 115
10 Florida State 114
11 Auburn 113
11 South Carolina 113
13 South Alabama 110
14 Oregon 108
15 Oklahoma 107

PhilSteele.com

The last time Auburn had a starting lineup of offensive linemen with more than 100 career starts between them, it won the national championship.

Miller is projected to back up redshirt sophomore Shon Coleman at left tackle this season. While Coleman does not have a single career start, he brings a level of unique experience to the position. He has been on Auburn's campus since 2011 and at practice since 2012 after his comeback from battling cancer.

The amount of experience and potential coming back with those six players has created a problem for offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, but he told the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea in May that it was a "great situation" for the team:

The hardest thing is to figure out who the best five are. That's a very difficult thing because obviously we have four returning starters with a guy like Pat Miller who started multiple games, I think he started 14 ball games at Auburn. He has really good experience and is a quality player. Then you've got an exceptional athlete like Shon Coleman who I think has great potential. He hasn't done it yet, but he has great potential to be one of those guys.

Some shuffling across the offensive line this spring created additional depth for the experienced unit, which has a few players Grimes believes could play any position.

One position that will not change this fall, barring injury, is center, where team captain Reese Dismukes is heading into his fourth year as a starter.

One of the nation's top centers last season, Dismukes serves as a "second quarterback" for the offense. The senior must read and react quickly to defenses as an offensive leader, and Malzahn said he thinks of him as an overall team leader.

"He's a tough guy, comes to practice every day," Malzahn said at SEC media days. "He demands that his teammates practice at the level that the coaches expect. He's an extension of the coaches. We're very fortunate to have him. He had a lot to do with our success last year."

 

Power

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Spread offenses are designed to stretch defenses horizontally and capitalize on the space it creates. Teams that use this style of attack often base their running games outside the tackles.

Between wide receiver reverses and speed sweeps to running back Corey Grant, who led the nation last year with 9.8 yards per carry, the Tigers were the nation's best at gaining huge yardage on outside runs, according to ESPN:

But, despite all that success on the outside, Auburn's offense is based on a style that is completely opposite to most spread attacks.

“There are so many different spreads, and [Malzahn] is not a horizontal throwing game, zone-read guy,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told ESPN.com's Chris Low last year. “He runs the power and the counter power...youve got the option, the element of power, and then you’ve got the pace and the tempo. That’s what I think really makes it hard to get ready for in college football today.”

Malzahn's offense is about power running at its core, and, as Erickson notes, it all starts with the front five:

But the Tigers' offensive line is the real key, as Dismukes pointed out at SEC Media Days. Unlike true spread teams, which build their running games around draws and counters, Auburn's offensive line is taught to play power football at the line of scrimmage, and the Tigers dominated opponents at the point of attack last season. 

No matter how many options are built into each play or how the Tigers line up in their shotgun formation, Auburn's offense is a power attack at its core.

New Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason arrives in the SEC from his defensive coordinator post at Stanford, a power team known for slowing down some of the nation's most prolific spread offenses.

But when Mason studies new conference neighbor Auburn, he does not see a prototypical spread offense—he sees an offense similar to other SEC West contenders.

"I shouldn't say it's changed, the package has changed," Mason said at SEC media days. "When you look at a team like Auburn, how they run the football, it's no different than Alabama, they just do it a different way."

Behind the offensive line, Auburn was the nation's top power-rushing offense, especially in situations when the Tigers wanted a few yards on first down or needed them to get a first down. In those situations, the "spread" offense became a "smashmouth" offense:

2013 Auburn in Power-Rushing Situations
Category Statistic FBS Rank
Rushing Yards on 1st Down 2,552 1st
Rushing Yards in Opponent's Red Zone 661 1st
Rushing Yards On 3rd Down and 1-3 Yards to Go 472 1st

CFBStats.com

This season, when Auburn elects to air it out more than it did in 2013, neutralizing some of the SEC's tough defensive fronts will be a greater responsibility for the offensive line in a system built on winning the war in the trenches.

By controlling the line of scrimmage against those top-notch defensive lines, the Auburn offensive line allows Malzahn's offense to simply do what it's designed to do.

 

Speed

USA TODAY Sports

As a pioneer of the hurry-up offense from his high school coaching days, Malzahn wants his team to be the fastest in college football.

There are several important benefits an offense can get by not huddling between plays, from scoring points as quickly as possible to stopping the opposing defense from regrouping after explosive plays.

But in order to take all the advantages the scheme has to offer by playing as fast as possible, your offensive players must be in peak physical shape—including your 300-pound offensive linemen. If the big guys do not get set quick enough, the more those advantages shrink.

Surprisingly enough, some of the Tigers' most vocal proponents of the fast-paced offense can be found on the offensive line. Here is what senior right guard Chad Slade had to say about Malzahn's system this spring, per the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington:

We love the pace. Some people don’t get used to it, but we’re used to it by now. Everybody is back, and we have high expectations for everything—the pace going faster, we can go faster than we did last year. One of the goals is to be connected to each other, so we believe that is going good so far.

Auburn's coaches expect their offensive linemen to be quick in the system, but they do not want them to cut weight and risk losing the strength needed for the offense's power football philosophy.

"(Grimes) is not really looking for us to be lean,” Slade said. "He just wants us to move. When I played in this offense the first time, I was 305. Now I'm 310, 315. He just wants you to be able to move with your weight."

A prime example of staying big and getting quick is none other than Robinson. His draft stock rose rapidly during the Tigers' championship season, but it did not explode until the NFL combine, when the eventual No. 2 overall pick stunned scouts with this 40-yard dash:

While Robinson's dash took the pro football world by storm, it was not a shock to an Auburn coaching staff that preaches speed and power at every position, especially the offensive line.

And although Robinson is off to the NFL, that speed and power will be back this season in an experienced unit that keeps looking for ways to improve.

"We’ve got a killer offensive line and an awesome offense," Miller said this spring. "It’s very exciting. I feel good and feel like we’re going to be a force. But we've got to get a lot better—we always have to get better."

 

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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