Is Gus Malzahn really a slam dunk for the UCF Knights?

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
23,384
80,291
0
Ypsilanti, MI
Gus Malzahn was not out of work long, despite a $21 million buyout which could have allowed him to do whatever he wanted for as long as he liked. UCF, having lost their athletic director and head coach (Josh Heupel), had a vacancy and filled it with the former Auburn head man.


The whole saga has been fascinating to watch and I've seen a fair amount of diversity of opinion regarding each step in the process. For most of those steps, I've noticed Gus Malzahn seems to get a fair amount of credit as a head coach and I share Kevin Steele's suspicion about the extent to which it has been earned.

The Gus Malzahn era

Auburn had two or three really fantastic seasons with Malzahn, which have always been his main case for the money he's been paid and the credit he's received as a coach. The first was in 2010 when the Tigers were able to land JUCO quarterback Cam Newton, who was an obvious dominator made available by the fact offseason troubles had got him kicked out of Urban Meyer's Florida. Had Newton been able to stay in Florida he would otherwise have directly replaced Tim Tebow rather than figuratively replacing him.

The Tigers won the National Championship that year, besting Chip Kelly's Oregon thanks in part to Cam Newton and also due to dominant defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Malzahn ended up leaving a year later to be head coach at Arkansas State, where he went 9-3 and won the Sun Belt, before returning to take over for the fired Gene Chizik who collapsed without him. Auburn went back to the JUCO quarterback well, this time pulling Nick Marshall out, and went on another amazing run to the National Championship but lost this time on a late drive by Jameis Winston and Florida State.

Since then, Auburn has been an 8-5/4-4 sort of team every single year save for a 7-6/2-6 dip in 2015 and a 10-4/7-1 peak in 2017. The 2017 season, in which Auburn played for the SEC Championship but lost to Georgia, ironically ended with a 34-27 loss to UCF who then declared themselves National Champions.

This table gives a little clarity on his resume at Auburn and why Kevin Steele was able to allegedly lead a successful coup to overthrow him before losing out himself when the Auburn powers that be determined to hire Bryan Harvin from Boise State.

Malzahn's Auburn.jpg

The defense was really carrying the team for a lot of those seasons, keeping their heads above water in the SEC with Kevin Steele's sound and physical defenses. There's a lot of different arguments I've seen for why the Tigers have slipped in recent years and struggled to match their success from 2010, 2013, or even 2017. I have a pretty simple answer.

The Gus Malzahn formula

What put Malzahn on the map as a coach was his HUNH offense, which has been described as being based in the Wing-T, as "smashmouth spread," and most recently by yours truly as being a "power spread." I consider Malzahn's philosophical approach to be very similar to that of Tom Herman, with the primary difference being a higher focus and greater success with pro-style passing on the part of Herman and more success finding power football tools on the O-line and backfield (both fullback and running back) on the part of Malzahn.

Malzahn would spread opponents out and throw the odd perimeter screen or play-action bomb but he wanted to win games by controlling things in the trenches and running people over in the box. The vast majority of the famous Auburn players on offense in the Malzahn era are known for their abilities in the run game. Their best players have included offensive line, Kerryon Johnson, Tre Mason, and then fullbacks like Jay Prosch or Chandler Cox.

Newton was their main power runner but Nick Marshall and Jarrett Stidham brought them success for their ability to protect the running backs from getting outnumbered at the point of attack. Marshall did so mainly with zone-read keepers around the edge with lead block escorts and Stidham with perimeter screens.

The Bo Nix era has been a struggle thus far because he hasn't been able to add a particularly lethal constraint dimension for their run game with either his arm (6.7 ypa in 2020) nor his legs (388 yards at 3.6 ypc in 2020). When he was coming out of high school as a state champion I praised his capacity for executing a spread passing attack and potentially moving Auburn's battles with Alabama in the Iron Bowl out of the trenches and into space:


But even with more pass-happy protege Chad Morris aboard as offensive coordinator, Malzahn hasn't really pursued such an option but has instead continued to emphasize the power run game.

Auburn is not a terrible place to emphasize the power run game, they have indeed been putting offensive linemen and running backs into the NFL under Malzahn's direction, but the SEC is a tough place to differentiate yourself by those means. Initially defenses weren't well equipped to defend a power run game boosted by spread spacing and tempo but once they adjusted, Malzahn hasn't had another counter.

A glimpse into Auburn recruiting along the trenches reveals the real key to their success over the last few years. In the last six recruiting classes they've signed 22 blue chip players who projected to play O-line or D-line, or 3.7 per year, and 17 of those were defensive linemen. While their power run game has struggled to consistently yield results they've been winning games by playing really tight coverage with athletic defensive backfields backing a four-man base rush powered with future NFL players along the defensive line.

Texas A&M is increasingly recruiting at a high level across the offensive and defensive line and Jimbo Fisher and Mike Elko are a good match for Malzahn and Steele at scheming up good offensive and defensive front play. Alabama has figured out the Malzahn HUNH power-spread and can also just outscore it more often than not, and then you also have Georgia and Clemson now recruiting at a high level in the trenches who are either direct competition via rivalry (Georgia) or in the recruiting territory (Clemson).

If you didn't know, Auburn is located on I-85 as you drive from Montgomery to Atlanta and if you draw an hour's drive radius around Auburn you get a good chunk of their recruiting territory and an area which is rich in big, powerful linemen. They haven't been able to dominate in recruiting to the extent needed to get the needed margin against the rest of their regional competition and Malzahn's designs are clearly no longer giving them a schematic edge.

The UCF Knights

The Knights have had a few really nice seasons which have overlapped with the Gus Malzahn era in Auburn. In 2013 they had their own breakthrough season under George O'Leary, going 12-1 with an AAC Championship and wins over Charlie Strong's Louisville and then the Art Briles Baylor Bears in the Fiesta Bowl.

UCF has tended to be powered by great skill athletes. Since their 2013 team went into the draft in the summer of 2014 they've had 11 players selected by the NFL, seven of which were skill athletes. The other four were Blake Bortles, tight end Jordan Akins, defensive tackle Trysten Hill, and then edge defender Shaq Griffin who's only 6-0, 227.

Scott Frost had the Knights winning with spread-option tactics, attacking opponents with spread spacing and quick-moving quarterback McKenzie Milton distributing the ball to a cohort of speedy burners. Heupel took UCF down the path of being a straight "veer and shoot" offense, using the vertical passing game to open up the rest of the offense. The Knights were facing diminishing returns from the Veer and Shoot approach as other AAC defenses like Tulsa and Cincinnati adjusted to the philosophy and, more importantly, were able to match UCF's skill athletes with the players in their own defensive backfields.

This all points toward a difficult setup in 2021 and beyond for a Gus Malzahn Knights program.

First UCF has to figure out how to build a team with powerful maulers in the trenches on both sides of the football, which isn't at all the same when you're based out of Orlando, FL as it is when you're a big time SEC program in the middle of the black belt of the American South. Florida is rich with speedy skill athletes but the Gators and Hurricanes' best teams are often known for importing linemen to power their rushing attacks. UCF has had some solid offensive lines over the years but they aren't known for just bowling people out of the way.

Secondly, they need to work out how to do so in a division with a rebuilt Cincinnati. The Bearcats have mastered Malzahn-ball under Luke Fickell and have a much more natural recruiting territory to find big players to man the trenches due to their location in the Rust Belt. They followed a prescription akin to Malzahn's preferred methods this past season, pairing phenomenal athlete Desmond Ridder at quarterback with a powerful offensive line, multiple tight end sets, and then 6-0, 230 pound power back Gerrid Doaks running through the A-gaps on inside zone.

Ridder and the interior O-line is back, along with some solid receivers and up and coming star tight end Josh Whyle. They present a pretty big obstacle to both the short-term and long-term goals of a Gus Malzahn UCF program.

All of this raises a significant question about UCF's move in hiring Malzahn. Will the former Tiger boss be adjusting his offensive strategy away from trying to overpower opponents in the trenches or will he be adjusting UCF's recruiting to try and bring in some additional beef to man their offensive and defensive lines? His coordinator hires should be illustrative in why Malzahn saw Central Florida as the ideal place to rebuild his career. If he thinks he can rework the Auburn model, I tend to think otherwise.
 

kevinbelt

Member
Oct 15, 2020
98
193
0
I really don’t know what to make of Gus Malzahn. The people who like him really like him, the people who dislike him really dislike him, and I think they might both be right. On the one hand, he’s beaten Saban four times (head coach and OC), but on the other, I think Auburn is probably a better job than their results have indicated.

I don’t think Harsin is the guy long term, but by the time he’s going to be replaced, Saban will be nearing retirement. That’ll be a hugely consequential hire.
 

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
23,384
80,291
0
Ypsilanti, MI
I really don’t know what to make of Gus Malzahn. The people who like him really like him, the people who dislike him really dislike him, and I think they might both be right. On the one hand, he’s beaten Saban four times (head coach and OC), but on the other, I think Auburn is probably a better job than their results have indicated.
I think it’s a tough job right now because Bama is still doing their thing, A&M is running a similar script and doing it well, LSU and Ole Miss could bounce back, etc. Then you have Georgia, who’s really clicking, and Clemson both within your recruiting territory.

Id say credit to Gus for staying competitive but I think Steele did have a point regarding who was responsible for their success.
I don’t think Harsin is the guy long term, but by the time he’s going to be replaced, Saban will be nearing retirement. That’ll be a hugely consequential hire.
Great point about the timing...at least as far as we know. Saban seems ageless so who knows what he’ll do next. I wasn’t always sure if he’d have won big in Austin if they’d managed to hire him to replace Mack...now I’m sure. He would have figured it out.

Anyways, Harsin will continue to emphasize physicality and control of the box but bring some fresh ideas on the schematic side. I think it might work out.
 

kevinbelt

Member
Oct 15, 2020
98
193
0
Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think Saban won’t ever retire. He’s got the program set up to run like a machine, they handle staff turnover better than anybody, he’s got the full support of the AD and trustees, and there’s enough goodwill built up that even a couple of down seasons won’t cause the fan base to turn on him. He could be Paterno if that’s what he wants.

As for Malzahn, I was thinking. Would I want my team to hire him? No. Would I want my rival to hire him? No. That about sums him up, I think.
 
  • Like
Reactions: sherf1

stilesbbq

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Oct 2, 2019
5,368
25,025
0
Gonna be hard for Gus to leverage his Texas connections to bring Texan kids to Florida. I thought a place like UNT or UH would make more sense for him
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Reactions: unichorn

quo_vadis

Member Who Talks
Nov 16, 2020
272
1,208
0
Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think Saban won’t ever retire. He’s got the program set up to run like an machine empire, they handle staff turnover better than anybody (no Admiral is irreplaceable), he’s got the full support of the AD and trustees Galactic Senate, and there’s enough goodwill built up that even a couple of down seasons Death Stars lost won’t cause the fan base Sith to turn on him.
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Reactions: oso_serious

inspired

Member
Feb 26, 2021
34
62
0
Interesting reads. My basic philosophy is that everyone has a job that maximizes their skill set. Often times ones success leads to other opportunities. But those opportunities don't match the skill set and there is failure. Eddie Sutton the basketball coach is a great example. I think Malzan's strength is making the underdog programs the baddest dog in the fight. When you have four star and three star players that approach doesn't translate. I think he will do well initially at UCF. His problem will be handling success and I don't think his DNA will allow for ongoing success as the boosters expectation go orbital.