Preview: The Auburn Offense

Chris Graythen

Gus Malzahn leads one of the best spread to run HUNH attacks in the entire country. First we'll talk statistics -- both team and individual -- before delving into personnel groupings and schematics.

On Saturday Alabama will face one of the best running offenses in the entire country. Auburn averages 320.3 yards per game on the ground, good for second in the FBS. On the other hand, Auburn's attack has been about as unbalanced as they come, as they only average 179.6 yards per game through the air (104th in the FBS). That is due, at least partially, to the fact that they simply run the ball far more than they throw it. Malzahn has stated publicly, at least once, that they're a much better passing team than the statistics show, and simply haven't passed the ball all that much because they don't need to. The implication there is that, at some point down the line, against better competition, we can expect Auburn to throw the ball more -- probably on Saturday against Alabama.

Quarterback

First year starting quarterback Nick Marshall has been a perfect fit for the Malzahn offense. To date he has only attempted 185 passes, completing 58.4% of them, while averaging 8.3 yards per attempt. He has 9 touchdown passes to go along with 5 interceptions. Marshall's arm strength is exceptional -- in terms of distance there is no throw he can't make, which allows Auburn to stretch the field when they sense the opposing defense is vulnerable on the back end, having committed fully to stopping the run. On the other hand, his short and intermediate passing game leaves something to be desired, and his inconsistency in that department is largely the cause of his mediocre completion percentage.

His issue in these situations is twofold. The first issue is his accuracy, or lack thereof. He simply struggles to deliver the ball on target and on time, especially to a moving target. The second issue is that he struggles with his progression. This is a bit of a theme with quarterbacks within these types of offenses -- maybe, at least in part, because so much of their time is spent perfecting such a complex running attack. If the defense takes Marshall's first read away from him, and he's forced to move into his second or third progression, he will struggle, and it's at that point where the mistakes may start to pile up.

His true gift, aside from his arm strength, is his running ability. Marshall is really fast, and his combination of straight line speed and elusiveness will remind you of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. His running statistics support this notion. On the season Marshall has rushed for 823 yards, and is averaging 6.7 yards per attempt. The vast majority of those yards have come on designed runs -- variations of the read option -- but he's also a threat to scramble on passing plays, especially when the opposing team is in man coverage.

Additionally, backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson should also see at least a few snaps on Saturday. Johnson is a very good thrower, completing 70.7% of his passes and averaging 10.29 yards per attempt, albeit in limited duty.

Running Backs, Offensive Line, and Fullback

Their running game is anchored by Marshall and lead back Tre Mason. Mason receives an extremely high volume of carries -- 27 vs Georgia, 20 vs Tennessee, 32 vs Arkansas, 27 vs Texas A&M -- most of them either in the read option or in normal zone running plays. He's short (5'10") and quick, a versatile runner that can beat you between the tackles or on the edge, making him the obvious choice for feature back. He has already carried the ball 208 times on the season, and is averaging 5.5 yards per attempt. Behind Mason are two other backs, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, both of which are sprinkled into the offense on a matchup basis. Grant is the speed back and the big play threat. He receives the vast majority of his opportunities on speed sweeps, and is averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. The compliment to him is Artis-Payne, more of a between the tackles runner, who is averaging 6.6 yards per carry on the season. They make up an impressive quartet of runners (Marshall included), who succeed both because of talent and scheme, along with excellent play from a nimble and athletic offensive line, one that is skilled in zone blocking with the strength to win at the point of attack and the quickness to widen out and spring big plays off the edge. The last important element of their rushing attack is fullback Jay Prosch. In today's college football landscape fullbacks are a dying breed, especially within spread attacks, but Prosch remains the exception. I liken him to another 49er, Bruce Miller. We'll take a closer look at what Prosch brings to the offense later on.

Wide Receivers

Auburn also has some very talented, albeit sometimes neglected pass catchers. Sammie Coates leads the way and he does so in impressive fashion, especially in the vertical passing game. Coates has excellent speed and ball skills, and has emerged as Auburn's go to target on the outside. He's averaging an outstanding 22.9 yards per catch on a total of 30 catches, and has expanded his route tree as the season has progressed. Ricardo Louis, now known for the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, is probably their second best receiver. His production has been erratic this year, but that's due mostly to the offensive structure rather than his own abilities. He has caught 23 passes this year and is averaging 12.7 yards per catch. Marcus Davis, Quan Bray, and Melvin Ray are also threats in the passing game, as is tight-end C.J. Uzomah. Aside from catching passes, the primary responsibility of this group is often edge blocking in the run game, something they do quite well. We'll talk more about the Alabama defense later, but it's imperative that the Tide defensive backs defeat their blocks on the outside and give themselves an opportunity to make a play on the ball carrier on wide runs.

Formations and Pre-snap Motion

Being a spread attack, Auburn's favorite personnel groupings are 11, 20, and 10 -- remember, first number refers to number of backs and second number refers to number of tight-ends. They tend to play at a very brisk pace, sometimes running a play every 20 seconds. The other noteworthy element to their offense, before the snap, is their exotic formations and motions. Malzahn does this in hopes of gaining an advantage, from a leverage and angles standpoint, in the running game. He puts his blockers in better position and improves his runner's ability to reach their target point unimpeded. The motions are used for two reasons -- 1) to give a ball carrier a running start before getting the ball and 2) to confuse the defense. The second reason is the one of concern to defenses, as Malzahn tries to make things exceedingly complicated for them, hoping one or more defenders blow their assignment. The blowing of assignments is inevitable against an offense like this, so it comes down to limiting those occurrences and mitigating the effects of such a mistake when it does occur. The former relies on discipline, film study, and strong communication, while the latter relies on tremendous individual efforts by defenders during a broken play -- plays being made outside the Xs and Os.

I understand the desire to view these sorts of tactics -- the pace of the offense, along with the formations and motions -- as cheap trickery, but I'd advise against it. They're nothing more than sound football strategies, made even more impressive when you consider this offense is Malzahn's and his alone, not something he necessarily developed from a mentor. To implement and perfect something at the high school level before bringing it to the college game and enjoying similar success, is a remarkable feat which deserves our praise, not our condemnation.

Now with that brief appearance on my soapbox out of the way, lets delve further into the schematics and concepts that make Auburn's attack so successful, starting with the zone running game.

Inside Zone

When Auburn runs the inside zone without a quarterback option, their favorite play is the slice concept. This involves the fullback, Prosch, sealing off a backside defender in hopes of opening up a cutback lane for the ball carrier, should the defense over pursue to the play-side.

Here's an example:

Auburn is in their 20 personnel package, with Mason lined up behind Marshall and to his right, while Prosch is lined up in front of Marshall and to his left.

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This is an inside zone to the left, with a slice concept. Mason's target point is the right hip of the left guard.

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The play works perfectly. The offensive line holds their blocks at the point of attack. Prosch finds the backside defender and seals him off. Mason hits his target point picking up a few yards, and has a cutback opportunity to his right thanks to Prosch's block. But Mason either reacts too slowly or doesn't see the hole at all, and he misses his opportunity before being swallowed up after only a modest gain.

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Speed Sweep

On the other hand, when Auburn wants to run off tackle they typically use Corey Grant, similarly to how they used Onterio McCalebb. But rather than using a traditional outside zone to get to the edge, Auburn prefers a variation of the speed sweep. This next play is noteworthy both for the play itself and the exotic formation that it's run out of.

Auburn puts their two wide receivers to the wide side of the formation. They're using a fullback and an H-back, both lined up to Marshall's right. Grant is split out to the left, tight to the formation, before coming in motion just before the snap for the speed sweep. If you listen to the commentary, Gary mistakenly calls this the inverted veer. But there's no unblocked defender, so there's no one for Marshall to read. He pretends to keep the ball, but it's merely a decoy. No matter what, the ball is going to Grant.

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The left tackle, center, and right guard are responsible for sealing off the backside. The right tackle leaves the play-side defensive end initially unblocked, moving up to the second level in an attempt to engage the MIKE linebacker. The left guard pulls around for the wham block on the previously unblocked defensive end. The fullback (Prosch) is responsible for the WILL linebacker and the H-back is responsible for the safety who has come down in the box to help out against the run. Seven blockers for seven defenders. Despite the fact that, superficially, the play appears complex, it still comes down to getting a hat on a hat.

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Everyone executes their block perfectly (including the fullback and H-back who both cut their defenders), except for the pulling guard who doesn't quite reach the defensive end in time. But it doesn't matter -- Grant is too fast and he turns the corner before the unblocked defender can even come close to making a play on him.

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Zone Read

While they'll use these plays fairly often, the core of the Auburn offense is still read option plays -- specifically the zone read. As an important and related aside, this particular play is not the read option. No one play is the read option, even though individual plays are so often called that. That's fine as an umbrella term for option plays, but it's misleading calling any specific play the read option.

Auburn has four wide receivers on the field, with trips to the left and the X-receiver isolated to the left. Mason is in back of, and to the left of Marshall.

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This is the zone read bluff concept, where, once entering the mesh point, the quarterback turns away from the play-side to read the unblocked, backside defensive end. If the end moves inside, the quarterback pulls the ball out of the mesh and runs to the area that the end vacated. If the end stays outside and contains the edge, the quarterback simply gives the ball to the running back and a basic inside zone follows. This is the most common option play.

In this case the man being read is the outside linebacker. The defender actually does a nice job in this case, as he slow plays the option, meaning he doesn't overtly commit to either the running back or the quarterback. Instead he moves slightly toward the inside which Marshall reads and then pulls the ball out of the mesh point.

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But by slow playing the option, the defender forces Marshall to take a wider angle then he would have preferred, which, in turn, gives the defensive backs an opportunity to close quickly on the ball carrier and prevent a big play.

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Slow playing the option, while seemingly easily, is far more difficult than it looks and takes a lot of discipline on the part of the defender.

Next, here's an example of the defender forcing Marshall to give the football to Mason.

In this case the unblocked defensive end goes right for Marshall, so he smartly gives the ball to Mason. This play was very well blocked to the play-side, but Mason gave up on it far too early, cutting it back right into the arms of a waiting Georgia linebacker. He'll have to be more disciplined than that against the Tide on Saturday.

When Auburn runs option plays, it's almost always some variation of the zone read. First, keep in mind that they repeat a lot of plays, even consecutively. The pace that they play at allows them to do this, because the defense cannot adjust. Have any of you ever played Madden or NCAA and a play worked really well so you hurried up to the line and just ran it again -- and it worked again cause your opponent didn't adjust his coverage in time? Well this is basically the same thing.

Check out this three play sequence:

First, that's three plays in 45 seconds. Second, it's the same play each time, except they flip the direction once.

Which brings me to my next point -- many of these plays look different because of the formation -- but often times they boil down to the same concept and the differences are purely cosmetic. When Auburn runs an option play it is almost always a variation of the zone read.

By the way, while the concepts are similar, this is a different offense than the one Auburn ran with Cam Newton in 2010. Cam was much bigger and stronger than Marshall, so Malzahn used the inverted veer -- an option play where the quarterback runs between the tackles -- and quarterback power plays. With the lighter and faster Marshall the only quarterback runs called are option plays that allow Marshall to run outside of the tackles. Malzahn's general scheme is the same, but he wisely allows his personnel to dictate the specifics of the offense. Many coaches are not this flexible, and it's to Malzahn's credit that he's willing to adapt.

Packaged Plays

Speaking of changes to Malzahn's offense, as packaged plays have spread throughout both college football and the pros, Auburn has adopted some of them as well, specifically packaging a bubble screen with an inside zone.

We discussed packaged plays at length in the Texas A&M offensive preview, so check that out again if you're interested in a more detailed look at these plays. Auburn doesn't run them nearly as much as A&M does, but they're still an important piece of the offense.

Auburn has four receivers on the field, three of them to the left. Mason is in the backfield, lined up behind and to the left of Marshall.

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Marshall is keying the Georgia linebacker lined up to his left. If the linebacker stays to the inside, Marshall will throw the bubble screen to the nearest slot receiver. However, if the linebacker jumps to the outside, Marshall will simply hand the ball off.

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The linebacker doesn't immediately jump to the outside so Marshall throws the bubble screen. If the two outside receivers had held their blocks this could have gone for a nice gain, but the defensive backs force the pass catcher back to the inside, where help is waiting. The linebacker that Marshall was keying also makes a nice play, reacting quickly and getting outside to join the play. And again, check out the offensive line -- they're zone blocking in case Marshall had chosen to the hand the ball off. Definitely look for some of this on Saturday, as teams have had some success (Georgia in last year's SECCG) running this exact play against Alabama.

Play Action Passing

Unlike against lesser competition, you can bet that Auburn will look to throw the ball on early downs against Alabama, especially when they feel like the defense is overcommitting to stop the run. When they do throw the ball, look for them to line up in what had previously been used as a run formation. Here's an example:


Notice anything interesting about this formation? It's almost exactly the same as the one they used for the speed sweep we looked at earlier, except this time the tight end is on the line rather than in the H-back position. They even sprint out the two wide receivers before the rest of the huddle breaks, just like before.

One major difference, however, is that Jeremy Johnson is now in the game, not Nick Marshall. But even though they threw the ball this time, this switch does not necessarily mean it will be a pass. Later in the game Johnson came in, again they used this formation, but that time they ran the speed sweep. But you can expect Marshall to be in at quarterback when they throw the ball on early downs as well, seeing as he'll be playing the vast majority of the snaps on Saturday.

Like most spread to run teams, their play action on early downs is designed to suck up the linebackers and attack the middle of the field. This means seam routes from tight ends and slot receivers, along with in-breaking routes from the wide receivers. The exception to this is Coates, who will run go routes and deep posts, on both early downs and passing downs.

Possible Alabama Defensive Strategies

Now some quick thoughts on the what approach Alabama may take to try to slow down this attack ...

In terms of personnel, I wouldn't automatically assume that, just because they're going against a spread team, Brandon Ivory's snaps will be limited. I'll talk more about this in a minute, but I suspect Alabama will try to funnel Auburn's running game to the inside, which is where Ivory can have a significant impact. So I suspect you'll see a normal rotation along the defensive line, unlike against Texas A&M.

I also think this is a game where Jarrick Williams sees the bulk of the time at STAR. Geno Smith has really come on strong of late, but Williams is the better run defender of the two, which is a more pressing need against Auburn's spread to run attack. If Alabama wins on Saturday and faces off against Missouri in the SECCG, expect this to change.

As far as defending Auburn's zone read, there are a couple different ways Alabama can go about this. Typically they prefer to use force calls, and Kirby Smart has alluded to this in the past. Essentially what a force call means is that, on any given play, the unblocked defender will be told either to hold his contain on the outside or crash inside. I think we'll see a lot of this on Saturday, and I think, in general, the call will be to force Marshall to hand the ball off. Not only is Marshall a big play threat with the ball in his hands, but anytime you let a ball carrier get outside of the tackles and into open space you have a big problem on your hands. By forcing the handoff and the subsequent inside zone running play, you simply trust your defenders to get the best of their blockers, as would be the case on any normal running play.

On occasion they also may try to slow play the option -- as we saw Georgia do -- and also scrape defenders. If they consistently use a force call on Marshall leading to the inside zone, every so often they may have that defender crash inside to take away the running back, tempting Marshall to pull the ball out of the mesh point and keep it. They'll then use a second defender, either a linebacker or safety, to scrape down and replace the optioned player, theoretically putting him in position to make a play on the ball carrier. This strategy, while bringing with it greater potential for a big defensive play than a force call, is also riskier. If a defense gets caught scraping a defender on a zone read play action, they'll be left with a player far out of position, giving the offense an opportunity to attack that area of the field. This puts the onus on the coaching staff to make these calls at the right time, an inexact science, unless they can pick up some tells (giveaways based on what the offense does pre-snap) and know what is coming. Whether they were stealing signs or not -- and no, lets not get into that -- this is what we saw in the first half against Auburn in 2010. Lets attribute it to quality film study and move on.

Finally, I think you can expect to see HaHa Clinton-Dix in the box, quite frequently, to help out against the run, especially if Auburn finds some early success on the ground. His ability to play quarters coverage allows this to work.

This is not the best offense Alabama has faced this year, nor is it the one best suited to attack Alabama's weaknesses on defense. But it is both a talented and very well coached offense, and it will certainly present a challenge for the Tide.

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