Before LSU ushers in SEC play in 2013 with its conference opener versus Auburn Saturday night (6:45 p.m., ESPN), TSD is previewing the War Eagles on both sides of the ball.
Tomorrow I’ll take a look at the Auburn defense under Ellis Johnson, but today it’s time to turn the microscope on Gus Malzahn’s offense, led by JuCo transfer quarterback Nick Marshall.
AUBURN STARTING OFFENSE
QB: Nick Marshall (6-1, 210, Jr.)
RB: Tre Mason (5-10, 205, Jr.)
H-back: Jay Prosch (6-0, 258, Sr.)
TE: Brandon Fulse (6-4, 263, Jr.)
WR (X): Sammie Coates (6-2, 201, So.)
WR (Z): Quan Bray (5-10, 186, Jr.)
LT: Greg Robinson (6-5, 320, So.)
LG: Alex Kozan (6-4, 297, R-Fr.)
C: Reese Dismukes (6-3, 297, Jr.)
RG: Chad Slade (6-5, 313, Jr.)
RT: Patrick Miller (6-7, 283, So.)
Notable Backups: RB Corey Grant (5-11, 205, Jr.); TE/WR C.J. Uzomah (6-4, 258, Jr.); WR Ricardo Louis (6-2, 215, So.) and WR Jaylon Denson (6-3, 219, Jr.)
After spending the 2012 season as the head coach at Arkansas State, Gus Malzahn, who was Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-2011, is back on the Plains. To help run his offense, Malzahn brought with him Rhett Lashlee as the new War Eagle offensive coordinator. Lashlee, a former Arkansas quarterback, has served as a graduate assistant at both Arkansas and Auburn before more recently taking the reins as QB coach/O.C. for Samford and then Arkansas State under Malzahn in 2012.
What Malzahn and Lashlee are trying to accomplish is to bring an up-tempo spread-run offense to Auburn that utilizes skill position players all over the field. So far, through three home games (all at home), they’ve been at least moderately successful, even if the personnel isn’t quite where Malzahn would want it yet.
JuCo transfer QB Nick Marshall, who started his career at Georgia (where he ultimately played defensive back), has pulled the strings on an offense that is averaging 440.4 yards per game – 238.7 yards on the ground and 201.7 yards though the air. Further illustrating what Malzahn & Co. want to do: 36 of Auburn’s 61 first downs through three games have come via the run. Auburn is attempting to create manageable third-down situations, where the rushing attack can still be a factor.
When going to the air, Marshall has been fairly average, although he has limited turnovers, important for any first-year starter. The former Bulldog is 43-of-70 (61.4%) for 585 yards and four touchdowns against two interceptions. His 339 yards passing versus Mississippi State a week ago are the most ever by an Auburn quarterback in an SEC debut. But, it was also the first time Malzahn took the reins off Marhsall, who attempted 34 passes against State compared to 36 combined in the previous two weeks.
Marshall’s primary targets have been wide receivers Sammie Coates and Quan Bray. Coates, the bigger of the two starting wide-outs, has reeled in seven balls for 167 yards and a touchdown while Bray, a quick player who most often lines up in the slot, has 108 yards and a touchdown on six catches to his name. Both are capable of the big play but don’t get an abundant amount of targets.
On the ground is where Marshall and a stable of junior running backs really spearhead Auburn’s offensive attack. AU’s most experienced returning back is Tre Mason, fresh off a 2012 campaign where he rushed for 1,002 yards. Through three games he’s garnered the most carries of any Auburn player (39) and has parlayed that into 206 yards rushing, good enough for 10th in the SEC.
The player ranked seventh in rushing yards in the conference, Corey Grant, has been even more efficient than Mason and is quickly slotting into a big-play role for Auburn. Grant, the fastest of the War Eagle RBs, has totaled 230 yards on 24 carries, yielding a superb 9.6 ypc. After Mason and Grant comes Cameron Artis-Payne, who a year ago was considered one of the best JuCo backs in the nation. Artis-Payne had a nice showing in the team’s Arkansas State blowout, but he’s failed to register more than 10 carries in Auburn’s other two games. It should also be noted that Marshall has good running ability from his QB position, rushing for 102 yards on 27 carries.
Up front Auburn actually has a pretty experienced offensive line. Only Alex Kozan, a redshirt freshman at left guard, was new to the starting lineup in 2013. Center Reese Dismukes has logged 26 career starts while right guard Chad Slade has 25 starts under his belt. Louisiana native Greg Robison, Auburn’s starting left tackle, has 14 career starts and right tackle Patrick Miller, at one time an LSU commit, has 12. That’s a combined 80 starts from the O-Line.
The AU line does get a lot of assistance in run-blocking from senior Jay Prosch, a 258-pound H-back who specializes in leading Marshall and the running backs through holes. Prosch is seldom used in the passing game and does come off the field a decent amount, as do Auburn’s tight ends, when Malzahn wants to shift into 4-WR sets.
Overall, this Auburn offense is still transitioning back to the spread-run attack of Malzahn after spending an unsuccessful 18 months or so under former O.C. Scott Loeffler. But the War Eagle ‘O’ does figure to enter Death Valley with some confidence. Marshall’s touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds left last week sealed the team’s 24-20 win over Mississippi State. Plus, the Plainsmen are now a perfect 10-for-10 scoring in the red zone.
In no way will this offense conjure memories of Cam Newton and the 2010 Auburn unit, but there are a number of playmakers on board and confidence is beginning to grow.
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