Gus Malzahn Recapturing His Play-Calling Magic Is Auburn's Top Offseason Goal

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterDecember 30, 2015

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnJoe Robbins/Getty Images

The quarterback position was Auburn Football's most visible sore spot from the moment the Tigers took the field in Game 1 in Atlanta vs. Louisville through the end of the regular season vs. Alabama.

Jeremy Johnson lost the job after Week 3 due to ineffectiveness and was replaced by Sean White. However, Johnson was reinserted into the starting lineup after White got banged up in November.

In Saturday's 31-10 Birmingham Bowl win over Memphis, it was Johnson getting the last laugh.

White threw two picks, while Johnson provided a second-half goal-line spark for the Tigers with touchdowns through the air and on the ground to cap off Auburn's season at 7-6 and give the football program, at least, a little momentum after a season of tumult.

Malzahn was pleased with how things wrapped up, according to Joe Medley of the Anniston Star.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnButch Dill/Associated Press


Are there great things ahead, though?

The quarterback position will be a major focal point. White and Johnson will be joined by junior college transfer John Franklin III and incoming freshmen Woody Barrett, competing for the top spot on the depth chart.

What should be talked about more is Auburn's biggest issue—head coach Gus Malzahn's play-calling.

Even though the quarterbacks struggled all year, the third-year head coach of the Tigers didn't give either quarterback much of a chance, thanks to curious play-calling, especially in the red zone.

Early in the game, before White's struggles, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee routinely trotted out Johnson when the Tigers got in the red zone. Johnson was used as a designated running quarterback or as a wide receiver in a package that included running back Kerryon Johnson as the wildcat quarterback.

Early in the second quarter after stopping Memphis on fourth down at midfield, Malzahn called a reverse pass by receiver Jason Smith which hit Memphis' safety right in the numbers.

Later in the second quarter, Auburn was on a drive in which running back Jovon Robinson had already gained 34 yards, playing behind a line that was owning Memphis from the trenches. On a 4th-and-2 of the same drive, Malzahn called a rollout to a tight end that was picked off and taken to the house to tie the game at 10-10.

These aren't isolated incidents that can be chalked up to bowl game antics. These are trends that occurred early and often, including in home losses to Ole Miss Football and Georgia Football.

Ryan Brown of The Roundtable on WJOX 94.5 FM in Birmingham, Alabama perfectly encapsulated Malzahn's play-calling trend.

Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson
Auburn QB Jeremy JohnsonJoe Robbins/Getty Images


The offensive guru who came within 13 seconds of a national title just two seasons ago with one of the most dynamic, multidimensional offenses in the country has regressed into a play-caller who tries to outthink the room at the most critical times of football games.

When you have Jovon Robinson and Peyton Barber at your disposal, you use them.

Auburn was at its best when it stayed true to itself and played power football in the red zone, even if it involved the zone read or jet-sweep action to test a defense's eye discipline.

That was Auburn Football, but power football became a thing of the past in 2015.

No matter who takes the snaps or what style of quarterback he uses, this upcoming offseason, Malzahn had better fix himself and recapture the play-calling magic that led Auburn to the 2013 SEC titlebecause the Tigers open next year with September home games against Clemson Football, Texas A&M Football and LSU Football. 

If Malzahn continues to look lost early in the 2016 season, he'll likely be looking for a job next holiday season.


Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.