The Auburn Tigers have been scorching offensively, regardless of who's been calling the plays.
Auburn has racked up more than 600 yards each of the past three weeks against Western Carolina, Texas A&M and Florida Atlantic, which is a first for the program. Successful plays have been called by new head coach Gus Malzahn, and they've also been called by new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who was just 29 years old when he took the job last December.
"He does a lot of the game-planning, and he helps call plays," Malzahn said. "We kind of do it together. We think quick, and as we're calling a play, we're talking ahead about adjustments and anything else we need to do. He deserves a whole lot of the credit for us offensively."
When Auburn traveled to Texas A&M two weeks ago and stunned the Aggies 45-41, a victory that has helped catapult the resurgent Tigers to No. 8 in this week's Associated Press poll, Malzahn estimated that the fourth-quarter calls were split evenly between the two.
"There are a lot of times where it just depends on the flow of the game," Lashlee said in a recent weekly gathering with reporters. "We just dialogue and say, 'Here's what we've got on this play.' It's different every drive, to be honest with you. In between series, he can go worry about being a coach and worry about what's going on with the defense or special teams.
"I can get with the other offensive coaches and make adjustments and then get back with him on the side and tell him what we're getting and what we need to do. So now we're on the same page going into that next drive."
The combination is not incurring any second-guessing.
Taking over an offense that ranked 115th nationally a year ago and averaged just 148.4 yards on the ground, Malzahn and Lashlee installed an up-tempo spread system predicated on the run. Auburn enters Saturday's game at Arkansas averaging an eye-popping 315.4 rushing yards and 511 total offensive yards a game.
Junior tailback Tre Mason, who accounted for 1,002 of Auburn's 1,781 rushing yards last season, is ahead of last year's clip with 753 yards and is averaging 5.8 yards a carry. He now has a lot of company, with junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne rushing for 510 yards and 7.1 per carry and former Alabama signee Corey Grant rushing for 451 at 10 a pop.
Also factoring prominently into the running game is junior quarterback Nick Marshall, a former Georgia cornerback, who has 461 yards and averages 5.7 a carry. Last season, quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier, Clint Moseley and Jonathan Wallace had a combined 43 yards on 110 carries.
"Nick's done a nice job of running the football, and that's an added weapon," Lashlee told reporters, "but we've got to have running backs who can make yards, and we feel like we do. We've seen safeties 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, because they can't help but stop that run, so it's just a matter of being able to make plays when they bring them down.
"If we want to throw it, we'll throw it, but right now running the football is a big plus for us."
Marshall and backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson, a freshman, have combined for 1,541 passing yards and 12 touchdowns through eight games, with sophomore receiver Sammie Coates stretching the field as the deep threat. Coates has 21 receptions for 536 yards, with his 25.5-yard average per catch leading the nation.
Still only 30, Lashlee hardly lacks experience and especially with Malzahn. When Malzahn was head coach at Shiloh Christian High in Springdale, Ark., Lashlee was his quarterback during the 1999 and 2000 seasons and an assistant coach in '04 and '05.
Malzahn got his big break on the college level when former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt hired him as offensive coordinator for the 2006 season, and Malzahn brought Lashlee along as an offensive student graduate assistant. The Razorbacks won 10 games that season and earned the SEC West title, but tension between Nutt and Malzahn resulted in Malzahn leaving for Tulsa.
Lashlee was asked to follow but declined, instead publishing an Arkansas high school sports magazine with a family member, but he reunited with Malzahn when Gene Chizik hired Malzahn as Auburn's offensive coordinator before the 2009 season. Lashlee was an Auburn offensive graduate assistant in '09 and during the 2010 national championship season before becoming Samford's offensive coordinator in 2011, when he helped the Bulldogs improve from No. 100 in the FCS to No. 43 in scoring offense.
When Malzahn became Arkansas State's coach for the 2012 season, he hired Lashlee as offensive coordinator, but he knows he won't have him forever.
"He'll be a head coach at this level," Malzahn said. "He's got the 'it' factor. He's got everything it takes. He's a great communicator, and the kids respond to him. He deals with pressure very well, and he's a hard worker."
That Malzahn and Lashlee are heading to Arkansas this week has provided its share of storylines, but the two are more concerned with the opportunity of improving to 8-1 and remaining among the national elite. They have been there and done that as far as trips to Fayetteville, just like their sharing of play-calling duties.
"Sometimes it's pretty easy," Lashlee said. "You know what you're getting. You don't have to say a lot, because you're both on the same page. We don't think of it too much, just because this has been happening for so long."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...
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