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Coaching Staff Report Card: Coordinators (and special teams)

This is the third post in a series of four assigning (largely arbitrary, somewhat from-the-gut) grades to Auburn’s coaching staff for their (on-field, non-recruiting) results during the 2009 season. Today we’re looking at the two coordinators and how well they coordinated (i.e. not how well they coached their respective position groups), and because we haven’t gotten to him yet, Jay Boulware and how well he coached Auburn’s special teams. Previously we had report cards for Auburn’s offensive position coaches and their defensive position coaches.

Without further ado …

JAY BOULWARE, special teams

The Good: With the possible exception of Chris Todd and Gus Malzahn (or maybe Darvin Adams and Trooper Taylor), no individual Auburn player benefited more from the arrival of their new position coach than Wes Byrum did with Boulware. Only a year after hitting only 11-of-19, losing his job temporarily to Morgan Hull, and missing what would turn out to be a game-deciding extra point against Vanderbilt, Byrum missed just one field goal of 16 to finish in a second-place tie in FG accuracy nationally; hit 54 out of 54 point-after attempts, the third-most number of tries without a miss in the country; and cemented himself as one of the best place-kickers in Division I and a future Groza Award finalist if he puts together another season like 2009’s.

Although it took nearly the entire season, Boulware’s kickoff return did eventually find its stride behind Demond Washington and finished in the country’s top 30 in average return; Washington averaged better than 30 yards a pop, a number that would have put Auburn amongst the national leaders if extended for an entire season.

And whether you want to credit it to Boulware or Tracy Rocker, Auburn showed a stunning ability to block placekicks, knocking down four on the year, one of the best marks in the country.

The Bad: Pretty much everything else. Despite returning Clinton Durst, Auburn’s net punting plummeted from top 20 to 64th, thanks in part to a slight decline in Durst’s performance but due mostly to the nation’s 107th-ranked punt return defense and a block given up to Mississippi St. Kickoff return defense was an even bigger problem, ranking 97th and costing Auburn momentum with regularity. Punt “returns” were the biggest nightmare of all, ranking 113th in average return … and that doesn’t even count the myriad muffs and fumbles that resulted in field position losses and huge momentum swings at worst.

Put it all together and it was enough for a 91st-place finish in Phil Steele’s special teams ratings despite boasting one of the best placekickers in the country and those four blocked kicks. That’s not easy.

Final grade: C-. To be fair, not everything that went wrong on special teams was Boulware’s fault; Auburn’s numbers problem meant he was often lining up walk-ons against scholarship players, and Trooper Taylor’s involvement in the search for a punt returner means he has to shoulder some blame for the ongoing disaster back there.

But ultimately the special teams are Boulware’s responsibility, and no unit on the team was more disappointing. Ranking amongst D-I’s 20 worst teams in three different statistics is no way to win in the SEC.

TED ROOF, defensive coordinator.

The Good: Well … not so much “good” as “not as bad as you might think.” Adjust from total yards to yards-per-play–a better measure of Auburn’s performance since the Malzahnian tempo packs in the plays and possessions, as you’ve no doubt heard me say a hundred times before–and Roof’s defense ranked 43rd overall rather than 68th and 8th rather than 11th in the SEC. Hardly impressive, but not the total disaster it’s been portrayed to be in places.

And if Roof’s defense tended to go through some lulls in terms of their opportunism, on the whole they produced about what we’d hope for in the takeaway department: 25 total for the year, tying for 32nd in the country and 3rd in the SEC. That included big days against West Virginia, Ole Miss, and Northwestern, each of which was arguably the biggest reason Auburn won each of those games.

Lastly, on a more subjective level, when Roof finally had some time and just the tiniest bit of defensive line depth to work with, his charges’ phenomenal performance against Alabama–where the eventual national champions turned in arguably their worst offensive outing of the season–suggested that Roof and his defense will show us some real improvement … eventually.

The Bad: Where do we start? If shrinking the yardage from per-game to per-play helps Roof out, looking at the final scoring numbers certainly doesn’t. Auburn gave up nearly four touchdowns a game, ranking 76th overall and dead last in the SEC. 62 percent of opponent’s red zone possessions ended in touchdowns–again, worst in the SEC–and I don’t think I have to regale you once again with the many, many tales of opponents scoring from 50-yards plus out. Auburn actually got their share of threes-and-out, but when they didn’t … look out.

And if we have to give Auburn some credit for their ability to come up with huge, game-turning plays against the Mountaineers, Rebels, and Wildcats, we have to ding them for failing to come up with anything similar in the Tiers’ SEC losses; Auburn came up with one turnover in the Kentucky, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama games combined.

Strategically, whether or not you buy Roof and Chizik’s explanation that they couldn’t be aggressive as they’d like given their personnel, the facts were that Auburn just wasn’t as aggressive for most of the season as we’d like them to be. Corners were playing way off the line, blitzes were rare, and what stunts and tricks Auburn did try seemed ineffectual. Until the Alabama game, we never saw Roof’s alleged acumen at shutting down opposing running games and playing in-your-face defense.

Final grade: B-. Probably no Auburn coach’s performance rests as much on the eye of the beholder as Roof’s. You see the scoring numbers above. You know how what had been a decade of Auburn defense-first-defense-second tradition under Tuberville seemed to crumble before our eyes. (This was more a feel thing that something borne out by the numbers–where the ’08 D was kind of overrated–but still, there was never going to be the same kind of game like the ’08 win over Tennessee. Never.) You remember how with the exception of the second half against Ole Miss and the Iron Bowl, we never felt like Auburn’s defense was going to make the stop they had to.

But I can’t get over how many factors were working against Roof. His best player played with a cast for the first half of the season. He had two truly functional linebackers 9 or 10 games out of the 13. He started a true freshman at safety all season. By season’s end he had one–one!–upperclassman on the second string. And on the opposite side of all of this depth starvation, an offense that put the maximum possible stress on that depth. It was the perfect storm, the worst possible situation for a coordinator still in his first year working with the players at hand.

So I’m grading on a bit of a curve. Next year, if there’s a repeat, we’re busting the red ink out all over the place.

GUS MALZAHN, offensive coordinator

The Good: Let’s see. Malzahn took over the same offense that finished 104th in total offense, 105th in yards-per-play, and dead last in the country in red zone conversions … except that what wasn’t the same was that he’d lost the team’s top three receivers. What was the same was that his top three quarterbacks were an already-iffy guy coming back from shoulder surgery, one of the nation’s least-efficient starting QBs, and a career third-stringer.

So naturally that unit finished 16th in total offense, top-25 in yards-per-play, and 17th in scoring. Those red zone troubles? From dead last to third in overall scoring conversions, and 13th in TD percentage. Number of points in Auburn’s wins: 37, 49, 41, 54, 26, 33, 63, 38. So yes, I’d say all of that was fairly impressive.

Just as impressive was that in the space of one offseason, Malzahn established a genuine offensive identity: he swore that Auburn would be the run-first, up-tempo, scarily unpredictable team that Tony Franklin had promised, and he delivered. It didn’t always work, but having a philosophical foundation established and ready to build on was a critical step after the disasters of 2008.

The Bad: It still seems kind of surprising how stellar Auburn’s overall numbers for the season were when you consider how often the offense stalled out into mediocrity. The nadir was the two-week stretch against Kentucky and LSU in which the first-team offense produced a total of 10 points, but there was also the no-show in the first half against Arkansas … the final three quarters against Georgia … the critical last 25 minutes against Alabama.

The primary culprit was exactly what the anti-spread faction claimed it would be: short-yardage. Auburn’s third-down numbers for the year ended up pretty solid–third in the SEC–but again, that’s tilted from outstanding numbers in the wins overbalancing some horrid numbers in the losses. The Tigers didn’t have much problem banging in (or running play-action) at the goal-line, but anywhere else on the field 3rd-and-1, 3rd-and-2, 4th-and-1 were major problems, just as you might expect for a team running shotgun exclusively. Malzahn has maybe taken some steps this offseason to correct this problem–LaDarious Phillips, welcome aboard–but his inability to find a solution midstream cost Auburn the Kentucky game and arguably another couple besides.

Also: you can’t talk about Malzahn’s downside without mentioning the impact his offense had on the Auburn defense. Which was, putting it politely, not good.

Final Grade: A-. Can’t award the full A given the midseason disappearing act, third-down hiccups, and exacerbation of defensive problems … but if I kind of thought Auburn’s defense would be just a little better regardless, I also was not expecting Auburn’s offense to take the kind of mammoth strides it did in ’09. Malzahn looked like the SEC’s best assistant coach last year, and I think he’ll look even better this fall.

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