Chip Lindsey was the first name mentioned by several people from the moment that Rhett Lashlee accepted the offensive coordinator position at UConn. He has play-calling experience, he’s from Alabama (2-5-6! 2-5-6! 2-5-6!), and he was an analyst in 2013. After a bit of a whirlwind search that had all kinds of red herrings, Lindsey was hired on Saturday. With Malzahn’s statements that he’s going to hand over all play-calling duties to Lindsey, what will change with the offense?
The biggest change, and the most likely reason that Malzahn was up for a split with Rhett Lashlee, should be the passing game. Lindsey favors passing the ball a lot more than the Gus/Rhett combo did, and he has some Air Raid concepts. What exactly can we expect? I took a look at three games to get a better idea. The first game will be a little heavier, and then I’ll look at some differences for the other two. Unfortunately, these are the only 3 full games I could find on youtube, but they are at least 3 games in which ASU had starting QB Manny Wilkins Jr.
Arizona State 68, Texas Tech 55
Passing: 28 of 37, 351 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 8 different receivers
Rushing: 53 carries, 301 yards, 7 TDs
In Lindsey’s second game as the offensive coordinator, he was at the helm for one of the most “defense optional” games I’ve ever watched, even if it wasn’t even the most “defense optional” game Texas Tech played in 2016. Running back Kalen Ballage tied an NCAA record with 8 total TDs (7 rushing) in this game.
Here are some things I noticed:
- Lindsey was coaching from the box. If he moved to the field later in the season, I didn’t see it. That would be a change for Auburn. The only OC who coached from the box in the last 8 years was Sc_t L_effler.
- At first, ASU was using wider WR splits than Auburn traditionally does. That started to change as the game (and season) progressed.
- ASU frequently used a pistol formation in the first half, but they swapped to the offset RB shotgun more in the second half.
- Most of the run game is similar to what Auburn already does, and really not much variance: outside zone, inside zone, power, counter, and zone read. The last 4 are Malzahn staples. I didn’t see any buck sweeps (I’m guessing Malzahn and Hand push to include them), but I did see counter-trey. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Malzahn-coached team pull anyone other than a guard, and the counter-trey pulls both backside OL to lead to the playside. They even showed a read-option version of it later in the game. It will be interesting to see if that carries over.
- No six-man OLs. Even when they used Wildcat. Plenty of times they attached a tight end, but I never saw 6 true offensive linemen.
- Speaking of the tight end, it seems Lindsey looks for versatility in that player. The same player was lined up as a slot receiver, h-back, and hand-on-the-ground tight end in the span of a drive. The upside here is that it drops the number of package-substitutions needed, which was an issue for Lashlee/Malzahn in 2016.
- Of Ballage’s 7 rushing TDs, 6 were from 7 yards out or shorter. All 6 of those came from the Wildcat. Five of those were Power, with the other being Counter. At this point and several others, Lindsey showed that when something was working, he was going to make Texas Tech prove they had stopped it before calling something else. They never had to.
- In the passing game, ASU showed a lot of different screen/swing type plays. I know these are the kinds of plays that can drive fans crazy, especially on 3rd down, but it gets the ball in the hands of a playmaker in space.
- The biggest difference between Malzahn/Lashlee and Lindsey comes in the use of run-pass options (RPOs). After Nick Marshall left, a lot of the RPO plays were dropped from Malzahn’s playsheet. What stuck around were more slow-developing play action (like the Statue-of-Liberty fake), or half-hearted play-action. In this game, I noticed maybe one or two standard play-action passes. The rest of the run-fakes were RPOs. And they weren’t just screens. I can’t guarantee this, but it seems like ASU did two things with their RPO calls. If two receivers were to one side, they would either run a now-screen or a bubble-screen. The other side would have one receiver. That receiver would run a slant versus off coverage or a go-route versus press coverage. At times that go route would be adjusted to a back-shoulder fade, but I don’t think that was an in-route adjustment, as ASU started doing it later in the game.
- As for similarities, there were several plays I recognized. As I said before, there isn’t much difference in the run game, which is fine by me. In the passing game, I recognized “Army”, which is a post-wheel combo with the h-back running the wheel (Auburn version here and here). On third and 3-5, I noticed a rollout smash concept, which Malzahn has run probably 50-60 times as a head coach. I also noticed this sugar-huddle pass to the h-back, which is the exact same play as this one from when Lindsey was at Auburn.
- Arizona State’s receivers are trusted to make plays on the ball. Wilkins Jr did a good job in this game of putting the ball where the receiver could go get it. Given Auburn’s current receiver crop, this is promising.
Arizona State 26, Utah 49
Passing: 20-32, 255 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 7 different receivers
Rushing: 47 carries, 41 yards (includes sacks), 2 TDs
Alright let’s take the elephant in the room first: according to the advanced box score, ASU ran for a slightly more respectable 121 yards without the NINE SACKS, including 5 by Utah DE Hunter Demick. ASU’s line play was absolutely terrible in this game. In 32 years of watching football, if there’s one absolute truth it’s this: great line play can make you great, and bad line play can render every scheme useless. ASU surrendered sacks in less than 3 seconds multiple times. They even allowed a sack versus a 2-man rush. There isn’t an OC on earth that can scheme around that. Lindsey tried screens, draws, and swing passes, but if the safeties and linebackers know that the DL will be harassing the QB, they can play aggressive and attack those plays before they can develop. Interior runs were near useless in this one.
- It was in this game that I realized I never saw the offense look to the sideline for an audible. Either Wilkins Jr had freedom to change plays based on the look, or they stuck with a play no matter the defense (some of that would be mitigated by RPOs). So if you hate the “line up then look to the sideline for an audible” move of Malzahn’s offenses, that may be gone.
- One key to Malzahn’s previous offenses was the blocking of WRs on the perimeter. Other than on jet sweeps, there was very little blocking from WRs. Instead, they were running routes on RPOs. Either way occupies a defender, so that can work just as well.
- Lindsey went to a lot of screens on 3rd and 10+ situations in this one. That can be frustrating, but if the line can’t hold for more than 3 seconds, what choice does he have?
- Wilkins Jr made a big mistake in this one on the first possession. After a turnover on the first play, ASU had the ball in scoring range. While rolling to his right on a third down with no one really open, Wilkins fired an ill-advised pass back into the middle of the field. It’s the kind of throw that works in high school, but doesn’t work against a well-coached defense. A defender in zone coverage easily read the play and intercepted the pass in the end zone. ASU had, if Groza voters are to be believed, the best kicker in the country last season. In that situation, that pass needs to be thrown away. Take the points.
- Two plays to see:
Sometimes a play call works, but the execution fails. And sometimes an athlete you trusted to make a play makes a play anyway (be sure to watch the overhead replay).
You know that sugar-huddle toss sweep Gus likes? Here’s a trick play off of it I’ve never seen him run.
Arizona State 18, Washington 44
Passing: 21-33, 230 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 8 different receivers
Rushing: 27 carries, 15 yards (includes sacks), 0 TD
Same problem from the Utah game. Only 6 sacks this time, but that was in fewer total plays. Even when Wilkins Jr wasn’t sacked, he was constantly under pressure. Not very many clean throws in this one. Lindsey did what he could to help him, but Washington’s perimeter speed took most of that away (only 48 total yards in the first half).
- One new wrinkle I saw for the first time: bunched sets with 2 WRs and a TE close to the line. This is one Auburn hasn’t used much since the Al Borges “Gulf Coast Offense”. ASU used it to put underneath zone defenders in conflict. It worked pretty well considering, including for a two-point-conversion later in the game.
- I’m not sure if it was against backups (it was 30-3 in the 4th quarter at that point), but ASU finally strung a drive together by exploiting math problems on the perimeter with screens and swing passes. Like the Utah game, the interior running game was non-existent. Lindsey had to resort that those in order to get the ball to playmakers in space.
- Keep in mind this same Washington defense held Alabama in check for a while before giving out under the weight of their offense never moving the ball.
The numbers as the season went on for ASU weren’t pretty, but I don’t know how much of that can be put at the feet of Chip Lindsey. The offensive line was an absolute mess, and against good defensive lines, there’s not much you can do to work around that. If Auburn can replace Alex Kozan and Robert Leff, then that shouldn’t be a problem next year.
There are a few current players who I think would thrive on what Lindsey did last season. The obvious answers are Jarrett Stidham and the young WRs like Eli Stove, Kyle Davis, Nate Craig-Myers, and Darius Slayton. However, I think a player that can really thrive is Kerryon Johnson. Lindsey involves running backs in the passing game much more than Lashlee did. Johnson played WR at times in high school, so he’s no stranger to the passing game. In addition, Lindsey likes using Wildcat formations in short yardage situations to even out the numbers. If Kerryon keeps that job, he could see a bump from his 11 touchdowns last season.
Lindsey should have enough familiarity with the remaining offensive staff that the transition should go well. He worked with Scott Fountain, Tim Horton, and Kodi Burns during 2013 as an analyst, and he thought highly enough of Burns to hire him as WR coach early in 2016 before Auburn’s job opened up about one month later. He hasn’t worked with Hand specifically, but I don’t see that relationship being a problem.
I think Lindsey is a good hire given the situation. He doesn’t come with baggage, he has 3 years play-calling experience in the college game, he has connections to Alabama and Georgia high schools, and he is familiar with what Malzahn likes to do. With Jarrett Stidham’s experience with another RPO-heavy offense, this appears to be the right fit for Auburn going forward.