For the first time as a college head or assistant coach, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has a returning starting quarterback back for a second year in his system.
He just won't start the season-opener.
Senior signal-caller Nick Marshall will serve his penalty for an offseason citation for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and won't start the season-opener, according to Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. He will play, however.
When he steps in for sophomore Jeremy Johnson at some point against Arkansas, it will mark the debut of the "Gus Malzahn 2.0" offense.
What should the world expect from this Tigers offense?
Wide Receiver Experience
Creating "more balance" is generally a talking point coaches use in the offseason as code for saying that one aspect of the offense is struggling. That's not really the case for Auburn.
Sammie Coates finished third in the nation in yards per catch last year (21.48 YPC) and thrived in Auburn's system that lulled secondaries to sleep with its multidimensional running game.
Malzahn stressed the importance of more balance—which is code for more consistency in the passing game from Marshall—this offseason.
"We led the country in rushing last year," Malzahn said at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama in July. "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 chances."
Auburn will capitalized on safeties creeping up in 2014, and junior college transfer D'haquille "Duke" Williams is a big reason why. Literally.
At 6'2", 216 pounds, Williams presents matchup problems for smaller cornerbacks, has the frame to be dangerous as a possession receiver and speed to burn. To put it more simply, he's a clone of former Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
Toss in Ricardo Louis, slot receiver Quan Bray, Tony Stevens, Melvin Ray and Jaylon Denson—who missed most of last season after tearing his ACL against LSU in September—and tight end C.J. Uzomah, and Auburn's wide receiving corps is deep and versatile.
"For the first time, at least since I've been at Auburn, we've got deep threats at every position we put on the field," Malzahn told Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com earlier this month. "Hopefully, that will equate into some big plays in the passing game."
Marshall looked like he had taken the next step during the spring game, particularly at the end of the first quarter when he hit Williams over the middle over a linebacker, Uzomah on a skinny post in the red zone and then Williams again on a fade for a touchdown.
These aren't passes that he made last year, and a sign that, even at that point at the end of spring practice, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee had their message received by their senior signal-caller.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Losing Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason isn't ideal for the Tigers running game, nor is the early departure of Greg Robinson, the graduation of fullback Jay Prosch and the season-ending injury to left guard Alex Kozan.
It won't be much of an issue for these Tigers.
Mason was a great back in a great system. Malzahn's system has produced 11 1,000-yard rushers in eight seasons as a college head or assistant coach, and that great system is still in place.
It's not like Auburn is filling those holes with 2-star scrubs.
Cameron Artis-Payne rushed for 610 yards and six touchdowns as a reserve last year, home run threat Corey Grant had 647 yards and six touchdowns a year ago and Marshall topped the 1,000-yard mark and found the end zone 12 times on the ground. Add in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and 5-star true freshman Roc Thomas, and the foundation is there.
Greg Robinson was a force plowing the road in the running game last year. After all, you don't get drafted No. 2 in the NFL draft on a whim unless your name is "Ryan Leaf." The offensive line is the more pressing issue for the Tigers, where veteran Shon Coleman will be stepping in at left tackle. Coleman was out of football for two seasons winning the battle over leukemia and has been impressing the coaching staff on and off the field.
"Shon is an extremely talented young man and we believe he's only scratched the surface on the football field," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told me earlier this summer. "His story overcoming cancer has been an inspiration to us all. He's a leader and great example on our football team, and we are expecting big things from him this fall. We believe he has a bright future at Auburn and beyond."
The Tigers were forced to find a replacement for Kozan during fall camp after Kozan injured his back during the offseason.
His replacement, however, is a familiar face.
Right tackle Avery Young is listed as Auburn's No. 1 right guard on their Week 1 depth chart, with Patrick Miller—who was in a heated battle with Coleman for the left tackle job this spring—sliding in at right tackle. At 6'6", 315 pounds, Young is big and powerful enough to fire off the ball and get downfield, but he also has the athleticism and quick feet that Malzahn's system requires from its guards—who routinely pull and get around the corner to open those big holes.
"We've got a fantastic offensive line," reserve right guard Jordan Diamond said, according to Goldberg. "I think we've got a chance to be the best offensive line in the country. We've got to continue to work together. Right now, we're physically tough and mentally tough. We've just got to go out and execute when it's time."
It's time, and the replicating of last season's success shouldn't be difficult.
More of the Playbook
Marshall had two-and-a-half weeks as the starting quarterback in Malzahn's system before taking his first snap in a game last season versus Washington State, and he was forced to figure things out in a hurry last season during Auburn's run to the SEC title.
"He was kind of learning on the fly last season," Lashlee told ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough.
That won't be the case this season.
The continuity with a veteran quarterback and his receivers allowed Auburn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense to hit the ground running—"pun" intended—during fall camp.
"We’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year, especially as an offense, just because we’ve been in the system for a year-plus now," Uzomah told Goldberg. "We have that kind of connection as receivers, and the O-line knows what we’re doing with coach (J.B.) Grimes. The quarterbacks and the running backs have their mesh points, yeah, it’s going really well and we’re pleasantly pleased where we are right now.”
Auburn was one-dimensional by choice last season, and that brought them to within 13 seconds of a national title.
Add more layers to it on the ground and the balance Malzahn stressed at media days, and this offense will be nearly impossible to stop.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.
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