HOOVER, Ala. — Before Auburn’s bowl game last season, Gus Malzahn decided to correct a three-year-old mistake.
Auburn had started the year ranked No. 9 after playing for a Southeastern Conference championship. It stumbled through the year with a shaky offensive line, rumors swirled about Malzahn’s job security and the Tigers finished the regular season 7-5.
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey left for the same job at Kansas — he later ended up as the head coach at Troy — before the Music City Bowl, leaving Malzahn with a decision: name another offensive coordinator or take control of the offense?
Hired for his offensive mind, Malzahn had surrendered play-calling one month into the 2016 season to then-offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
A few months later, Malzahn said he had “retired” the offensive clipboard during Lindsey’s introductory press conference. And though Auburn’s offense cruised in Lindsey’s first year, it sputtered throughout the 2018 season.
After Lindsey left the program, Malzahn decided to call plays again. He hired an offensive coordinator, Kenny Gillingham, to assist him, and Auburn scored 63 points in a blowout win over Purdue.
“I made a mistake,” Malzahn said of giving up play-calling duties in 2016.
He added: “It just feels natural. I wasn't really good at standing back and watching.”
With Gillingham in the booth, Malzahn will continue to call plays as Auburn enters a pivotal season. Two years removed from a seven-year, $49 million contract extension, Malzahn has to revitalize the offense that finished 79th in the country last year.
“He knows what he wants,” senior offensive lineman Prince Tega Wanogho said. “It's his offense.”
This season, Auburn faces one of the most difficult schedules in the country with its divisional slate, an annual crossover game against Georgia and a season-opener versus Oregon.
And while Malzahn tries to keep Auburn prominent, he has to pick a new starting quarterback. After two-year starter Jarrett Stidham left for the NFL, the Tigers will use either redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or early-enrollee Bo Nix.
Malzahn’s offenses have been most productive with mobile quarterbacks Cam Newton and Nick Marshall. At SEC media days on Thursday, Malzahn said Gatewood and Nix, who will compete during preseason practice, are both athletic, capable runners with strong arms.
“Our quarterbacks will be a run threat,” Malzahn said. “And when you have a run threat at quarterback, it really does change things from a defensive standpoint. And from a playcaller standpoint, it gives you a lot more flexibility, too.”
When Malzahn came to Auburn as the head coach in 2013, the Tigers played faster than anyone else. The offense tore through the conference as the Tigers reached the national championship game.
The evolution of college football toward spread offenses doesn’t make Malzahn’s style as much of an advantage now, he said, but Malzahn still plans to predicate the offense on speed with an effective running game and well-timed deep shots.
“Coach Malzahn is this guy for the offense,” senior defensive lineman Marlon Davidson said. “He's going to showcase it this year. I know he is.”
During spring practice, players noticed a coach who had returned to his roots. Malzahn danced on the field and encouraged music. He felt refreshed by calling plays again.
Designing an offense built Malzahn's career. Now, it could determine the outcome of his tenure and Auburn’s season.