Joe Medley: Johnson must learn to complement, contain spread
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Dec 06, 2012 | 6095 views |  0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Gus Malzahn comes off as a no-nonsense sort, so it’s hard to imagine the new Auburn head coach wasting time, needling his prime defensive coordinator candidate during their interview.

Then again, imagine what Malzahn could have said to Ellis Johnson.

Malzahn: So, the first time, you thought it was a good idea to make Cam Newton run?

Johnson: Based on what we saw on film up to that point in the season, yes sir.

Malzahn: And the second time, you decided to make Cam throw over your heads?

Johnson: Well, letting him run got us beat the first time.

Malzahn (grinning): How did 56-17 feel the second time?

In fairness to Johnson, players like Newton don’t come along often. Nor do ideal combinations like Newton and spread-meister Malzahn, the Auburn quarterback-coordinator pair that tormented Johnson’s South Carolina defense twice in 2010.

Johnson has a long career of fielding strong SEC defenses, and that’s what Malzahn will count on to balance his offensive stylings in the new Auburn regime.

As a braintrust core, they’ll make quite an intriguing combination --- at least as intriguing as the fast-paced Malzahn’s fast start as Auburn’s new head coach.

Let’s recap:

• Malzahn was hired Tuesday night, saying he’ll start building his staff with coordinators and let them work on down. He already had folks in mind.

• Wednesday sees Malzahn release Gene Chizik’s holdover assistants, many having worked with him during his three-year stay as offensive coordinator, then interview and hire Johnson.

• Reports also have Malzahn bringing offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee from Arkansas State and reaching out in hopes of luring Tracy Rocker back to Auburn as defensive line coach, the position he held before leaving for the Tennessee Titans after the 2010 season.

No word on whether Malzahn has chatted with Chizik, his now-fired former boss, but we’re seeing how Malzahn viewed things while working under Chizik. To say the least, his view of the future looks different.

It’s hard to fault him, after the sinkhole that felled Chizik’s weak foundation within two years after Malzahn and Newton had their fun with everybody, including Johnson’s Carolina defense.

Cratering helped to create this interesting Malzahn-Johnson match. Auburn went 3-9 in Malzahn’s one year away as Arkansas State’s head coach, and Johnson went 0-12 in his one year as Southern Miss’ head coach.

Auburn tapped Malzahn to dig the Tigers out, and Malzahn threw Johnson a lifeline, back into his comfort zone as a defensive coordinator.

No doubt, Johnson knows defense.

In his final season in Columbia, South Carolina ranked third nationally, allowing 268 yards a game. Under Johnson, the Gamecocks finished in the top 15 nationally in total defense three times.

His 1999 Alabama defense finished was ninth nationally in yards allowed per game and No. 2 against the run. He was also Alabama’s outside linebackers coach during the Crimson Tide’s national-title run in 1992, working under Bill Oliver.

Just in the SEC, Johnson has cooked his dish at South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi State, so he brings name and know-how on defense to balance out Malzahn’s name and know-how on offense.

Johnson called the opportunity to work under Malzahn a “home run” for him. His hiring seems like a home run for Malzahn and Auburn, which hasn’t had a top defense since Tommy Tuberville was head coach.

The intrigue, however, is the match of Malzahn’s fast-paced, no-huddle offense and Johnson’s defense. If Malzahn’s offense works according to design, Johnson’s defense spends more time on the field, probably more than he’s used to.

Malzahn said he wants an attacking, multiple defense, which makes sense. Negative plays and turnovers help his offense get the ball back, which becomes more important than yards allowed.

Johnson’s South Carolina defenses, which didn’t have the challenges of teaming with a Malzahn-style offense, were more pedestrian when it came to turnovers and tackles for loss: 30th in turnover margin and 31st in tackles for loss in 2011; 55th in turnover margin and 18th in tackles for loss in 2010; 81st in turnover margin and 45th in tackles for loss in 2009; and 107th in turnover margin and 70th in tackles for loss in 2008.

Starting in 2013, Johnson’s defense will team with a Malzahn-style offense. Meanwhile, more new coaches are bringing that style into the SEC’s West Division. Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Ole Miss’s Hugh Freeze come to mind.

It seems as though a veteran defensive coordinator will get his chance to make it work in the spread-offense era. It also seems as though Malzahn will bank on Johnson making it work better than he did against the Malzahn-Newton Tigers.

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.