AUBURN, Ala. – Gus Malzahn has made the media rounds this week on radio appearances, telling a regional audience how it’s gone his first two weeks as Auburn head football coach.
Thursday afforded him an opportunity to address college football fans around the nation on exactly how he plans to turn the Tigers around following their first 0-8 SEC season ever.
“We just need to get our edge back,” Malzahn said to kick off a 5-minute segment on ESPN’s College Football Live. “Auburn’s a great place, we’ve got the best fans in college football, and we’ve got some players here that I think can get the job done.”
Hired away from Arkansas State after one season, Malzahn said he’s beginning to create relationships with defensive players, but mostly is yielding to coordinator Ellis Johnson to command that side of the ball. Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11 and knows a vast majority of those returning players.
“It really feels like I wasn’t gone long at all,” Malzahn said. “I’m very familiar with our players and the people around the program. I really think that helps me get a good understanding of what I’m coming into.”
Malzahn said at his introductory press conference Dec. 4 competition for all positions was open, including quarterback. He was asked by CFL studio host Joe Tessitore about Kiehl Frazier, who starred precisely in Malzahn’s concocted offense at Springdale (Ark.) but lost his starting job after four and a half games in 2012.
“First of all, I think Kiehl’s very familiar with what we’re doing. We recruited him specifically for this system, and of course last year, he went into a pro style system,” Malzahn said. “Quarterbacks have a comfort zone, and I really feel he’ll be more comfortable in this system.”
Frazier completed 53.4 percent of his passes for two touchdowns against eight intereptions, also struggling with sacks and fumbles. Clint Moseley and Jonathan Wallace are also scheduled to return in 2013, and while they produced higher quarterback ratings, they too couldn’t transform the team’s fortunes.
Now the job, mainly, is Malzahn’s.
“We’ve got some deficiencies, and I’m very aware of that,” Malzahn said. “We’re trying to address those with recruiting, whether it’s a high school or juco guy.
“We feel like we’ve got a great plan and we’ve got a chance to get this thing done.”
After Malzahn’s visit, Tessitore engaged analysts Jesse Palmer and David Pollack in a roundtable regarding the state of Auburn football.
David Pollack called Johnson, who is in his fourth SEC position, “a great hire”.
“He doesn’t have to relearn all these coaches he’s going to be going against,” Pollack said. “He knows exactly who they are. It’s a big feather in his cap to get somebody like this that’s familiar with the league and a great defensive coach.”
Malzahn went 9-3 with a Sun Belt championship in his single season leading Arkansas State. Only two of the past 11 Auburn head coaches (going back 85 years) have produced a winning season in their first campaign – Terry Bowden and Gene Chizik.
“I still think Gus Malzahn is under tremendous pressure this year to win right now,” Palmer said. “Because this fan base is impatient. They’ll be even more impatient if Alabama wins their third national championship in four years. The fans expect success right now because of the familiarity.”
Palmer followed up by opining Auburn, because of Malzahn’s previous ties to the program, will succeed quicker than Arkansas, which hired three-time Big Ten champion Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin.
Pollack, a College GameDay analyst and Georgia’s all-time leading tackler, disagreed.
“If you look at Auburn’s talent, I don’t see that’s any way possible,” Pollack countered. “You could catch lightning in a bottle with a couple junior college kids, which we’ve seen happen in the past.
“This is a tough job. This is not a job I think a lot of coaches were lining up for,” Pollack said. “You’ve got a guy in Gene Chizik who won your first championship in 50 years. 50 years! And two years later, he’s fired. You’re recruiting against Nick Saban. You’re in the toughest league in college football. This is extremely tough.”