Gus Malzahn's Reunion with 'Right-Hand Man' Herb Hand Gives New Energy to Auburn

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystMarch 21, 2016

Auburn OL coach Herb Hand (left)
Auburn OL coach Herb Hand (left)Anthony Hall/247Sports

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is known for a lot of things, but personality isn't one of them.

Malzahn is normally ultra-guarded with his comments in press conferences and speaking engagements. He is a poster boy for the analytical brand of football coach, saving most of his emotion for his trademark in-game "booms" and fist pumps.

On the other hand, Malzahn's new offensive line coach for the Tigers is completely on the other side of the spectrum.

Herb Hand has made a name for himself in coaching circles for his outgoing nature. The energetic, culinarily skilled coach competed on an episode of the Food Network show Chopped in 2014. He rapped on multiple occasions at his last job.

Hand is also known as a jokester. That doesn't always resonate with Malzahn, as Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel, then of the New York Times, wrote in 2010:

Malzahn has a reputation of being low key.

One day after Hand told a joke in a meeting, Malzahn said: “I don’t really understand jokes. I don’t get them.”

Hand asked him if he didn’t get that joke, and Malzahn responded: “No, I just don’t get the whole concept of jokes. I don’t even know why people tell them. What’s the point?”

In terms of personality, one would have a hard time finding a more opposite pair of offensive-minded coaches in college football.

"He’s on one end, and I'm on the other. I'll tell you that," Malzahn said earlier this month. "He's got a personality. He's got a good personality. We're different, but at the same time, I think our personalities complement each other on the field and off."

On the field, the first partnership of Malzahn and Hand went extremely well.

In 2007 and 2008, the two served as co-offensive coordinators at Tulsa under current Arizona State head coach Todd Graham. As Smart Football's Chris B. Brown, then of Grantland, wrote in 2014, Malzahn fused his Wing-T style rushing attack with the zone-read concepts Hand learned as an assistant under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia.

That combination led to two of college football's most prolific mid-major offenses of the last decade:

Tulsa's Offense Under Gus Malzahn and Herb Hand
YearTotal YPGPassing YPGRushing YPGPPG
2007544.0 (1st)371.0 (3rd)172.9 (42nd)41.1 (6th)
2008569.9 (1st)301.9 (9th)268.0 (5th)47.2 (2nd)

The two went their separate ways in 2009, when Malzahn became the offensive coordinator at Auburn and helped the Tigers win the national title in 2010 with Cam Newton. Later, as the Tigers head coach, he would rely heavily on the Hand-inspired zone read with Nick Marshall in Auburn's title game run in 2013.

Hand, meanwhile, stayed one more year at Tulsa and then spent four seasons as an offensive line coach at Vanderbilt—the final three with James Franklin. He then followed Franklin to Penn State, where he served as Franklin's run game coordinator and line coach for the last two seasons.

Auburn OL coach Herb Hand at Vanderbilt in 2010
Auburn OL coach Herb Hand at Vanderbilt in 2010Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

When J.B. Grimes left Auburn for Cincinnati in January to coach alongside his son Nick, Malzahn decided to get the band back together by hiring Hand away from the Nittany Lions. 

"J.B. Grimes is a great offensive line coach, and did a super job for us," Malzahn said. "Herb—just because I've worked with him before—he was my right-hand man when we were up in the booth at Tulsa. We worked very well together."

Hand's reunion with the Auburn head coach comes after the worst offensive output of a Malzahn team at the college level. Jeremy Johnson and Sean White, who were pro-style quarterbacks out of high school, didn't provide the rushing threat Auburn enjoyed under center in Malzahn's first two seasons.

That's why Hand could be the blast from the past the Tigers need. The expected front-runner in the offseason quarterback battle, John Franklin III, is practically a carbon copy of Marshall—the undersized yet electrifying dual threat who devastated SEC defenses with the zone read in 2013 and 2014.

While any changes in scheme will be kept heavily under wraps this spring by Malzahn, Hand has already made an obvious mark on the Tigers in the handful of weeks he's been on the Plains.

When players talk about the new "energy" on the practice field this spring, Hand's name normally follows.

"He brings something new to the table," center Austin Golson said. "He's very energetic. He's funny. He's a hard worker. You can tell that he loves his job and I really appreciate that. I don't want anybody coaching me who doesn't love their job. I'm very excited to play for him."

Before practice even began, Hand's hire paid dividends on the recruiting trail. He was known as an ace recruiter for Franklin at Vanderbilt and Penn State.

In the span of three weeks from his arrival at Auburn to national signing day, Hand landed 6'8" Nigeria native and 4-star offensive tackle Prince Sammons from the Big Ten recruiting battleground of Cincinnati.

"[Hand] had a relationship already," Malzahn said on national signing day. "We identified [Sammons] about a month ago and recruited him hard, and Herb did a great job with him. I know he's excited to coach him."

Hand is already hard at work for the class of 2017, too. According to his profile on 247Sports, Hand is either the primary or secondary recruiter for a dozen blue-chip offensive linemen, including 5-star commitment Calvin Ashley and in-state 4-star Austin Troxell.

The nation's No. 4 offensive guard, former Alabama commitment Netori Johnson, has built a strong relationship with Hand in a short time.

"Herb Hand, that's my dog," Johnson told Chuck Kingsbury of SEC Country. "I'm liking him. I'm digging him. He's a great coach. We sat up there, talked about my film. He taught me some things in a matter of a few minutes."

Yet with all the positives that Hand brings to the table for Auburn in strategy, energy and recruiting, there are a few figures that made some wince when he was hired.

At Penn State, Hand's offensive lines were ranked near the bottom nationally in statistical categories—both standard and advanced:

Penn State's Offensive Line under Herb Hand
YearSacks AllowedOL RatingPower Success RateStuff Rate
201444 (124th)86.0 (111th)62.7% (101st)26.8% (125th)
201539 (111th)104.6 (45th)53.1% (122nd)25.1% (120th) Outsiders

That's a far cry from the production Auburn has been used to having under Grimes, who helped develop players such as Rimington Award-winning center Reese Dismukes and No. 2 overall NFL draft pick Greg Robinson.

But there was an underlying force at work at Penn State along the offensive line. The sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal crippled the depth there for the Nittany Lions, as Brandon Marcello of noted:

Depth won't be an issue, though, for Hand at Auburn. He has a strong base of talent and experience to build upon in 2016.

"The nice part about [his experience with Malzahn] is it will be a pretty seamless transition for the players," Hand told Charles Goldberg of "There may be some terminology that will be a little bit different, but they've had great O-line coaches here and great offensive lines, and I'm just excited to be able to continue [to] build on that foundation and tradition."

The Tigers return star left guard Alex Kozan, Golson down the middle and the freakishly strong Braden Smith at right guard for 2016. Texas transfer Darius James has received rave reviews for his dominant play at tackle, and Auburn can rely on the experienced Robert Leff and the early promise of Mike Horton.

Auburn OL coach Herb Hand (center)
Auburn OL coach Herb Hand (center)Anthony Hall/247Sports

Early on in spring practices, Hand focused on mixing and matching players at different positions on the offensive line in order to find his best five and develop necessary depth at all five roles.

That's business as usual for Auburn's line, which is embracing the changes from its energetic new coach.

"It's been good," Kozan said. "I am thankful for what Coach Grimes has given our offensive line. He really helped us. I'm also excited for Coach Hand bringing new ideas in. You combine that and get better as a player."

For Auburn, those better players on the line—paired with a better scheme—could mean a much better offense in 2016 under the odd couple of Malzahn and Hand.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR. 


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