That much is certain, and not just because there’s nowhere to go but up for the country’s 118th rated total offense.
Bringing in Gus Malzahn as head coach and looking to reprise his 2010 record-setting hybrid offense is one thing. Malzahn putting his protégé and former player, Rhett Lashlee, in charge of the Tigers’ offense makes a firm statement to every Auburn fan frustrated with a futile pro-style effort.
“We’re a two-back, run, play-action team that’s going to no-huddle and play the two-minute the entire game,” Lashlee said upon his official introduction as offensive coordinator Friday.
“Our identity as an offense will be to play fast and physical. That will be ingrained in our guys from day one. You can’t have one without the other – we will play extremely fast and we want to be very physical at every position.”
Malzahn called Lashlee, 29, “one of the bright, young and up-and-coming offensive minds in all of college football.” Auburn’s newly-hired head coach and former offensive coordinator would know.
Lashlee played three years of varsity high school football for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian (Ark.) – also the alma mater of sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier – from 1999-2001. They hooked up in 2004-05 on staff at Springdale (Ark.) High School, and moved together to Arkansas in 2006 when Malzahn was offensive coordinator and Lashlee joined as an offensive graduate assistant.
Then when Malzahn was hired by his predecessor, Gene Chizik, to guide Auburn’s offense in 2009, Lashlee was in tow as a graduate assistant. After his rookie year as an offensive coordinator at Samford in 2011 learning from Pat Sullivan – the former Auburn Heisman winner who recommended Malzahn for this job – the pair reunited when Malzahn took his first head coaching gig at Arkansas State.
And now they’re here.
“You get to a point in your career when you have to go on and do it to really continue to grow and develop. Coach Sullivan at Samford gave me that opportunity, I’ll always be indebted to him for that,” Lashlee said. “Then to get back together with Coach this year was great. We were able to continue working together – but now with a different role than in the past.”
And now, at a different level, in the SEC, where both men helped tutor Cam Newton and the 2010 national champion Tigers.
“I relied on him a lot here at Auburn; he deserves a lot of the credit for our offensive success that we had,” Malzahn said. “He just did a phenomenal job. I know exactly what I’m getting. He’s going to give me the flexibility to help with the offense and at the same time be a head coach and do the things that a head coach has to do.”
Still awaiting his 30th birthday, Lashlee’s youth isn’t unprecedented, but it is uncommon in the role of leading a major college offense.
Utah’s Brian Johnson is the youngest offensive coordinator of a BCS school, at just 25 years old.
In comparison, running down some ages of other top assistants when they got their first major coordinator job:
Georgia’s Mike Bobo was 33 when he started in 2007. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was promoted at 32, and former Crimson Tide OC Major Applewhite started at 29.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin was 30 when he became the Trojans’ offensive coordinator in 2005, and 33-year-old Kliff Kingsbury was resoundingly successful in his first year at Texas A&M guiding Heisman favorite Johnny Manziel.
Other than following his mentor, Lashlee had another reason to crave a return to Auburn.
“The first thing that came to my mind was the fans,” Lashlee said, with his mother and wife each seated off to the side. “Think about Tiger Walk, home or away, think about that student section. I’ve got goose bumps just thinking about it again.”