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Gus Malzahn and the Myth of the Mobile Quarterback

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Ever since Cam Newton, the belief has grown that Gus Malzahn's offense requires a mobile quarterback. We investigate the truth behind that belief.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Auburn picked up a commitment from one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. In my article on his commitment, I compared him to former Auburn QB Nick Marshall. He's shifty and mobile. Barrett may not be quite as fast as Marshall, but he's got a lot of the same moves. This got me wondering if that's now the direction Gus Malzahn is thinking of taking his offense.

Of course, some say he's always been there. Bud Elliot in his pre-commitment article stated that Malzahn's offense has traditionally relied on a mobile QB. The SB Nation Louisville site Card Chronicle doesn't understand why Auburn is ranked so high in preseason polls because they don't believe Jeremy Johnson fits Gus Malzahn's offense very well. I don't know that I really agree with Bud, and I definitely don't agree with Card Chronicle. It may have been most successful on a national stage with a dual-threat QB, but only Cam Newton and Nick Marshall really fit that mold in all of Gus Malzahn's years in college football.

Recruits

Why don't I agree with that? Well, for starters Woody Barrett is one of the first true dual-threat QBs recruited by Gus Malzahn since he's returned as head coach. Gus did recruit two dual-threat QBs in his first year as OC at Auburn in 2009 (Tyrik Rollison and Robert Cooper), but he also recruited Clint Moseley, a Pro-style QB. 2010, of course, saw Cam Newton at Auburn, a Dual-threat QB. Kiehl Frazier? Dual-threat.

Right now you're coming off reading that last paragraph and saying "but Walt, that blows your entire theory out of the water." Well, maybe. Maybe not, though. Remember, I'm mainly arguing that Gus Malzahn's offense doesn't hinge on having a mobile quarterback. He doesn't have to have one in order to succeed.

For instance, the 2012 recruiting class was when Auburn signed Zeke Pike, a Pro-style QB who had long been a Malzahn target. Malzahn began the recruitment of Jeremy Johnson, as well. Both of those quarterbacks were supposed to be ideal fits for "what Malzahn wants to do." Both Pro-style. Sean White and Tyler Queen? Pro-style.

Moreover, it's often been noted how last season was Gus Malzahn's first season with a returning starting quarterback. He's rarely been in one place long enough to work with players he recruited with his offensive style in mind. For the most part, he's dealt with what's already been on hand. Whether Dual-Threat or Pro-Style, he still wins with whatever the best quarterback is that he has on hand. When it comes to recruiting it's similar. Gus has gone after both type of quarterbacks. He doesn't care about their style of play, all he cares about is that they're good.

When we get into just how successful his offenses have been, that is one thing that will really stand out. He really is Gustav The Mad Scientist of Football as I dubbed him in 2009 on TheAuburner.com when Gene Chizik hired him. He takes what he has on hand and he wins with it. Consistently.

Quarterback Performance

Recruiting is all well and good, but what happens when his quarterbacks get on campus? Well, I've got the numbers for you. Let's take a little walk through history. I have the data on passing yards by his primary quarterbacks during his years as an offensive coordinator and head coach, but those really don't matter as much. Quarterbacks throw the ball. It's what they do. What's most important to us when studying how much Gus relies on "mobile quarterbacks" are the rushing numbers.

Year NAME CAR YDS AVG LONG TD
2006 Casey Dick N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Mitch Mustain N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
2007 Paul Smith 105 119 1.1 36 13
2008 David Johnson 92 186 2 30 3
2009 Chris Todd N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
2010 Cam Newton 264 1473 5.6 71 (TD) 20
2011 Barrett Trotter 36 62 1.7 15 0
Clint Moseley N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
2012 Ryan Aplin 104 438 4.2 38 (TD) 6
2013 Nick Marshall 172 1068 6.2 62 12
2014 Nick Marshall 153 798 5.2 50 11

In his first season in college football, Gus Malzahn had two quarterbacks at Arkansas. Neither of them recorded a rushing stat worth noting in ESPN's stats. However, similar to 2011, which we'll get to, there was plenty of word about Houston Nutt meddling in the offense (Malzahn left Arkansas after one season). So, perhaps there's not too much information that can be gleaned from this.

When Gus Malzahn went to Tulsa in 2007 the story is a bit different. He had much more control over the offense, and now you're starting to see quarterbacks with rushing stats. You may take that to be proof of Gus Malzahn liking a mobile quarterback.

However, I did some digging on his 2007 quarterback Paul Smith and his years at Tulsa prior to Malzahn. His 105 rushing attempts are pretty much the average for his three years as a starter. His 119 yards gained was much less than his previous two years. His 1.1 yards per carry leads me to believe he did a lot of quarterback sneaks or he got sacked a lot (since sacks come out of rushing stats). David Johnson put up similar stats in 2008 for Tulsa after Smith graduated.

Gus Malzahn went to Auburn in 2009, where his quarterback was Chris Todd. Todd is the very image of a non-mobile QB and it showed in his lack of rushing stats. Then Cam Newton came in. Cam was without doubt a mobile QB. Gus went to bat for him with Gene Chizik to recruit him, and Auburn snagged him. His numbers while at Auburn were record setting.

When 2011 rolled around, things were different. Barrett Trotter got very few carries, and Clint Moseley none that were tracked. Now, 2011 is the point when Gene Chizik reportedly began to meddle in the offense; at halftime of the Clemson game in particular. So maybe results are a bit skewed from that. I don't believe so, though. Chizik didn't get involved in the play-calling so much as the pace of play. What is clear is that neither Trotter nor Moseley were "mobile" quarterbacks.

I really wish Chizik hadn't thrown a wrench into the analysis with his meddling. There were other factors involved in 2011 to go along with that, too. Auburn lost the majority of the offensive line, the quarterback, a few really good seniors, and more. So the 2011 team had a number of things working against its ability to succeed. Purely from a number stand point, this is the main season to point to as proof that Malzahn "needs" a mobile QB.

Gus Malzahn left Auburn for Arkansas State in 2012. His quarterback for that season was Ryan Aplin. Aplin's rushing stats were back to the levels we're more familiar seeing from a Gus Malzahn QB. His rushing stats are more what we've come to expect of any of Malzahn's quarterbacks. He had the most rushing yards of any Malzahn QB to that date not named Cam Newton.

Once again, though, we have to pause and consider Aplin's entire body of work. His rushing stats that season were actually the lowest of his career as a starter both in terms of number of carries and yards per carry. He was also a pro-style QB according to his recruiting profile on 247Sports. Aplin had proven himself to be decent with running the football, but Malzahn actually used him less than he had been used previously.

Then we get to 2013 and 2014. The first time that Gus Malzahn had the same starting quarterback for two years in a row. What we see here are large numbers rushing in 2013 and much smaller in 2014. Part of that is Auburn wanting Marshall to throw the ball more. Part of it is the blocking not being quite as effective. Nevertheless, you see a very successful Gus Malzahn offense running with a mobile QB.

That's just individual quarterback statistics. What does that tell us? Not much about the offense as a whole and how the mobility or lack thereof fits into the greater offensive success, that's for sure!

Team Offensive Rankings

Well, yeah, ok, you're right. That's true. So let's go a little deeper down the rabbit hole of stats. What we have here are the percentages of total team rushing yards by the quarterback, the offense's rank in conference, and it's rank nationally.

Season Team % of  Team Total Conf. Rank National Rank
2006 Arkansas 0% 3rd 19th
2007 Tulsa 5% 1st 1st
2008 Tulsa 5% 1st 1st
2009 Auburn 0% 3rd 16th
2010 Auburn 37% 1st 3rd
2011 Auburn 3% 8th 91st
2012 Arkansas State 16% 1st 24th
2013 Auburn 23% 1st 7th
2014 Auburn 24% 3rd 17th

One of the first things that jumps out at me is just how good Gus Malzahn's offenses have been. There's talk every year that folks will figure him out. Well, there's nine years of film on him, and it doesn't seem like that's happened, yet. 2011 stands out in terms of his being by far his worst season, but again that's the season where he was hamstrung on the HUNH aspect of his offense by the head coach. I'll get into that more in just a bit.

So, just looking at those numbers, we can see that while his 2006 and 2009 offenses had a QB with zero mobility, they were still highly ranked, nationally. Don't forget those reports of Nutt's meddling in 2006, as well. Can you imagine full-bore Gus with McFadden and Jones? I'm glad they parted ways, since it's what led to Auburn getting him eventually.

Now let's look at his Tulsa years. Those QBs never accounted for more than 5% of the team's rushing totals. They were not only ranked 1st in Conference USA, they were first nationally. I'd say that's a pretty fair refutation of Gus' offense requiring a mobile QB, wouldn't you?

The trend changes a bit when you get to his years at Auburn, though. In 2006 when he was hired at Arkansas, Gus Malzahn was a novelty. A high school coach hired to be an SEC Offensive Coordinator. Personally, I thought Houston Nutt was, well, nuts. Boy was I wrong. He was much more high profile by the time he arrived at Auburn. However, in his first season we're back with a QB who was not mobile at all. The overall offensive numbers still match up with his averages.

2010 was the moment when things changed. Cam Newton's success at Auburn is, in my opinion, the reason why it suddenly became vogue to associate Gus Malzahn's offensive philosophy with a mobile quarterback. Cam ran roughshod through the SEC, and Gus Malzahn's offense began to get even more attention.

During Auburn's struggles of 2011 you started hearing word that maybe defensive coaches had figured out this "high school offense." Auburn struggled on offense to the tune of by far Gus Malzahn's worst statistical season as an offensive coordinator. One reason is the loss of so many starters from the previous season, particularly on the offensive line. Another is Gene Chizik hamstrung the offense. Gus took a $600,000 pay cut and left to be a head coach at Arkansas State.

Ryan Aplin at Arkansas State was mobile enough that he helped Gus do what he wanted while at ASU. It's already been noted that Aplin's numbers were in line with his overall career, though. Gus didn't try to take a non-mobile QB and turn him into a mobile QB. Aplin was already a decent runner. The offense finished 1st in the Sun Belt and 19th nationally. Part of this can be attributed to the talent level and the bigger teams ASU played that season killing some of the stats in those games. It still shows that Gus was able to come into a situation with players he never recruited and use them to great success.

I'll take 2013 and 2014 Auburn together. Gus Malzahn did recruit Kiehl Frazier as a Dual-Threat quarterback, but it was obvious from 2012 that Frazier wouldn't cut it. So, Malzahn went out and snagged Nick Marshall. Aha! A highly mobile quarterback to run a lot just like Gus Malzahn wants!

Looking back through eyes colored with the knowledge of what he became, we forget that Nick Marshall did not do much running the football early on in the season. His first 100 yard rushing game was against Ole Miss in Week 5. Prior to that his highest total was 53 yards. He was mobile, but Auburn wasn't relying on him to be a dynamic runner for success early in the season.

Once Gus Malzahn realized how effective Nick Marshall was with the zone read (as an outside runner, whereas Cam was more of an inside runner), that quickly became an offensive focus. Auburn changed from a team trying to find balance to one focusing on the zone read run.

Mobile Doesn't Matter

And therein lies the soul of what I've been building towards. When he's able to run freely with what he wants to do, Gus Malzahn's offense is effective no matter what kind of quarterback is under center. It's effective because Malzahn adapts to his player's strengths. Aside from Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, no Gus Malzahn QB has run for over 500 yards in nine season. Take Ryan Aplin out of the equation and you're down to none rushing for over 200 yards. A few of them didn't record any rushing stats at all.

I've argued since I took over here at College and Magnolia that Gus Malzahn's offense isn't a system, it's a style. Run-heavy, pass-heavy, power running, finesse spread, it doesn't matter as long as it's fast. His style is to play fast and confuse you with his ability to run almost every single play in his playbook from every one of his formations. He disguises the complexity in simplicity. And he does it so fast that before you know what's happening, the running back is already in the second level for 6-7 yards.

Does a mobile quarterback help? Absolutely, it does. What it is not, though, is a key component in the Gus Malzahn Offense. Gus takes his players' abilities and molds what he wants to do around that. Great passing quarterback at Tulsa? We'll throw it! Quarterbacks with no running ability whatsoever? No problem, we'll adjust our balance or bring in a Wildcat every one in while.

The Wildcat is, if you'll forgive me for this, the Wild Card. I don't have the ability without going into the play-by-play of every game Gus Malzahn has ever coached to determine how often he lined up in a Wilcat formation. It's worth nothing that even with mobile quarterbacks, the Wildcat did not disappear completely.

Auburn will go into 2015 with a Pro-style quarterback as the starter. Johnson does have some speed and mobility of his own, though, so don't expect the quarterback read play to go away. The first half of the 2014 Arkansas game showed how effective Auburn's offense can be with Johnson at the helm and not running the football himself. I expect it will be even more effective once teams realize they'll still have to defend against Johnson running, as well.

If there's one certainty with Gus Malzahn, it's his ability to adapt. Perhaps he's starting to adapt to a more mobile quarterback because he's been more successful on the national stage when he's had one. I wouldn't really argue that point. What I've been attempting to argue all along is that he doesn't need one to still be successful. One player does not an offense make. Gus Malzahn is one of - if not THE - best in the game of college football at adapting to his players' skill sets. His consistency with success across multiple teams with players he did not recruit proves that.

If Auburn is successful this season without relying on Jeremy Johnson to run the football much, what will people say? It will be interesting to find out. I think we'll see Ryan Aplin level numbers from JJ running the football this season, although I know he's said he wants to rush for 1,000 yards. I think we'll all just be back to realizing the one really important factor.

Gus Malzahn is just really good at this whole offensive football thing.