UConn Football surprised a lot of people with its hiring of Rhett Lashlee to join Randy Edsall’s staff as offensive coordinator.
Thanks to the wonderful wide world of the SB Nation college blog network, I was able to get in touch with WarRoom Eagle, author of remarkably thorough articles about Auburn’s football strategy.
We were lucky to do the same with VUHoops for new UConn defensive coordinator Billy Crocker. Hopefully, this Q&A leaves you with the same excitement. UConn Football has experienced a tremendous facelift in the past few weeks, much to the credit of athletic director David Benedict.
1. My initial understanding of the Auburn offense over Lashlee's tenure is that it has been a run-heavy spread attack with a fairly simple playbook, is that accurate?
Yes, that’s accurate. If by “spread”, you mean “quarterback in shotgun and at least three wide receivers”, then yes, Auburn is in a spread formation most of the time. Don’t be surprised if you see some 3-back formations or a sixth OL on occasion, though. In fact, Auburn used a true TE or sixth OL a lot in 2016.
Malzahn might have had a pass-happy reputation before first joining Auburn’s staff in 2009, but ever since, his and Lashlee’s offenses have been very run-heavy. In 2016, only 10 teams ran more often on standard downs than Auburn did, which ran 72% of the time compared to a national average of 60%. In 2013, Auburn’s number was a whopping 78.6%.
As far as simplicity goes, it depends. On one hand, as Gus admits himself, there are only a handful of base runs. On the other hand, the motion, formations, pace, and “window dressing” can make it hard for a defense, especially if they haven’t played against the offense before.
The passing game isn’t very complicated either, but it’s mostly designed to move the chains on long downs and hit a homerun when defenses overplay the run, so it doesn’t have to be complicated most of the time. After all, despite being so run-heavy, Auburn tends to have really good numbers on passing downs (PD S&P+).
2. To help us gain a better sense of Rhett Lashlee’s philosophical roots, can you share the basics of Malzahn's offensive strategy?
Malzahn’s offense can best be summarized with three quotes of his. First, during his introductory press conference after being hired as Auburn's head coach, he said “We will have a fast-paced offense... We will run the football... We're a run, play-action team.”
Second, in an interview just before the 2014 season, he said “We don't run a whole lot of stuff. The bottom line is we are going to run the power, the counter, the buck sweep and the inside zone. The rest is just window dressing.”
And third, when Sports Illustrated went digging for Malzahn’s roots just before Auburn’s appearance in the 2010 National Championship Game, he said that when he first became a high school head coach, he bought Harold “Tubby” Raymond’s book on the Wing-T and “went by it word for word.” Some of Malzahn’s formations and plays are modern spread variants of the Wing-T’s, but the real philosophy he took from the book was what it called sequence football. Basically, that means that pre-snap motion, backfield motion, or the line’s blocking technique might look the same, but the ball can go many different directions in an attempt to counter defensive adjustments to previous plays.
To get a real in-depth look at what the offense looks like, take a look at this series where I broke down most of Malzahn’s base running and passing plays, plus some of the quirks and tweaks that make that “window dressing.”
3. How did the offense look different, if at all, when Lashlee took over playcalling duties this past season?
Gus Malzahn called the plays for the first three games of 2016 and the offense looked terrible against Clemson and Texas A&M. Some of it is that Malzahn seems to need a few games to see what his players do best (what’s he doing during fall camp!??!), so the first few games are experimental. Another part of the problem was that the offense got a little too predictable and horizontal, meaning that defensive ends could disrupt the QB/RB mesh and safeties could blow up bubble screens and the offense never adjusted to make them pay.
When Lashlee took over play calling, we saw a few offensive changes that I think were in response to those problems. First, we saw more straight ahead runs (zone, power) and more 6-man lines. Sometimes there was an in-line tight end and sometimes it was a sixth offensive lineman. Sometimes the line was balanced and sometimes it was unbalanced with both starting tackles on the same side.
Second, the passing game shifted more downfield, especially when the running game started clicking. It also helped that defenses were overplaying those short screens from the first few games.
4. Have there been questions about who was doing the playcalling late in the season? Is there a consensus on how much control Lashlee had on the offense overall?
There were questions but mostly because things weren’t going well on offense and the fans needed a scapegoat. Some thought the regression was due to Malzahn calling plays again, not because Auburn lost the only viable quarterback on the team to injury, even though the latter makes a lot more sense than the former. Personally, I think offensive plans after the injury could have been handled better, but I have no reason to believe anyone but Lashlee was calling the plays.
After handing over play calling duties, Malzahn said multiple times how much better he felt on game days without the stress of calling the plays himself. He’s a very reserved person in front of the media, but something about the way he said he “wasn’t coaching angry” and how it “was very refreshing” seemed especially genuine. And now, rumors are that he’s expecting Lashlee’s replacement to “run the offense.” To me, that sounds like someone who has truly embraced the head coaching role, not one who meddled too much with Lashlee’s planning late in the season.
5. Can you speak to Lashlee's work with quarterbacks? Is there a specific profile or type of prospect under center which he looks for?
As far as I can tell, Lashlee has been a key in recruiting every quarterback Auburn signed since 2013. That year, Auburn signed “pro style” Jeremy Johnson out of high school and “athlete” Nick Marshall out of junior college. Marshall won the competition in the fall and Auburn had lots of success with the dual threat quarterback for the next two years.
Meanwhile, recruiting seemed to lean back toward pocket passers, as if the offensive staff thought that was the future. But after the disappointing play of Jeremy Johnson in 2015, Lashlee and company started heavily recruiting dual threats again.
As far as development goes, Lashlee was able to take a Georgia defensive back turned interception-prone JUCO quarterback into a read option wizard with a killer deep ball. However, he was unable to turn a Mr. Football award winner (best high school football player in Alabama) into even a serviceable starter.
Away from those two extremes, he’s gotten good play out of a young pocket passer in Sean White and failed to get much return on a few other “athletes” recruited to be quarterback. It’s hard to explain, but Lashlee’s work with quarterbacks has just been all over the place.
6. What is his reputation as a recruiter?
I don’t follow recruiting very closely, but as I mentioned earlier, he’s been a big part in getting good (or at least highly rated) quarterbacks on campus. Looking at his recruiting profile on 247, he’s also been a big part in getting some of our highest rated running backs.
Of course, recruiting is a very regional thing from what I understand, and he’s only coached in Arkansas and Alabama, obviously with recruiting experience in Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. I am interested to see how well he does in a completely different part of the country.
7. Are there any reasons beyond the opportunity to run an offense of his own and potentially being a head coach in waiting for his taking much less money for the same job at a less successful program?
The two reasons you name have to be the top two (receivers coach and former Auburn quarterback Dameyune Craig left Auburn last year for similar reasons), but if there’s anything else, it has to do with Auburn’s offensive direction.
To hear him say it, Malzahn has run basically the same offense since high school. Clearly, it has evolved over the last two decades, but I truly think he has decided he needs an outsider’s perspective to take the next step. It would be a new hiring strategy for Malzahn as he has recently hired former colleagues (Herb Hand) and former players (Kodi Burns) as assistant coaches and Lashlee has coached with Malzahn every year of his career save one.
So, to make room for that outsider, I think Lashlee was going to be shifted to another role this offseason if he didn’t find somewhere else to go. If the possible addition of a tenth assistant coach goes through, it would have been possible to hire a new offensive coordinator and keep Lashlee on staff. But now, Auburn doesn’t have to worry about that.
8. Former Auburn OL coach J.B. Grimes will be also be joining UConn's staff. What blocking scheme does he employ and what is his reputation as a recruiter and talent developer?
Expect to see powerful down blocks on the base runs from the tackles, but they might have a little trouble against top-notch pass rushers when the quarterback drops back.
Expect the guards to pull several times a game when running power, counter and the buck sweep. Even one of the base pass protections includes a pulling guard.
Do not expect the center or either tackle to pull in any situation. I have never seen a Malzahn offense run any dart (power with a pulling tackle) or pin-and-pull sweeps (variant of the buck sweep that lets the defensive alignment determine who pulls and who pins).
That said, most of that is on the playbook, not on Grimes’ coaching. If Lashlee decides to mix it up, I don’t doubt Grimes could handle it.
Auburn has had some great OL classes since Malzahn’s been here, so I don’t think Grimes has any trouble getting talent on board. Auburn also had a good-to-great line each year he was here, at least for running the ball. Grimes was well thought of by the fans and, honestly, losing him after 2015 was a bit of a disappointment. Only the hire of Herb Hand -- and the hope that he could reignite his and Malzahn’s Tulsa spark -- softened the blow. Grimes should be great.
Huge thanks to College and Magnolia for letting us borrow their X’s and O’s expert. Husky fans, what do you think now that you know a little more about what to expect from UConn’s new offensive coordinator?