Birmingham, Ala.--While talk of Auburn's bowl game against Memphis was a story on Thursday, the search for a defensive coordinator is still very much on the mind of Coach Gus Malzahn as the Tigers get ready to start practices on Monday in preparation for the Birmingham Bowl.
"I'm not ready to say yet," Malzahn said when asked about a timeline for naming a new coordinator. "Like I said earlier in the week, I would rather hire one sooner than later, but I want to make sure I get the right guy."
Coming off a regular season under the direction of Will Muschamp when the Tigers allowed 27.3 points per game and 421.8 yards of total offense, Auburn made some strides on that side of the ball with the lack of big plays leading to fewer games allowing big point totals. After having two coordinators in two years, Malzahn said the goal right now is to try to get some continuity back in the program and that means hiring someone that is planning to be at Auburn for more than a season.
In the short term, however, the Tigers have to play a bowl game against one of the best offensive teams in the country. Having to get ready for that game and the start of practice on Monday, Malzahn said right he's still uncertain how things will work for his team with Rodney Garner and Lance Thompson the two full-time assistants still working for Auburn along with graduate assistant Travis Williams.
"I'm thinking by Monday I can let everyone know exactly our plan for the bowl game and who will be calling the defense and all that," Malzahn said. "We're going to make sure we build on the same defense we had last year, keep building on that.
"We'll have a good plan for our guys," he added. "This big thing is to keep building on what we did already."
Giving up at least 30 points in 10 of 13 games in 2014, this season the Tigers allowed just one opponent (LSU) to score more than 30 points in regulation in 12 games. Giving up fewer big plays was one of the reasons why Auburn’s defense took some strides forward, but that will get tested in a big way in the bowl game against a Memphis offense that is one of the most dangerous in the country.
Averaging 42.7 points per game this season with five games over 50 points and three where the Tigers scored more than 60, Memphis’ offense would be a tough test for even the best and most stable of defenses. Considering Auburn’s situation with a new guy calling the defense and uncertainty heading into practices next week, Malzahn said it’s going to be one of the biggest tests for his defense since he’s been a head coach.
Leading the way for Memphis is quarterback Paxton Lynch, a player expected to be one of the first quarterbacks taken in the 2016 NFL Draft. An athletic player who is capable of making plays with his feet in addition to his strong arm, Lynch has 240 yards and a pair of scores rushing, but that pales in comparison to his passing ability. Completing 69 percent of his passes for 3,670 yards and 28 touchdowns with only three interceptions, Lynch will be the best quarterback Auburn faces this season.
"We're playing one of the best offensive teams in college football," Malzahn said. "We're playing one of the best quarterbacks if not the best guy for the next level. He's phenomenal. What really stands out to me is his touchdown to interception ratio, not just this year but last year. He protects the football. He's got a big arm and will throw the ball from one hash to the sidelines.
"We've got our work cut out for us defensively because they are a very good offense," he added. "I'm going to say this too, you look at their run defense and they've played some very good teams and been very good against the run."
It’s not just on the football field where the importance of adding a new defensive coordinator will be felt for the Tigers because with the recruiting dead period running from Dec. 14 to Jan. 16 that means getting a new coach on campus with at least some time to make an impact before then would be huge. With several top targets planning to enroll early and report to Auburn on Jan. 10 that means getting some quality time with their future coordinator is something that would be a huge benefit for the Tigers.
Malzahn said while getting a guy in as early as possible is important, getting the right guy is the ultimate goal.
"It would be good if we could (get someone in by this weekend), the earlier the better," Malzahn said. "At the same time this is a big decision. We just want to make sure we get it right, and we will, and we'll go from there."