Grading the new Auburn coaching staff

Todd Van Emst

Gus Malzahn compiled an impressive set of assistants.

It took new Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn a month to fill out his coaching staff, with the final piece of the puzzle falling into place on the last day of his self imposed deadline. Now, it's time for us to do what we do best as fans: analyze and even over-analyze each hire.

One of the concerns when Gus was hired was that his inexperience as a head coach would limit the contacts he would have with potential assistants or cause him to simply hire coaches with he was familiar. Those concerns have been squashed. Not only has he reached out to some top assistants, he hired coaches with plenty of SEC experience and recruiting prowess.

Most fans have the least amount of concern for the offensive side of the ball. The thought is that Gus knows what he's doing and the offense will be fine. That may be true, but he can't coach every position. He will need some help. Will he get that help? Looking at these assistants, it sure looks like it.

Rhett Lashlee -- Co-Offensive Coordinator / Quarterbacks

Lashlee is a young up-and-comer in the coaching profession. The Malzahn disciple is two years removed from a graduate assistant position at Auburn, but despite his relative inexperience, no one knows Gus and his system better than Lashlee. He is Malzahn's right-hand man and will serve as a direct extension of the head coach. If you want to see the offense run the way Malzahn wants, then there really was no better choice for OC. Lashlee will share play-calling duties with Malzahn and continue to learn on the job. Grade: B

Dameyune Craig -- Co-Offensive Coordinator / Wide Receivers

At first, Craig said no, but Gus was persistent, and he brought the prodigal son home. The former Auburn star quarterback has been trying to make his name as a coach the past few years. He has established himself as one of the Southeast's best recruiters, and there aren't many with the connections and influence in the Mobile area that the former Florida State recruiting coordinator has. While he has limited experience coaching wide receivers, he has done the job before while at South Alabama. Don't let the co-OC title fool you; he won't be calling plays, but Craig will be in on game-planning, and it will give him an opportunity to learn the offense. Craig's greatest contributions will come as a recruiter, and he'll serve his alma mater well in that respect. Grade: A-

Rich Bisaccia - Assistant Head Coach / Running backs / Special Teams Coordinator

I don't know how Malzahn pulled it off, but I tend to think Takeo Spikes had something to do with it. And let's face it, you don't tell Takeo -- and his neck -- "no." However it happened, Bisaccia is on the Plains, and his presence will be felt. Coach B is extremely well regarded by coaches and loved by his players. He was thought to be considered as a possible candidate for some NFL head coaching positions, but instead, he comes to Auburn from the San Diego Chargers where he coached special teams. However, he has coached running backs on the collegiate and NFL level, too. Bisaccia has experience coaching in the SEC and even spent time as a recruiting coordinator while at Clemson, and he's sure to have connections in South Florida from his time spent with the Bucs. All in all, this is the best hire Malzahn made, hands down. Plus, the guy has a Super Bowl ring! You can't top that. Grade: A++

Tim Horton - Tight Ends / H-Backs

Horton is known for more than just his donuts. The Arkansas alum has spent the past six years coaching running backs at his alma mater, and he is well regarded as a good position coach. He will join Malzahn's staff and slide over to a slightly different position, but it won't be completely foreign to Horton, who has experience coaching tight ends and receivers in his career. The tight end position is seldom used in the traditional sense in Malzahn's system, but Horton's abilities won't go to waste. He has served as Arkansas' recruiting coordinator and has great contacts in Arkansas and Missouri. Horton will recruit those areas hard and work to coach up the tight ends and H-backs. Grade: B+

J.B. Grimes - Offensive Line

This was the most important position for Malzahn to fill, as he needed a coach familiar with his offensive style. The majority of fans may have preferred a younger coach, like Vandy's Herb Hand, but Grimes is not a bad choice. With the recruiting prowess of others on the staff, he won't be relied on to be a stellar recruiter. His job, and where his influence will be felt, is in coaching up a group of young linemen. Grimes has been in the game for a long time and has experience coaching in the SEC, as well as recent experience coaching with Malzahn. He's a respected coach and should have Auburn's linemen playing physical at the point of attack. Grimes's familiarity with Gus and the tempo of the offense will be a benefit. Grade: C+

*****

Given all the problems Auburn has had in recent years on the defensive side of the ball, and the assumption that spread-offense teams can't field a strong defense, it was imperative for Malzahn to make solid hires for his defensive staff. There are plenty of problems to fix, and the only way to do that is through coaching. This group brings a ton of experience that should be able to make a difference.

Ellis Johnson -- Co-Defensive Coordinator / Linebackers

Johnson is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league. So what if the head coaching experiment didn't pan out? He wouldn't have been available if it had. Johnson has been around the block in the SEC and has been successful at every stop as a DC. His defenses are tough and fast and have solid fundamentals. That's a sign of a good coach when the players do the little things right, and his unique 4-2-5 base is better suited to defend spread offenses that so many teams run these days. Johnson has the experience to run the defense and let Malzahn spend more time with the offense. Grade: A

Charlie Harbison -- Co-Defensive Coordinator / Safeties

Coach Cheese is closely familiar with Ellis Johnson, having coached with him in the past. The two know what to expect from one another, and that will prove to be beneficial for the defense. Harbison will be tasked with calling coverages in the secondary, and he is considered to be a good coach and a great recruiter. He served as recruiting coordinator during his time at Clemson, and by all accounts, his players love playing for him. Harbison will have a tall task ahead of him to improve Auburn's secondary, but he has the experience to get it done. Grade: B+

Rodney Garner -- Associate Head Coach / Defensive Line / Recruiting Coordinator

It's been rumored several times in the past, but it finally happened. Garner has returned to his alma mater to help turn things around. While he may be best known to fans as a tremendous recruiter, he's not too shabby as a coach, either. The former UGA recruiting coordinator has great contacts in the state of Georgia and will definitely pull his weight on the recruiting trail. But that's not all he can do. Garner's D-lines at UGA were consistently solid. He put a number of players in the NFL, and he'll bring that ability to Auburn. The Tigers' D-line severely underachieved last year, and Garner will be tasked with bringing back the mean streak. Grade: A

Melvin Smith -- Cornerbacks

Another former recruiting coordinator and another coach who has spent time coaching with Johnson, Smith was on the staff at Mississippi State when Johnson and Harbison were there. Since he will be splitting the secondary with Coach Cheese, it's important that they have that prior working relationship and will be able to work well together. Smith has coached some strong secondaries in the past and tutored a Thorpe Award winner in Jonathan Banks. Smith brings a wealth of SEC experience with him. Grade: B+

These grades are made while we're still in the honeymoon phase of this staff being finalized. Right now, it would get an overall grade of "A," but it will certainly be interesting to see how the coaches and players gel together this spring. There is potential for this to be quick turnaround, at least on offense. The players should still be familiar with Malzahn's system, and the learning curve on offense may not be as steep. There will be plenty of room for improvement on defense, and these coaches may want to go all the way back and start with fundamentals. For now, these hires put to rest some concerns of Malzahn as a head coach and his ability to hire assistants. He showed that he could put aside any ego and put together a great staff.

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