Auburn Malzahn

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn talks to his team following a spring scrimmage.

AUBURN — There have been times since Kenny Dillingham came to Auburn as offensive coordinator in December that head coach Gus Malzahn has walked randomly into his office at around 10:30 at night and told him about play he’d like to install.

And it wouldn’t be a play that the “offensive genius,” as Dillingham described him, just designed or ran last season. Instead, it would be a play he hadn’t used in years, and maybe not ever with the Tigers.

“Something about, ‘1999 or 2011, I ran this versus this team on the right hash with a minute and 37 seconds left. And I think it'd be great this week,’” Dillingham said. “So that's fun for me, to be around a guy who has such a great memory and knows what he wants to do.”

Those two coaches make a fascinating pair. The 53-year-old Malzahn is going into his seventh season as Auburn’s head coach. He’s laid back and famously guarded. His go-to food is Mexican, though he’s been trying to eat healthier.

Dillingham, on the other hand, is only 29. This will be just his second season as a college offensive coordinator and first in the SEC. He’s a ball of energy. He’s a big chicken tenders guy and still looking for recommendations around Auburn, if you have any.

Together, along with Kodi Burns — who added passing game coordinator to his job listing as co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach this offseason — they’re responsible for improving an Auburn offense that ranked outside the top half of the SEC in every major category last year.

The working relationship between them will be crucial this season, which begins Saturday against Oregon,, especially with a true freshman quarterback in Bo Nix leading what is an otherwise experienced offense.

“These two guys right there I lean on a lot,” Malzahn said. “They are both very young, energetic, smart guys and understand how we think.”

Malzahn acknowledges now he made a mistake when he listened to the “advice” given to him early during the 2016 season that told him to relinquish offensive play-calling duties — his bread and butter — to then-offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and, over the better part of the next two seasons, Chip Lindsey. Malzahn believes that was proven when he guided Auburn to 586 yards and eight offensive touchdowns in a Music City Bowl rout of Purdue.

Before that game, when Malzahn made the decision that he was returning to his comfort zone after a trying 2018 season, he set out to find an offensive coordinator that satisfied three major criteria — good at coaching quarterbacks, understands Auburn’s system and OK with not calling the plays. Once friend and former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze took the head job at Liberty and Bobby Bentley decided to stay at South Carolina, Dillingham became the choice.

Based on that criteria, Dillingham is a perfect fit. The two quarterbacks he worked with over three seasons at Memphis, Riley Ferguson (2016-17) and Brady White (2018), averaged 3,750 yards on 63 percent passing. Dillingham spent those seasons working under head coach Mike Norvell, who worked with Malzahn at Tulsa from 2007-08. Norvell calls the plays for Memphis, so Dillingham is familiar with the arrangement.

“There's a lot of times that he already knows, and a lot of times, he'll give me reminders, too. And you'll go, 'Oh, OK. Yeah.' So it's really been refreshing for our quarterbacks,” Malzahn said. “His hairs are on fire. He doesn't have any bad days with his energy and just everything that goes with it. He's a young guy, but he also has experience with what we do. That's been his foundation. You know, in the bowl game, he was up in the booth and was my right-hand guy. It felt really natural.”

That will be Dillingham’s role during the season, too: Malzahn’s eyes from above the field in the coaching booth, from which he’ll be able to offer a different perspective from what the head coach sees on the field, same way he did for Norvell.

Dillingham described his biggest responsibility on game days as adjustments.

“Saying, 'Hey, they're doing this, they're doing this,'" he said. "They're spiking the front here, they're playing this on first down, playing this on second down. These are our built-in answers. This is what they're doing the pace plays, this is what they're doing when we get inside the red zone this week. Just anything that is different from our plan, being able to communicate it in the same language that myself and Coach Malzahn can make an adjustment quickly.”

So just because Dillingham doesn’t call the plays doesn’t mean he won’t be a significant part of what the Tigers do on Saturdays. Besides, he said, coaches call plays a maximum of 15 days per year; it’s what they do during all the other days that makes them successful.

Burns will be integral to the process, too — his promotion to passing game coordinator was announced at the same time as Dillingham’s hire and Malzahn’s return to play-calling.

It’s not just a ceremonial title, either. Dillingham describes himself as a run-first coach, same way Malzahn would. Burns provides balance — he played both quarterback and wide receiver under Malzahn during his playing career for the Tigers from 2007-10. He returned in 2016 to coach wide receivers. He spends parts of his summers studying what NFL teams do in the passing game.

“We added a few passing concepts, maybe some run concepts, and really just bring some ideas to the table,” Burns said. “I think we've gotten better at some new things, a few new things that we're going to try to bring out this year. But the balance is great. I mean, I know Coach Malzahn like the back of my hand, and he knows me like the back of his hand. Just that work environment has been really, really good, and it's been really positive.”

Nobody is alone in this three-person arrangement.

“All three of us working together and being on the same page — that’s all it boils down to. Plays are great, but belief is what matters,” Dillingham said.

“End of the day, we both want the same goal.”

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