He who won his hiring press conference, won the next month with staff hires and won signing day against expectations just might be something more than a glorified high school coach and spread offense peddler. Judging by his two-month recruiting rally and defensive emphasis since his hiring, he just might be an SEC head coach in more than name only.
That’s not to declare him a miracle worker. He’ll have to show that on the field, leading a program that just suffered its worst season in 60 years back to dignity, say nothing of the relevance it enjoyed in winning the 2010 national championship.
He has to do it against Nick Saban-led Alabama, which just won its third on-field national championship in four years and yet another one in recruiting, according to Rivals, 247sports and ESPN.
But consider where Auburn stood in recruiting after Gene Chizik’s staff was fired, losing six commitments almost instantly, many who seemed more in love with ex-assistant Trooper Taylor than Auburn. The losses kept coming, right up to Monday night, when five-star linebacker and one-time Auburn commit Reuben Foster switched for the last time — back to Alabama.
Foster cited Taylor’s firing when he decommitted from Auburn.
But Malzahn replaced old assistants with new ones who had their own recruiting connections. Rodney Garner and Dameyune Craig — both recruiting coordinators at their previous stops, Garner at Georgia and Craig at Florida State — starred through the staff’s two-month recruiting rebound. Garner’s long-time connection with top defensive end Elijah Daniel helped sway Daniel’s signing-day switch from Ole Miss, the school that made head-turning breakthroughs in recruiting this year.
Daniel’s switch plus signing-day pickups, like five-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams, helped Malzahn’s staff replace reputable commitments lost with credible signees. At the end of the day, the Tigers ended up with two five-star prospects and nine four-stars, according to Rivals. Adams goes down as Auburn’s highest-rated signee since Rivals has rated them.
As of this writing, Auburn’s class finished No. 10 in Rivals’ team rankings, No. 11 in 247sports and ESPN and No. 13 in Scout.
What’s more impressive is how Malzahn, known for fast-paced offense, emphasized defense from the beginning. It was no accident.
Auburn’s need on defense has been obvious for three years, but Malzahn thought beyond just the on-field need. He knew the offensive recruits he wanted and had relationships with most. He needed to build relationships on the defensive side quickly, which is why he hired defensive staff first.
They went after need aggressively. With Adams and four-star junior college defensive tackle Ben Bradley, they got immediate help where Auburn needs it — right up the middle.
With Daniel’s commitment switch and five-star defensive end Carl Lawson’s loyalty through the coaching change, Malzahn got immediate help another area the coach identified as a huge need — pass rushing.
“In this league, you win on the offensive and defensive lines, and defensive line was a focus,” Malzahn said. “Coach Garner is a great (defensive line) coach, and he has guys who can help immediately.”
Of 24 signees Auburn announced, 10 were defensive players and two more were “athletes.” That includes four defensive backs to work into new coordinator Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme.
On the offensive side, Malzahn hit on other clear needs with three quarterbacks, three running backs and three wide receivers. He also signed two offensive linemen, backing up a huge offensive-line class signed by Chizik’s staff a year ago.
Malzahn loves to score points, and his offense has a history of doing it, but he’s working from the middle out and defense first. That sounds like an SEC coach.
By going defense first in his staff hires, he also showed strategic savvy in recruiting. He knew where he had to make inroads quickest.
The result is a rescued recruiting class and reassured fan base. Old spread peddler Gus gets the defense thing in the SEC, and he and his staff can recruit at least as well as the last one.
Now, the trick becomes developing talent and keeping it out of trouble off the field much better than the last staff did. That much, Malzahn’s crew has yet to prove at Auburn.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.