Auburn football press conference: with head coach Gus Malzahn, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee (December 7, 2012)
Malzahn: I told you I was going to take my time hiring coordinators and it took me about 48 hours. I'm really excited today with the two guys who are here as offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. That was part of our priority.
Our defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is one of the best defensive minds in all of college football. I've gotten a chance to coach against him numerous times and when you coach against somebody, you really find out a lot about him. He's very familiar with the SEC, he's a man of character and we're tickled to death to have Ellis Johnson as our defensive coordinator.
Johnson: It's an honor for me to be here. I want to recognize my wife Caroline here today. We've been dating for 15 years and married for 13 years and I've moved her seven times now. She's a trooper, a fan, a good football mom, a good recruiter and I appreciate all her support.
The thing I have to mention is how proud I am to be at Auburn. This is a university I've competed against at East Carolina, Southern Miss, Alabama, Mississippi State, South Carolina. It's a place I've always admired and respected. Just a great tradition - the tradition of defense – I think it's something we've got to try to uphold. I'm very honored to have an opportunity to work with Coach Malzahn. As he just said, when you coach against people, you begin to have a great respect for him as a coach and I know what a great person he is also. Our friendship doesn't go back very far, but we have mutual friends that I've known for many years. He's one of the finest people in our profession and he's what coaches should represent in our profession.
I'm also glad to be in the state of Alabama. The high school coaches and the high school football in this state are fantastic. I've been coaching college for 32 years, all of it in the Southeast, recruited all over the Southeast, been in a lot of high schools and I think the high school coaches and football in the state of Alabama is just tremendous.
And obviously I have to talk about the Southeastern Conference. It's an honor to be back in the Southeastern Conference. College football is one of the most entertaining things today in our sports world and the Southeastern Conference is leading the way in showing how to do college football; it's the blueprint.
I'm very fortunate, very proud to be here and excited about working with Coach Malzahn. It's a home run for me to have this opportunity at this time in my career.
Malzahn: Our offensive coordinator is Rhett Lashlee. I'm very familiar with Rhett. He's one of the bright, young up-and-coming offensive minds in all of college football. He's been my right-hand man at three different stops. At Arkansas, he was my right-hand man and I relied on him a lot. Here at Auburn, he deserves a lot of the credit for the offensive success we had. This past year at Arkansas State, he just did a phenomenal job. I know exactly what I'm getting. He's going to give me the flexibility to help with the offense and at the same time, be a head coach and do the things a head coach has to do. He's a great example for our players and he's a man of character.
Lashlee: First things first, War Eagle! I want to thank someone I have a lot of respect for – Jay Jacobs – for giving me the opportunity to come back, and Coach Malzahn for entrusting me with this opportunity. And just like Coach Johnson, I've got to thank my wife Lauren. Coaches' wives in this profession sacrifice more than anybody. She's my rock, with our twin boys; they allow me the ability to do what God's called me to do and I appreciate that. Also, my parents are here today – love them too and they've helped shape me into what I am.
When I realized I had the opportunity to come back to Auburn, the first thing that came to my mind was the fans. I think about Tiger Walk home or away, and that student section and I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I can't wait to get back out in front of our fans. They're the best fans in the country and that excites me.
Offensively, I think people have some familiarity with what they're getting. We're a two-back run play action team that's going to no-huddle and play at a quick pace the entire game. Our identity as an offense will be fast and physical. That will be ingrained in our guys from day one. You can't have one without the other. We will play extremely fast, and we want to be very physical at every position. We'll have a physical downhill running game, and we'll also be explosive in the passing game, and be very aggressive taking vertical shots down the field and stretching the field horizontally.
That's our philosophy. We want to make teams defend the whole field. I think the biggest intangible we've got to instill as an offense is discipline. We've got to be the most disciplined team on the field every time we take the field. That's our philosophy – we must not put ourselves at a disadvantage offensively. We've got to take care of the football – that's a discipline thing.
We've got to eliminate undisciplined penalties, things we can control that stall drives and negative plays. Those things hurt us. And we've got to have discipline off the field and in the classroom. That will be the number one thing we stress to our guys.
I am thrilled and excited to be here. It's going to be fun for our guys to practice and play in this system. I've got a lot of great memories here. Just two years ago before I left, our twin boys were born after the second game of the national championship season, so they're 12-0 with a national championship on their record. I'm glad they're going to be able to learn how to say War Eagle now that they're back.
What is your comfort level in working with Lashlee?
Malzahn: Rhett's been my right-hand man at three different stops, two of those stops in the SEC, and we've been successful. He's one of the brightest young up-and-coming minds in college football and we're tickled to death to have him.
Will Coach Johnson's experience free you from handling the day-to-day details on defense?
Malzahn: There's no doubt. We're talking about one of the best defensive minds in all of college football. I got a chance to coach against him, so I know exactly what we're getting. He's very disciplined. When you play against his teams, you'd better have your A game. It gives me a lot of comfort and security to have him running our defense.
How will the offensive game plan and play-calling work?
Malzahn: He's been my right hand man. He's going to take care of the game plan throughout the week and that will allow me to be a head coach. I'll be in every special teams meeting, I'll be on top of everything, it will give me a chance to go on the defensive side during practice because those defensive players need to see the head coach with them. He gives me a lot of security. I know exactly what I'm getting.
How quickly will the entire staff come together?
Malzahn: I wanted to hire coordinators first and give these guys ownership in our assistant coaches. At the end of the day, I'll make the decision, but being a former coordinator, I know how important it is to get guys that you can work with, get guys that fit in with your philosophy, and are hard workers.
Is there pressure defensively because of the fast tempo of the offense?
Johnson: I don't feel that way. I feel like that is one of the biggest trends to come into college football, so if you have a difficult time handling it, you're going to have a difficult time stopping people. The thing I've always liked about the offensive attack Gus has had is it has an element of physicality to it. It is a power offense that has speed and execution in the tempo and it also spreads the field in the throwing game.
College football is unique. The professional teams can go have exhibition games, high schools can have scrimmages, but college football, you work against who you are on both side of the ball. If your offense is missing an element of the option, missing an element of tempo, missing an element of power, then your defense is going to suffer.
It's not about how fast you go – it's how fast you go well, and Coach Malzahn has proven he knows how to do that. That is going to help our defense in the long run.
Will familiarity with some of the personnel help the offensive transition?
Lashlee: It's nothing but a plus with Coach Malzahn and myself being familiar with some of the guys when we install this offense. But we'll install it from the ground like it's day one, like they've never heard it before. But it's a plus and it will probably help some of the other guys understand why we do what we do. It's a big positive.
We'll implement it like it's never been here before, and then it's the added bonus of those guys who already have some familiarity with it.
About the quick naming of the coordinators…
Malzahn: I think you can tell by how fast it happened that I was very interested in these guys. Coming in, you have an idea of names, and I thought it was important to get the coordinators in place as soon as possible for recruiting, for everything, but you've got to get the right guy. I'm tickled to death to have both these guys with me.
Who are the leaders on defense?
Johnson: I've not yet had a chance to meet any of the players and my understanding is that they're finishing up exams today. I will be anxious to meet with them. I think that player leadership, especially during transition, is absolutely critical.
What style of defense do you run?
Johnson: I'm more about players than plays. I have a core principle of how you start with your defense, because I think it has to be adaptable to what you have to stop today. We will originate out of a four-man front, with two inside linebackers and five defensive backs. It's a three safety defense, and from there, we will build packages that we add to that based upon personnel. I feel like today in college football, if you base your principles on substituting players and matching up, there will be teams on your schedule that will not allow you to do that, so I want to start from a base that allows us the most flexibility with the starting eleven.
From there, I think the coaching staff brings ideas. It's going to be Coach Malzahn's blueprint – we're going to do what he wants done from a principle of on the field and off the field. It's going to be a disciplined football team in execution. It's going to be a disciplined football team off the field. I think you base it on what your players can do and put players in a position to make plays.
What do you want from your third safety?
Johnson: It's the key to the flexibility and the effectiveness of the defense. You've got to be able to do so many things and do them well. He's got to be able to blitz off the edge, he's got to be able to cover a third wide receiver, most of the time with some help over the top, and he's got to be physical enough to play on the edge of the box. It will be a very important identification of personnel on that position.
How much will you play in the 4-2-5?
Johnson: It will be our foundation. Coach Malzahn wants an attacking, multiple defense and that's what we're going to be. You can only be as multiple as your talent level allows you to be, and as we evaluate personnel on this football team, we'll find ways to create packages that compliment that 4-2-5.
We've always been able to create an odd front, a 3-4 type of philosophy, out of it – it can be done with a hybrid defensive end or maybe another player in the defensive line, so we've got to find a way to do that and give him the multiplicity he wants in that package. I'm sure we've got the personnel here we can do it.
How is he shaping his staff?
Malzahn: It started with the coordinators. We have a plan and we're trying to put the pieces to the puzzle to get the right people for Auburn and the right people moving forward. That's what we're doing at this time. (Was it hard to talk with members of the previous staff?) There's no doubt. You get extremely close to people when you work with them and it was extremely tough. We're still working through some of that (support staff hires). Our plan was to hire coordinators and give them ownership. We're open to everyone. We just want to get the right fit and that's what we're working on right now.
Johnson's thoughts on his latest career move…
Johnson: I'm very fortunate. I talked about all the things I admire about Auburn University and the Auburn family and this program and its traditions. Having coached at so many different places in the Southeast, this is absolutely one of the finest. I'm very fortunate and just tickled to death to be here.
On his development as a coach during the last two years…
Lashlee: It's been huge. I've had the opportunity to be with Coach Malzahn as a player and then as a coach at several different stops, and you get to the point and time in your career that you've got to go do it to continue to grow and develop. Coach Sullivan at Samford gave me that opportunity – it was a great opportunity – and I will always be indebted to him for that. And to get back together with Coach was great and we were able to continue working together in a little bit of a different role than we had in the past as far as our relationship goes. I think it was a positive. We were successful and worked well together. That's a positive moving forward.
There is a change when you have a player-coach relationship, that's different than an assistant coach-head coach relationship. I think the length and the depth of our relationship helps, and the multiple times in my career that I've worked for him since I played, and then this past year working for him as his offensive coordinator, I've learned how to transition.
Does his experience playing in Malzahn's system help him coach it?
Lashlee: No question, probably one of the most beneficial things is that I have played quarterback in this system and now coached in it. When I'm coaching the quarterbacks, I can identify with them even more than most because I know what they are seeing. I know what they're thinking. I've done those drops. I've thrown those routes. I've run that play. I know all that. So not only am I telling them, hey here's what you should do, and it may be right, I can also tell them from the standpoint and they know I've done it. It sometimes helps add some credibility and resonate and maybe I can explain it better too because I kind of get what they are going through. It's a big positive.
What position will Johnson coach?
Johnson: That is going to be flexible based on who Coach [Malzahn] wants to hire and how that best fits together as a group of coaches on that defensive side.
What challenges will the offense face?
Lashlee: I didn't get a chance to watch much (this past season). I always keep up with Auburn, because the people here are important to me. I do have some familiarity with the guys, especially the quarterbacks that are coming back. I know them all to some degree. I think the bottom line is starting day one from ground zero instilling our philosophy. We don't care about what happened in the past, because we can't do anything about that. We are all looking forward and what we can do moving forward to put the best product on the field for Auburn and the Auburn fans.
It's probably similar to when Coach Malzahn first got here a couple years back and I was with him. It was a similar situation. We were able to come in here and didn't really focus on ourselves and these kids and making sure they buy into what we want them to do and buy into the discipline, the structure, the culture of our offense and our football team. Once we get that, we will be in good shape. That will be the mindset. It won't be 'hey, here's what happened last year.' We will be focused on us moving forward and I think we will be fine.
On the quarterbacks changing systems…
Lashlee: For some it may be more of an adjustment than others. You look at it, you've got Kiehl Frazier who played in this kind of system in high school and has obviously worked with Coach Malzahn for years. Jonathan Wallace – similar style offense. I know Jonathan, too. He understands what we do. Clint Moseley has been here. Those are all guys who either have a background in this system here or something similar. There will be a transition, because they've gone through a whole 12-month cycle of something else. But it's like anything else. We went in this year to a place and we put in a whole new system. The guys adapted. The kids are resilient. They will be fine and they will pick it up.
On recruiting in the next few weeks…
Malzahn: We are still working through all the peripheral things about getting other people on the road. Right now, we are trying to touch base with the commitment and really try to reach out and develop relationships. (Has he spoken with every commitment?) Pretty much. There are a couple that we have had trouble with, but for the most part, yes.
On Lashlee's youth in being an SEC coordinator…
Lashlee: I think Coach Malzahn would probably say a similar thing in that I've been blessed to be with good players on good teams with good coaches. That's a big part of it. I think it's a great opportunity. I'm blessed to have it. I feel like I'm more than ready for it. I'm excited about it. I think when you look at how you get to certain points, if you're ready at a certain age, I don't know if that's that big of a deal.
I feel like with the background I have in this system with Coach [Malzahn], over 15 years as either a player or a coach, I think that's probably the most the most valuable thing I have. Then, being familiar with Auburn, with the fans, with some of the players here and how things work, I think that will be a big plus. It has happened quickly. I can't explain it other than I've been blessed to have good players and good people with me along the way.
Malzahn: I've very proud of Rhett. He was a phenomenal player. He set national passing records. You knew early on he was special. He was like a coach on the field. He was with me at Springdale High School and helped coach Mitch Mustain. He went with me to the University of Arkansas. He deserves a lot of credit for that year. I really relied on him as my right-hand man. Then we came to Auburn, and he was the first guy I wanted to have with me. He deserves a lot of the credit for the success we had here. Then, when we had the chance to go to Arkansas State, he was the first guy that I called. He did a phenomenal job, top 20 offense. I said it before, he's got the 'It' factor. The best thing about it, I know exactly what I'm getting. We work extremely well together. He's got a bright future. He'll have a chance to be a head coach at this level someday. He's got everything it takes.
I believe Rhett would probably tell you, our offense is unique. It's the offense he knows, because he played in it. He probably doesn't know other offenses and that's a good thing. We want to be experts in what we do. He knows this offense like the back of his hand. We worked extremely well together. He's battle tested, even though he's young. We've been through some big games together. He deserves a lot of the credit for our offense's success.
How will they handle play-calling?
Malzahn: We will do it exactly like we did last year. We will do it together. He will get the game plan together during the week. Then on game day, it will be similar to exactly what we did last year.
Is there a lot of interest from other coaches in learning his offense?
Malzahn: Well, coaches talk football. I'm a former high school football coach, and I'm always looking to talk football with high school coaches and develop those relationships. We talk with a lot of people about our offense and I think that's a good thing.
What will be the makeup of the defensive staff?
Johnson: I do not (know). I just know there will be four guys on defensive side of the football and that's up to Coach Malzahn. Even that could change. I have some feelings about that. But I think if we find the right guys that fit in and are the right people, the kind of people we want here, and Coach Malzahn feels comfortable with, we've got some flexibility in that. I'm not stuck on any one way to do it.
On how his stance on the hurry-up, no-huddle offense has changed over time…
Johnson: Did I say that? If you will look up, that's translated into Latin for 'Somebody help us, we can't stop this stuff.' We have all as defensive coordinators complained over the last five to 15 years. Gus wasn't the first one, but he kind of put it in warp speed. There are difficult things about it, but the rules are the rules; just like you pulling on an official's sleeve all the time on the sideline, you are begging for somebody to tweak this thing a little bit.
As a head coach, I tried to implement almost the same system. We are going to do that, because I think it has all the elements that will put a defense under stress. It has power, it has option, and it has the ability to speed up and slow down. It spreads the ball around the football field in the throwing game. It can make your defense better, because you're going to be prepared to play it. When you don't have that system in your football team, it makes it extremely different on Saturday to be prepared to play it.
How are he and Lashley compatible in play calling?
Malzahn: As a play caller, you get in a rhythm, no matter if you are going slow or going fast. The way we do it, you have to make quick decisions, extremely fast. You've got to go with it. You've got to know it ahead of time. What are they giving you? You've got to have your answers already prepared. That's definitely what I mean by Rhett being my right-hand man. We think alike.
How will they improve tackling?
Johnson: I think what happens sometimes is you get caught up in being an assignment football team and you don't work fundamentals. It's up to a coach to make sure you focus on that during the period of time you've got to do it during the day. One thing that's changed about college football is that it's a more spread out game. There are faster athletes. There are guys doing a better job with the systems, such as Coach Malzahn, and it exposes tackling more now. Tackling used to be more of a physical collision, strength versus strength, back when I first started coaching. Now it's about angles, it's about speed. It's about a lot of factors to be a good tackling team. You do have to put a lot of attention in it and be careful about getting too much into X's and O's and you forget about the fundamentals.