Chizik faces tough decisions as coordinators depart
With the memory of hoisting the BCS National Championship trophy almost a full 365 days in the past, coach Gene Chizik has endured a tumultuous week in the first days of bowl preparation.
The Chick-Fil-A Bowl was the last thing on anyone's mind this past week when the news of defensive coordinator Ted Roof's departure to Central Florida was followed by the "temporary removal" of sophomore running back Michael Dyer from the team.
Many Auburn fans had thought they had dodged a bullet when head coaching vacancies were filled at Kansas and North Carolina with coaches other than Gus Malzahn. However, rumors surfaced Tuesday night linking Malzahn with the head coaching job at Arkansas State University.
Twenty-four hours later, Malzahn was being introduced at the new coach of the Red Wolves.
"When you're in this profession, you understand that staff change is something that occurs quite often," Chizik said. "This is a situation that I feel very confident that we're going to hire some great people here."
Now Chizik is at a crossroads.
College football is cyclical; teams used to run the triple option, and then came the wishbone formation. Then the "Air Raid" passing attacks became popular, followed by the spread offense.
Now it's rare if a team doesn't run some type of a spread system.
But this year, the two teams meeting in the National Championship are ones that don't throw the ball 40-plus times a game. LSU and Alabama lean on their power run game, only using the shotgun to stretch the defense.
The question remains if Auburn will beat the rush back to old-school power football, or stick with the spread system and its players built and recruited by Malzahn.
A true fullback hasn't been recruited in the three years under Chizik. Speed backs like Quan Bray and Tre Mason have taken the place of big, bruising runners. Slot receivers like Trovon Reed and Travante Stallworth fill the receiving core. There is a lot of speed, but not much power.
No names are currently linked to the open offensive coordinator position, but Chizik has said multiple times he has a "contingency plan" if any more staff leaves.
On the defensive side of the ball, Chizik will fill the void Roof left at linebacker's coach and defensive coordinator for bowl practice and the bowl game. Chizik was defensive coordinator at Auburn from 2002-04.
The current Florida State defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, Mark Stoops, is rumored to have been offered $1 million to leave Tallahassee to come coach on the Plains. Other speculative candidates include Everett Withers, interim coach at North Carolina, and Ellis Johnson, current defensive coordinator at South Carolina.
Chizik has employed a cover-two defensive scheme in all of his stops as defensive coordinator since serving on the staff at Central Florida.
"As a defensive coordinator, I've pretty much had the same philosophy for a lot of years. That hasn't changed," Chizik said.
Ted Roof was used to running aggressive man-to-man coverages with heavy blitzing.
Chizik has said he isn't married to one system on either side of the ball.
"We're not dead set with a one track mind, that this is the type offense or defense we have to run," Chizik said. "We want guys who have been successful."
The 3-4 defense has been one of the more successful schemes in shutting down the rampant spread offenses across the nation. Georgia and Alabama both use a 3-4 front and are two of the best in the SEC.
The main issue with the 3-4 scheme is the heavy emphasis placed on a gap-stopping nose guard who is big and can clog running lanes by himself, something hard to come by in the high school ranks.
Two defensive tackles, John Jenkins of Georgia and Anthony Johnson of LSU, made an immediate impact on their defensive lines this season, but Auburn currently has no one that fits that physical description.
Chizik has prided himself on taking oversized safeties and turning them into linebackers and taking linebackers and positioning them into speed-rushing defensive ends. Switching to a 3-4 would turn that philosophy around.
Speed-rushing ends like Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier would turn into outside linebackers, and linebackers would either bulk up and move to inside linebackers, or back to safety. A transition to that system would set the defense in an even deeper rebuilding phase than it's currently in.
With Auburn replacing both coordinators in the same off-season for the third time in the past decade, Chizik holds the fate of his term as head coach in the balance. Hire the right guy, and Auburn's young talent continues to take off. Make the wrong move, and 2010 seems more like a flash in the pan than a program changer.