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Auburn: A Primer on the Gus Malzahn Offense

Clemson's first major opponent in the 2010 season will be the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. As a preview of what you'll see from Auburn this go-around, we'll take a look at Gus Malzahn's offensive system. In writing this I've gone over film of Auburn and used Malzahn's book Hurry-Up No Huddle - An Offensive Philosophy and taken certain excerpts from the book.

Malzahn was a high school coach whose breakneck-paced offensive system set records every season in Arkansas. He did play major college football for two years in the 80s under Arkansas Coach Ken Hatfield before transferring away to a smaller school. He moved from the 5A level to the University of Arkansas under the crackpot Houston Nutt and together they brought back the single wing in the form of the Wildcat, and its gone rampant from there. You all remember that night watching Arkansas and Darren McFadden running all over Carolina in 2006? That was Malzahn. Still one of the most fun games to watch I can ever remember.

But Malzahn prefers a more spread-oriented run and pass attack, and Nutt wanted to run the ball more often, so they parted ways after just one season. Malzahn went to work for Todd Graham at Tulsa instead, working with Co-OC Herb Hand, a Rich Rodriguez disciple. While he was there they set numerous school records in passing and rushing statistics, leading the nation in 2007 in total yardage (even ahead of Texas Tech and Hawaii), and led the nation in 2008 in passing yardage. Last year, Gene Chizik went out and plucked him away for Auburn.

In terms of X's and O's I don't know that I would call it an innovative passing game, Rich Rodriguez or Urban Meyer do many of the same things, but the number of run-pass options (plays where the QB can hand it off, throw it, or run it himself) and the types of zone read-style plays we'll see from Auburn are different from every other opponent on the schedule. Its not an offense that spreads you out to run the ball quite like Rich Rodriguez or Urban Meyer, but its not one that is pass-only like the Air Raid of Mike Leach either. Auburn will run mostly 3 and 4 wide sets, but like Meyer they use a TE/H-back and FB in the formation as an extra blocker instead of pulling a lineman. It is also a system that relies heavily on motion, a la Rob Spence. They prefer to run and use that to setup play-action passes. Still, its very balanced in the number of plays called as rush vs. pass, almost 50-50.  Its core set of plays is quite simple schematically, but they can execute it well.

What Malzhan does that really upsets a defense is the speed at which he runs his offense. Clemson fans are not going to be alien to this pace. The "Indy 500" offense we ran here which went no-huddle at high pace for parts of a game is very similar to Malzahn's system. That offense led to the substitution rules that are in place in college football today, and those rules are what will help us matchup with Auburn. If this were with HS substitution rules, we'd be in trouble. The only difference is that we ran it for a drive or two per game and Malzahn runs it the entire game. If Auburn takes half the play-clock off, they are going slow. Last year they had not reached this pace because it was a new system and he was still teaching it, but this year I fully expect Auburn to set some offensive records.

And Malzahn will not be at Auburn long, he'll get offered a job at a major program soon.

I have highlighted the reasons for going No-Huddle like this before, but to reiterate from Malzahn's own book:


Malzahn's No Huddle Goals, paraphrased
  • Speed up the game - Accomplished by snapping the ball within 5 seconds of spotting it. This makes the offense the aggressor and takes the defense out of their routine of reading and adjusting to the formation.
  • Lengthening the game - Making the game take longer to finish, and subsequently testing the conditioning of the defense. In his words, a 48-minute high school game involves only 7-8 minutes of actual playing time (a few seconds for each play). If you can lengthen this by 2-3 minutes, you are effectively making it a 5-quarter game. You go for it on 4th down, try onside kicks, and do anything you can to get the ball to your offense's hands.
  • Mentally and physically wear down the opponent - a 5th quarter of game play plus the pressure of having to line up correctly within a few seconds will wear your opponent down both ways. The defense must maintain concentration for that extra quarter.
  • You set the tempo of the game.
  • Coaches can reset the play after noting the defensive alignment - meaning they'll line up and make you show what youre running, and change the play.
  • Defenses cannot simulate it in practice - Your scout team is not going to be able to run at this pace and prepare your defense. Thus, your defense will need to spend extra time to prepare for it.
  • More snaps for the offense means more possibilities for scoring, finding weaknesses, etc.

Now I'll start with the Auburn running game, which is not dissimilar to Rodriguez or Meyer.

The Auburn Run Game

In Malzahn's book he goes through the basic run plays in the offense, which are no different from anyone else's except that he runs them from very different formations than what appears on the rest of our schedule (with perhaps the exception of Jimbo Fisher). In his book he lists 12 running plays of which they chiefly run 5 or 6:

  • Counter-Trey
  • Power O
  • Iso/Blast
  • Zone read/Veer option
  • Trap
  • Sweep

The Counter/Counter-Trey (trap) is as a staple power misdirection running play popularized by the Redskins under Joe Gibbs. Its designed to really wear out the 2nd level of your defense because the linebackers, who are used to FBs or smaller guys blocking them, are going to be hit by a lineman. This will also mix up the keys for the defense.

In Malzahn's own words:

In implementing the counter-trey, your goal is to build a wall inside, kick out the edge, and wrap through for the frontside linebacker in the box. You should direct the play to the 1-technique (Nose Guard) to gain a free release by the frontside tackle to the backside linebacker. You can run this with 6 in the box or less. If the inside gap (on the playside) is covered, he (the defensive tackle) is the G and T's responsibility (a double team). If the gap is uncovered, the tackle releases to hit the backside linebacker.

Its recognized by the OL blocking scheme best, not by watching the running back. The playside (side the play is intended to run) of the OL down blocks (block towards the Center) and the playside DE is intentionally unblocked. This results in a combo block (double team) on a playside DT, and the playside Tackle will release to hit a LB thereafter. The backside of the OL will both pull or one of them will pull to run a trap on that unblocked DE and lead the RB into the hole. Exactly what they do depends on the defensive front you show them, but usually you can identify this play by seeing the 2 backside offensive players (one will be the Guard) pull out and 3 playside linemen down-block.


This play is from the I-formation, and the specific play here is one popularized by the Nebraska teams of Tom Osborne (h/t Trojan Football Analysis for the picture). You see there that the inside gap is covered, so the Tackle first double-teams the 3-tech (T) and releases to the backside LB.

The backside tackle is a lead blocker and can be the 2nd player pulling, but depending on the formation and the talents of your backside DE, he may be told to just kick out the backside defender there while a fullback or H-back actually leads the RB into the hole, following the trapping Guard. Either way, the lead blocker is told to hit the first threat he sees to the play. In Malzahn's book he details this based on the formation and the front displayed.


The play run against a 4-2 front. The QB executes a bootleg fake to keep the backside End occupied. An additional receiver in orbit motion can accomplish the same thing.


The play run against a 4-2 front with an additional H-back or TE as a lead blocker instead of the backside Tackle.


The play run against a 3-2 front, where we only count the number of defenders inside the shaded box, even though it is a 3-4 defense. The tackle kicks out the End on the backside, and the TE leads through the hole. The frontside Guard doubles the Nose with the Center.

The way this defeats a defense is in mixing up the keys for the linebackers most of all. The LBs are told to watch the backfield triangle but their key is also the Guard. The offensive guard will generally tell you, as a defender, what the offense is doing. The problem is, they get overanxious to make a play and react to the RB without reading the lineman, or the DE being trapped doesnt recognize it and both he and the playside LB get caught unawares.

Here is film of the Counter where you can see this in action. Do not watch the RB initially, watch the Linemen.

The Zone-read has been beaten to death elsewhere by many writers, but not much by us here for Clemson fans, so I'll just give a brief synopsis. Malzahn couples the zone-read play with a bubble screen, meaning the QB actually has three things he can do with the football.

The basic zone read is pretty simple. The backside DE is intentionally unblocked and the QB reads him to determine whether to hand the ball to the RB (going away from that DE), or take the ball around the DE himself.  Generally the technique taught to the DE is to just crash and not hesitate in taking the RB, while a LB is taught to scrape around the DE and hit the QB. This is called a scrape exchange. With most defensive coordinators just adopting this exchange technique, the offensive coaches have adjusted with different looks, motion, H-backs as blockers, and even changing the play to read the DT instead of the End.

If the backside pursuit cheats in to stop the QB from running the ball, there will be a receiver open on the backside.  The QB just pulls the ball back and throws a quick high-percentage throw to his slot receiver.

The Power O and the Trap, along with the Iso, are plays I've covered here specifically geared to the single-back/I-formation offense that we run at Clemson. The main difference in Malzahn's system is that its run from shotgun with 1 or 2 backs (or an H-back).

In the Power O play, the backside Guard pulls out and hits the playside B-gap to hit the first threat he sees to the play. It is generally run to the 1-technique's side (Nose Guard).


The Power play run against a 4-2 front with a TE used to kick out the End. The RB is meant to hit the B-gap as soon as the pulling Guard is through.

The version of the trap that I have not covered much before is the midline inside trap. This is the play that SC used to defeat us up front last season. The backside DE is sometimes totally unblocked and the playside DT is intentionally unblocked by the Guard, who releases inside to take a LB. The backside Guard traps that DT. The RB runs right by them. In Malzahn's words:

The goal of the trap is to take advantage of the interior defensive alignments. You can gain another element of surprise by direct-snap to the RB. You can direct this play to the widest interior lineman (3-technique), but if you are presented with two 2-techniques (head on the Guard), the QB picks the side based on who is the best trapping Guard. You can run this versus 6 in the box or less.

The offensive tackle may also take a wider split to remove the DE from the play. Recall the D linemen are told to lineup based on where the offensive lineman stands (on his head is where Clemson usually aligns theirs, called a 5-tech).

Insidetrap42_medium Insidetrap32_medium

Inside trap run against a 4-2 and 3-2 front. The snap can be made directly to the RB as well.

There are many traps showcased in this video of Auburn cutups.

The Sweep is another basic running play that occurs in nearly every offensive system. As a defender, your key to reading this play is the Guard. If you are a linebacker, you are watching the backfield triangle and specifically the Guard to your side. When you see the Guard pull out and go wide of the tackle, the first thing that should come to mind is "sweep". The goal here is to set the edge and pull out two lead blockers: in this case the two guards pull out.

A blocking back or TE on the playside will set the edge, meaning he'll take the DE to that side while the OT goes inside to block the DT. The playside Guard pulls around to take the first defender outside the box (usually the SS). A slot receiver comes inside over the middle to crack-block a LB who reads the play and starts scraping over to make the tackle, as will the backside Guard who pulls around and comes back inside. The backside DE is unblocked and the QB must execute a bootleg fake to keep him from pursuing.


The Sweep run against a 4-2 front. The frontside Z will stalk block or block the CB straight up if he's playing a hard press.


Another set of plays that is used in this system is the Jet/Rocket motion sweeps and traps. These plays are pretty straightforward and I'll just show you the film. A WR goes in-motion in front of the QB in the Gun, and is handed the ball. Orbit motion is used as well (end-arounds and fakes).

This one is a game video, but it shows you the play from above.

The Auburn Passing Game

Whereas Rodriguez's system doesn't take the top off the defense often, this one is geared to do that a little more. In Malzahn's book he comments on having 33 different pass plays but it is impractical for me to try to display everything that I see on film. We have discussed the passing concepts that offenses use in the context of pattern-reading and teaching defensive coverage, which are used by every offense. As you might expect from a team that runs so often, the passing game is mostly play-action. Several concepts used are:

  • The Smash
  • Deep Crossers and Mesh combos
  • 4 Verticals
  • Slant/Arrow combinations, Post/Dig combinations
  • Slant-N-Go/Hitch-N-Go routes
  • Bubble screens

All from stranger formations than you are accustomed to seeing, with the added problem of Jet/orbit motion from the WRs. Strange formation shifts and new formations cause problems for many defenses because they confuse the keys. Some of the formations these are run from include shotgun trips, diamonds (4 receivers to one side in a diamond formation), stacks (two receivers lined up with one in front of the other), bunch (3 receivers in a triangle), along with the more 'normal' shotgun sets.

Against Clemson's matchup zone and man/man defense, I expect more crossers and routes like the slant-n-go and hitch-n-go.

I have covered the Smash combo several times before, as have others, but I would like to put it in Malzahn's words.

Prior to the snap, the QB should look to see if the defense is giving him the stop route. If the defense is vulnerable to it, he should take the snap and immediately throw the stop. If the pre-snap read indicates this will not be successful (i.e., the CB is playing Press) then he should take a 3-step drop and read the CB to see who is open. The rule for the QB is that if the Corner takes more than 3-steps back, throw the stop, otherwise throw the flag route.


Pattern reading the Smash play: a Post/Corner combo. 


Crossing routes are a problem for any man/man defensive team. They are run to effectively set a pick (like basketball) on defenders, create matchup issues (LB on a slot WR), and generally force your defenders to run with offensive players across the field and see who is faster. Mesh combos are crossing routes that criss-cross each other over the middle (e.g., two crossing slot WRs from either side of the field). The primary receiver is almost always a slot receiver, but for a deep cross it will be an outside receiver.

Vertical routes take the top off a defense, and the 4 verticals play is what Malzahn likes to run against Cover 3. All 4 WRs run a vertical route, two of which will be going up the seam in a C3 defense. The middle safety will have to wait until the ball is thrown to choose whom to pick up in coverage. If the pattern is properly read, the LB/SS will go up the seam with them but the FS will have to wait to watch the QB. If everyone is covered deep, the RB will release over the middle to give the QB someone as a safety valve.


However, Malzahn calls more intermediate-to-deep passing plays overall (against all coverages) than say a Rich Rodriguez.

The slant/arrow is a combination with the two outside WRs: the inside (slot) receiver runs an arrow to the sideline and the outside receiver runs a slant or a curl route over the top of him. The arrow doesnt involve a cut, the receiver is taught to run a rounded-off route about 5 yards deep to the sideline. The outside receiver goes up 4 yards and cuts at 45 degrees behind the OLB. Once he clears the 'backer, he should get the ball.


The only difference between this and what Malzahn would run would be that its in the Gun and so the QB does not need to take a 3-step drop.

The QBs read is the OLB here. If he drops back straight, throw the arrow. If, as in pattern reading, he takes a 45-degree drop, then throw the slant. In Clemson's usual C2-man system, the Auburn QB will be reading the widest OLB and will be thinking slant from the start. The slot man will attempt to widen his stance just a bit and create a bigger seam in the defense.


A Curl/Arrow and Seam route combination

A Slant-n-go route (also called a Sluggo route), where the receiver starts with a basic 3-step slant and then cuts upfield. A hitch-n-go likewise starts with a quick hitch and cuts up. The defender will read his initial break, come up to try to make a play, and be caught out of position when the receiver cuts upfield. In this way your WR rids himself of a matchup CB and forces a 1-on-1 with a FS/SS. Its lethal in the redzone and is one of Mark Richt's favorite calls in that situation. In many cases the safety will be the one jumping the route on the goal line and once the receiver is behind him its over. Malzahn calls this type of route fairly often against C2/man and couples them with a bubble screen and a jailbreak screen that I have seen (see link on bubbles above).