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Tempo, Not Scheme, Defines Malzahn

By Matt Smith
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Malzahn believes any scheme run at a fast pace will ultimately win out against most defenses, even SEC defenses and even defenses that resort to gamesmanship to slow down the pace.

The perception of the current state of college football offenses is that the words “spread” and “tempo” cannot exist without the other.

While there is some validity to that, it is flawed logic, particularly at Auburn. Gus Malzahn is set to begin his first season as Tigers head coach after serving as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2009-2011. Malzahn believes there is little, if any, correlation between scheme and pace.

“I think you can run any offense [with tempo],” Malzahn said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “You can run the wishbone with pace if that’s the way you practice. That’s a big part of what we do. We believe in it. It’s a big advantage if you do it effectively. Our goal is to play faster than anyone in college football.”

From a statuesque Casey Dick at Arkansas, to a more mobile Paul Smith at Tulsa, to a superhuman Cam Newton at Auburn, Malzahn has designed his offenses to fit his personnel.

The inverted veer play (explained here) used so frequently with Newton would never have worked with Dick. Meanwhile, asking Newton to take a five-step drop and throw a quick out would have been wasting his talents.

That’s where tempo comes into play. Malzahn believes any scheme run at a fast pace will ultimately win out against most defenses, even SEC defenses and even defenses that resort to gamesmanship to slow down the pace.

"If you really want to talk about rule changes, you need to talk about these guys on defense faking injuries,” Malzahn said when asked about recent discussions about the safety of no-huddle offenses.

Statistics would agree with that philosophy – both with and without Newton. Including the SEC Championship Game, Auburn scored at least 35 points in six of nine conference games in Newton’s magical 2010 season.

The year before, with  the unheralded Chris Todd under center, the Tigers still finished second in the SEC in total offense. The 21 points scored against eventual national champion Alabama were the most by any SEC team that season.

Who will earn the Tigers starting quarterback job when they open the 2013 season on Aug. 31 against Washington State?

Malzahn said figuring that out is the top priority over the six weeks between now and when Mike Leach and the Cougars come to The Plains. However, he gave no definitive timetable as to when in that span the decision will be made.

“We don’t know who our quarterback is. We have four guys. Going to give them an equal shot. Figure out who gives us the best chance of winning. Ideally, we’ll figure that out sooner rather than later in fall camp.”

Two returnees, junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace, are both in the mix, along with newcomers Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall. Camp opens Aug. 2. Many believe Marshall, who arrives from the same junior college that produced Newton, is the front-runner.

“He'll have a chance,” Malzahn said of Marshall. “He's unbelievably talented and has a big-time arm. We’re excited about him.”

Whoever wins the job won’t necessarily be the biggest, fastest nor have the strongest arm. It will be the guy who can best maintain the tempo of the offense.

At Auburn, the mantra is that while fast players make plays, fast offenses win games. Given Malzahn’s history, it’s hard to doubt him – even if he doesn’t know who his quarterback is.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.