I met Landon on the Internet. He's a tall, strapping fellow that has a bizarre interest in a mid-major, and on Wednesday, word began to leak that Auburn was hiring the coach that failed his team in 2012. I needed TAKES, man. People were divided again. Was this a good hire? Why did Ellis Johnson fail at Southern Miss? I talked to the only guy I know that would drive from Birmingham to Hattiesburg, weekly, to watch his inferior product. And pay good money for it.
Landon Howell is the Head of Strategy and Content at Fancred, a new sports app launching in early 2013. Landon grew up in Jasper and currently lives in Birmingham. He's also a season ticket-holding Southern Miss fan who in total traveled 3,000-plus miles in 2012 to watch Johnson fail to bring one win to Southern Miss. Landon grew up attending the annual Southern Miss-Alabama football game. Initially, he was simply cheering against Alabama, but over time fell in love with the perennial overachieving underdogs that were the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Follow him on Twitter at @landonhowell.
Blake Ells for College and Magnolia: What happened?
Landon Howell: After 18 consecutive winning seasons and 10 straight bowl games, following a season where Southern Miss defeated No. 6 Houston and finished 12-2, Southern Miss did not win one football game. The fall is so tremendous that I have yet to comprehend it.
In short, Ellis and his staff failed to coach and lead the players in a manner that resonated with the players themselves. 'I'm not a motivator' was phrase he often used, which was the antithesis of his predecessor, Larry Fedora.
BE: How did you feel about the hiring of Ellis Johnson at Southern Miss THEN?
LH: I thought it was a match made in heaven. Here's a guy who is successful, respected and coached in an assistant capacity at Southern Miss in the past. $750K a year was $100K more than what we payed Larry Fedora, but the hire also gave the Southern Miss program additional clout at a crucial time (see: conference realignment/expansion).
Southern Miss was a respected program that hired a respected coach. I though Ellis would stay in Hattiesburg until he retired.
BE: How much control did Ellis Johnson have over his defense at Southern Miss?
LH: If he's the "defensive mind" that everyone claims him to be, then I would say that he had almost no say over the 2012 USM defense. We returned seven starters, one of which is a projected first-round NFL pick in 2013. Suddenly, the same defense that in 2011 destroyed Houston -- a Sumlin-coached and Keenum-led squad -- lost by doubled-digits to Rice and Memphis.
Ellis and his staff failed to utilize quality athletes that were a part of some of the highest-rated Southern Miss recruiting classes in recent memory. He was also incredibly loyal to his staff. Some might say it was his biggest fault. Tommy West called the shots as DC. This is the same Tommy West we stole from UAB ... the same Tommy West that was fired at Memphis.
BE: Did Ellis Johnson inherit enough defensive talent to win in Conference USA?
LH: I believe so, and so did many reputable sports writers. I expected Southern Miss to win between 6-9 regular season games in 2012, which would've been good enough to get us to the championship game due to severe underperformance of most C-USA teams this season. Southern Miss is a place that prides itself on "diamond in the rough" defensive players (Michael Boley, Adalius Thomas, among others). Ellis was accustomed to SEC speed and build, and suddenly at Southern Miss, he was coaching a team of athletes, and not a team of position players.
BE: Describe Ellis Johnson's personality. Is he media friendly? Fan friendly? Both? Neither?
LH: Ellis is funny and very likable, but when things went south after an 0-2 start, he got snippy. He asked for patience while simultaneously telling fans to stop worrying about our 18 consecutive season winning streak record, which was tied for the third longest streak among FBS programs. (Side note: This streak was a big deal for Southern Miss fans. I would compare it to a coach calling Toomer's Corner "just some trees on campus".)
He's a great guy and I'll never not like him, but he seems to be overconfident in general. He underestimated the passion and drive of the Southern Miss fan base, giving us the 'I'll take my time implementing my system' because he assumed we wouldn't buy out his $2.1 million contract. I don't believe he truly respected program, but Auburn won't have that problem. Ellis, in a sense, views the SEC as the only true league in college football. He will give Auburn more than he gave Southern Miss, and he will be more focused due to his narrowed role.
BE: How aggressive is Ellis Johnson's defense?
LH: The defense that Dan Disch ran at Southern Miss in 2011 under Fedora was akin to something fans would see from Oregon. Lots of pre-snap movement in an effort to cause confusion, but well-coached in ball-stripping and interceptions. However, the 2012 Southern Miss defense was stagnant pre-snap, and CBs gave entirely too much cushion. Offenses that were heavy on short passes were USM's kryptonite. USM never truly adjusted throughout games, and when they did, it was an overcommitment. Our defense was picked apart in every game but one (UCF).
BE: It seems that Ellis Johnson has been a DC for a lot of offensive-minded coaches (Steve Spurrier, Tommy Bowden and Sylvester Croom). Is he hands off? Does he want to left alone to his work?
LH: A good offense covers a multitude of defensive sins. Ellis can be all the the sinner he wants so long as Malzahn makes Auburn's 2013 offense resemble Auburn's 2010 offense.
BE: Is Ellis Johnson's defensive scheme equipped to stay on the field for the majority of a game?
LH: The one that I saw in 2012? No. The one that I saw at South Carolina in 2011? Absolutely.
BE: Do you believe this was a good hire for Auburn?
LH: I feel as good about this move by Auburn as I did for Ellis' move to Southern Miss, but I think this is a better fit for Ellis. There are worse hires, but few better hires that Auburn could have made. Also, Ellis is one heck of a recruiter. Kids like him because he sells them on the reality of the SEC. Parents love him because he's relatable and a great father figure for the student athletes. I see Ellis correcting Auburn's course in 2013, but his true value will not manifest until 2014 and '15.
Auburn is lucky to have Ellis Johnson as its defensive coordinator.