So far Gus Malzahn has administered his transition into Auburn the way he runs his offenses: Fast, tough, and decisive.
Malzahn wasn’t on the ground a day when he sent almost all of Gene Chizik’s staff packing. A day later he announced that Rhett Lashlee would be Auburn’s new offensive coordinator and Ellis Johnson would handle the defense.
Lashlee played for Malzahn at Springdale High School in Arkansas, was his graduate assistant at Auburn during the Tigers’ national championship run and then moved with Malzahn to Arkansas State only to come back to Auburn with his boss before the ink was dry on Malzahn’s contract.
“Rhett is one of the brightest minds and up and coming coaches in college football,” Malzahn said earlier of his assistant. “I’ve said it for a long time that Rhett has the ‘it’ factor and he is going to be a head coach at this level someday.”
The same could not be said for Johnson who was a head coach in 2012 and didn’t do so well, losing every game before being fired at Southern Miss. Still, with stints at Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina — and enough gray hair to add gravitas to the practice field — Ellis was seen as a bold and bright hire for Malzahn.
“Ellis is one of the top defensive minds in all of college football,” Malzahn said. “He is very experienced and has tremendous success coaching in the Southeastern Conference. He is a man of integrity who will be a great ambassador for Auburn.”
The frenetic pace slowed has slowed down a bit, but Malzahn says he hopes to have all the remaining coaching slots filled by Jan. 4, the date recruits can start making visits again.
“Some guys are coaching at different levels, so you’ve got to be a little bit patient, but we’ll get the right people,” he said. “These guys (Johnson and Lashlee) are two key components. We’re going to build our staff around these guys. I think it’s very important the coordinators have some ownership in these hires.”
But don’t think things are at a standstill on the plains. Malzahn signed Cameron Artis-Payne, Scout.com’s No. 9 JUCO running back in the country out of Allan Hancock Community College in Santa Maria, Calif., on Wednesday, the day JUCO transfers were eligible to officially commit.
“I chose Auburn because of the history of the school and because they put out a lot of great running backs,” Artis-Payne said in a written statement. “I’m really excited about starting my Division I career.”
Malzahn has also been shoring up Auburn’s verbal commitments, making sure no more of his commitments jump ship. So far, Auburn has lost seven high school recruits since Gene Chizik was fired. Malzahn’s first job is to make sure no more of the four-star commitments join them.
Four-star Carver-Montgomery quarterback Jeremy Johnson, thought to be the key to Tigers’ offensive future, reaffirmed his commitment to Auburn and to Malzahn, saying, “We’re going to change Auburn around.”
But equally critical are two defensive end: five-star Dee Liner and four-star recruit Carl Lawson.
One of Alabama’s top high school linebackers, Reuben Foster, de-committed from Auburn after Gene Chizik was shown the door, but he hasn’t ruled out signing with the Tigers.
Expectations are high for Malzahn, but they aren’t unrealistic. No one expects a “worst to first” turnaround in his first year. But Auburn fans do expect progress, and some signs of life in a program that was lost at sea less just a few short weeks ago.
“Right now, we’re just trying to develop relationships,” Malzahn said on a local radio show on Wednesday morning. “Once we get our staff in place, I think things will definitely smooth out.”
Smooth out, maybe, but they won’t slow down. That isn’t Malzahn’s style, on the field or off.