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Malzahn Opens the Playbook a Bit More

As his trust in his young player's continues to grow.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We've discussed this. Auburn's offensive coaching staff spent the last offseason planning for an NFL-caliber quarterback throwing to a multitude of senior receivers and handing off to two former five-star running backs. Then the rug was pulled out from under them. The quarterback's confidence is shot, none of the receivers can "take the top off" a defense (and one is no longer on the team), and the top two backs can't stay healthy and haven't seen the field much if at all.

As soon as game 1, Gus Malzahn had to turn to sophomore Peyton Barber to carry the ball. By game 4, the quarterback reins were handed over to redshirt freshman Sean White. In game 5, Kerryon Johnson, a true freshman, was running the Wildcat, and the receiving corps had to (or got to) go Duke-less in game 6.

With so many young players on the field in key positions, it's understandable that Gus Malzahn wouldn't quite trust them to operate the full playbook at full speed. Maybe that's why a lack of creativity caused red zone problems against Mississippi State. Maybe that's the reason White only threw the ball 10 times against San Jose State.

But we started to see some interesting things in the Kentucky game, with the same players being used in new ways. And in the Arkansas game, we saw even more of the playbook open up, especially in the passing game.

But first...

Kerryon's QB Role Expands

Before we get to Sean's expanded role, I want to take a quick look at what Kerryon was doing. He's been Auburn's Wildcat running back this season, but in Fayetteville, he came in and took the direct snap in a more traditional formation. Well, traditional for Malzahn, that is.

During the last drive of the first half, the one that started inside the Auburn 5, Kerryon took Sean's place at quarterback. He had two H-backs to his left, Kamryn Pettway in the normal H-back spot and Chandler Cox lined up behind him. When Jason Smith ran jet motion from left to right, the Razorback defense followed. It turns out that the play was Counter the other way, with Braden Smith and Pettway coming back across to block for Johnson to the left.

Johnson had all the running room he could ask for until he was tackled nearly 20 yards downfield. They ran Power a couple of times out of the formation before Peyton Barber came back in and scored Auburn's first touchdown of the game.

On the next possession, Auburn's first of the second half, the Tigers used the same formation and ran the same Counter play, but Arkansas was starting to clamp down on it. Eventually, inside the Arkansas 10, Auburn switched it up as Johnson handed the ball off to Jason Smith and both H-backs led the way for the sweep wide right.

Because of the previous Power and Counter plays up the middle, the defensive end hesitated to chase the sweep and couldn't catch up. The linebackers also hesitated which allowed the H-backs to get good angles and keep them from chasing Smith down. Melvin Ray was able to push his defender wide and open a lane, and Smith hit it for the tying touchdown.

I don't know exactly how many times it's been, but it seems like every time Kerryon hands off in the Wildcat, the play is stopped. Defenses know they have to protect against the sweep when Kerryon is in shotgun behind an unbalanced line. By keeping more typical personnel on the field, Auburn was able to make the sweep more effective.

Constraint Plays for Constraint Plays

Base plays are the kind of plays an offense builds its identity around, plays that it wants to run against the base defenses it expects to see. Auburn's are Inside ZonePower/Counter, and a collection of passing concepts. Everything else they run in a game is some sort of constraint play. Constraint plays are designed to punish a defense for adjusting to stop the offense's base plays.

For example, if the nickel back is "cheating" inside to help against Inside Zone, the quarterback can throw a bubble screen to the slot receiver. The nickel back won't be able to catch up to the receiver who will likely make a nice gain, so on the next play, he'll play more "honest".

Auburn uses a running back screen for similar reasons. Assuming there are two backs, sending one out wide keeps linebackers and defensive ends from crashing down on the run so fast in the future. If those linebackers chase after the screen, then the run up the middle has likely opened back up.

But Malzahn is more devious than that. He doesn't just go back to base plays once a defense reacts to a constraint play. He has constraint plays for his constraint plays and he used one in particular twice against the Razorbacks.

Still down 14-0, Auburn threatened a screen deep inside its own territory by motioning Kerryon Johnson out. With two defensive backs lined up with two receivers, a quick throw to Johnson could have gained some yards, but the Razorbacks quickly shifted. The slot defender expanded and got around Melvin Ray, but more importantly, the Sam linebacker also chased the screen action.

In a lot of Auburn's plays, a receiver close to the formation crack blocks the first linebacker he comes to. You can see it in the Buck Sweep plays, but it happens in a lot of other plays too. The key for Ray is to give the defense this same look at first, but then get open once the Sam goes past.

Auburn used the same concept later in the fourth quarter, but with even more "screen action". The running back didn't leave early and the offensive line ran out instead of staying back in pass protection. The receivers on the other side even showed a tunnel screen. The result was the same. A big first down and a defense less inclined to chase screens so quickly.

More Play Action Bootlegs

The threat of a crack block from a slot receiver paid off in the third quarter too as Auburn called for a naked bootleg out of Buck Sweep play action. I can't say for sure, but I think this is the first time Auburn has used that combination this season.

Both Alex Kozan and Braden Smith pull to the left and the Peyton Barber follows behind them, but Sean White keeps the ball and rolls out to his right with no protection. The pulling guards and running back convince one linebacker that it's a run his way, while the unprotected quarterback convinces another that he should go for the sack.

Meanwhile, Tony Stevens runs behind both linebackers, the first of which was feeling lucky he didn't get de-cleated. Though White had two long routes to watch to the field, he was pressured early and found Stevens for the checkdown, a checkdown that gained 10 yards because the linebackers bit on play action.

Throwing Further Downfield

We saw some of this against Kentucky, but it was nice to see it continue and diversify against Arkansas too. There were several intermediate to long passes in the first few drive, but the receivers couldn't hold on. So, instead of abandoning it, Auburn just kept trying. And it worked.

One example was a route combo I haven't seen before, a Dig route over the top of a Snag route. The Snag route makes the receiver look like he's going to cross the field at about five yards, but instead, he reverses and runs an out route. The initial direction caught the attention of a defender toward the inside, who then chased the route as it ran the other way. This opened up a huge window for Melvin Ray's Dig route behind them. Sean White delivered the ball and Auburn had itself a 23 yard play.

Another example happened in the middle of the fourth quarter. It's hard to tell from the broadcast view, but it looks like Arkansas was playing with two deep safeties. The two Tiger receivers to the boundary ran a Curl and a Dig. On the other side, the slot receiver, Jason Smith, ran a Skinny Post to divide the two safeties, one of the weaknesses of Cover 2. The linebacker tried to slow him down, but he couldn't keep up. Though it's not shown, the boundary safety must have taken a step toward the Dig, because he's beaten by Smith's route, too. Only the field safety is in position, but Sean White throws the ball perfectly to the shoulder away from the defender.

Facing 2nd & 20 with 27 seconds left, trying to get into field goal range, Auburn used a sort of "Deep Mesh". With the traditional Mesh play, receivers from either side of the formation cross each other. This usually springs one receiver open when the other gets in the way of the oncoming defender. It can also work by confusing the defenders if they try to swap assignments. That's what happened here.

Ricardo Louis and Jason Smith ran about 15 yards downfield against soft coverage. The defense was fine with that at that point in the game. They got into trouble when both receivers turned inside and crossed each other. Louis' man stayed back to take Smith, but Smith's man kept chasing Smith across, leaving Louis uncovered.

Overall, the offense had a good game. Nothing spectacular like we've grown accustomed to over the last two years, and we were all disappointed in the outcome of the game, but, other than some terrible drops, there was improvement.

The offensive line and backs only gave up one sack, much better than what we saw in Sean's first game against Mississippi State. Sean aired it out a lot more than he was asked to against San Jose State. Sure, we saw some good things at Kentucky, but we saw even more of the playbook at Arkansas. With Gus' trust in this young team growing, and with the next game finally back in Jordan-Hare Stadium, I wouldn't be surprised if this offense really starts to click this Saturday.