Three weeks after his hiring, Coach Malzahn has an impressive defensive staff in place, leaving no doubt he is just as serious about defense as he is about offense. The four coaches hired on the defensive side of the football have a combined 118 years of collegiate coaching experience.
Malzahn's first hire on defense was veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who brings 37 years of experience to Auburn. Two of the other assistants have previously worked with Johnson, which should help establish continuity right from the start.
Not only are the defensive coaches loaded with collegiate experience, they are all proven recruiters with an extensive background recruiting in the Southeastern Conference. If Auburn is going to revamp a defense, which has struggled in recent seasons, it will likely require this level of experience to accomplish the task.
All four defensive hires have a long history of being proficient position coaches, demanding effort, commitment and a physical mentality from their personnel. Although Malzahn wanted established recruiters on his defensive staff and got that, it also appears he placed a high priority on their ability to coach their respective positions. Until Auburn can become fundamentally sound individually on defense, the Tigers will continue to struggle as a unit.
Ellis Johnson (Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers)...
Malzahn targeted Johnson immediately as his defensive coordinator, noting his admiration for Johnson's wealth of experience and knowledge.
Johnson is an established coordinator with his last stop as a coordinator being extremely successful at South Carolina. He has fielded Top 30 defenses during his last four stops as a coordinator. Three of his last four stops as a coordinator also produced Top 25 scoring defenses and Top 20 run defenses. Three of his four defenses at South Carolina were ranked in the Top 15 nationally in total defense and Top 30 in pass efficiency.
During his stops at Clemson, Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina, Johnson fielded Top 10 defenses against the run, in pass efficiency, total defense and scoring-defense. His groups have been versatile in scheme over the years, but he has recently preferred to operate out of a 4-2-5 scheme.
Malzahn is counting on Johnson to field a defense with multiple fronts to match an aggressive concept for the overall program. Johnson might not be renowned as a great recruiter, but his defenses are known to be sound fundamentally and disruptive in nature. During his last 20 years as a defensive coach, Johnson has coached 46 players who eventually made it to the NFL.
Rodney Garner (Defensive Line Coach)... Coach Garner returns to Auburn after an absence of 17 years. He worked at his alma mater as an assistant on the staffs of Pat Dye and Terry Bowden. He returns with the titles of assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator in addition to being the defensive line coach.
Garner has proven to be one of the nation's top recruiters during his stops at Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia. Malzahn is hoping Garner will continue his magic by appealing to the nation's top high school talent. His average recruiting classes at Georgia since 2002 have been rated No. 9 nationally, according to Scout.com. Only two of his last 11 classes fell out of the nation's Top 15 and included seven Top10 finishes. Georgia's recruiting class for 2013 is currently rated No. 3.
Though Garner is known for his ability to recruit, his defensive lines have been extremely productive on the field. His players have been part of 10 Top 25 defenses, 10 Top 25 scoring defenses and seven Top 25 run defenses.
During the past 12 seasons he has coached four NFL first round draft choices in Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, Charles Grant and Johnathan Sullivan. He also produced other NFL talent in DeAngelo Tyson, Corvey Irvin, Kedric Golston, Jarius Wynn, Quentin Moses and Emarlos Leroy. The list continues with Josh Mallard, Charles Johnson, Marcus Howard, Robert Geathers, Tyrone Robertson, Jeff Owens, Corvey Irvin and Geno Atkins. Ken Veal, Paul Snellings, Demetric Evans, Nic Clemons, Kiante Tripp and Brandon Miller also made it to NFL rosters as free agents.
Charlie "Cheese" Harbison (Secondary-safeties)...
Coach Harbison comes to Auburn where he rejoins Johnson. He leaves Clemson after a four-year stint as the secondary coach and one of the top recruiters for the Tigers. The last 12 recruiting classes Harbison was a part of at LSU, Alabama, Mississippi State and Clemson, finished with an average ranking of No. 18 nationally.
During the past 11 seasons he coached in the secondary and his pass defenses were responsible for an average of 16 interceptions per season. In comparison Auburn has averaged 11 interceptions during the past eight seasons. Four of the defenses Harbison was associated with were Top 25 nationally in pass efficiency defense and a fifth unit finished at No. 27. He clearly has proven himself as a recruiter as well as an efficient position coach.
During his two stops at Clemson he coached eight defensive backs who were drafted into the NFL. This includes Coty Sensabaugh, Dexter McLeon, Byron Maxwell, Marcus Gilchrist, Leomont Evans, Antuan Edwards, Brian Dawkins and Crezdon Butler.
During his two-year stint at LSU he coached an additional seven defensive backs who made it to the NFL. This includes Corey Webster, Adrian Mayes, Norman LeJeune, Clarence LeBlanc, Randall Gay, Travis Daniels and Ryan Clark.
At Mississippi State, Harbison coached Charles Mitchell, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. During his first stop at Alabama, Harbison coached defensive backs, working with Tony Dixon and Fernando Bryant, who were also drafted into the NFL.
Melvin Smith (Secondary-Cornerbacks)...
He comes to Auburn with 31 years of coaching experience, primarily in the secondary on defense. The last 16 teams Smith has coached in the secondary have finished with an average of 14 interceptions per season, with seven finishing with 15 or more picks. Seven of those defenses he coached finished at least No. 36 or better nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Like Harbison, Smith has coached with Johnson, which gives Auburn continuity on the defensive staff. Smith established a strong reputation in the Magnolia state and is well respected in the Southeastern Conference as a coach and recruiter. The last 12 recruiting classes Smith was a part of had an average ranking of No. 25 nationally, which is very solid considering eight were at Mississippi State. Six of the last 12 classes were ranked in the Top 20, according to Scout.com.
During his two stops at Mississippi State, he coached six defensive backs who made it to the NFL. This includes Fred Smoot, Johnnie Harris, Shawn Birdsong, Eric Brown, Robert Bean and Charles Mitchell and 2012 All-SEC cornerback Johnthan Banks should be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. Banks won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2012 as the top defensive back in college football.
Smith has also developed current player Corey Broomfield into a possible NFL draft selection. Broomfield is currently rated at No. 28 among 237 cornerbacks by NFLdraftscout.com. Coach Smith also worked with Melvin Bullitt at Texas A&M along with Charlie Peprah and Waine Bacon at Alabama. All three defensive backs made their way to the NFL.
With nearly 120 years of coaching experience and nearly 100 players transitioning to the NFL level over the past 20 years after being coached by Auburn's current defensive staff members, Malzahn has compiled a solid defensive coaching staff with a history of success in recruiting and player development.
In comparison, Auburn has placed 45 defensive players into the NFL over the past 20 years. Malzahn understands the significance of recruiting, but realizes games will be won based on the development of the talent recruited. With the 118 years of combined coaching experience, 63 have come in the Southeastern Conference. Malzahn intends for Johnson to bring a more aggressive style of defense to Auburn, but he also knows the defensive coaching staff must improve the players mentally as well as fundamentally for it to happen.
As an Auburn coordinator from 2009-2011, Malzahn's primary focus was on the offense. Returning as the head coach, he must expand his attention to a defense which has lost its physical edge the past two seasons. The defense doesn't need to be Top 20 caliber for the Tigers to have success, but must possess the ability to make plays during the most critical moments of a game.
During the past two seasons Auburn's defense has been ranked No. 63 and No. 70 in tackles for loss, No. 49 and No. 108 in forced turnovers and No. 107 and No. 63 in third down defense. Not only has the defense struggled in yardage and points allowed, the Tigers have also lacked the ability to produce impact plays to make up for the yards and points surrendered.
Malzahn changed Auburn's identity on offense during his first stop on the Plains and he is looking to do the same on defense the second time around.