Here's the problem I have with Gus Malzahn's overwhelming confidence in Chad Morris
I was here for “New Gus.”
The transformed version of Gus Malzahn that we saw emerge in the Music City Bowl beatdown was one who I was on board with seeing throughout 2019. Malzahn was decisive by taking back play-calling duties, he started lifting weights again and he popped wheelies on his Harley (just joking about the last one). The Auburn coach admitted he wanted to be more transparent with his team. He did things like show his emotion and he even publicly named true freshman Bo Nix his starting quarterback in mid-August.
That version of Malzahn was one that I believed in. I predicted that he’d lead Auburn to a 9-win season and ultimately he’d save his job. That’s exactly what happened.
But now, I’m not quite as on board with the 2020 version of Malzahn.
That’s not because we watched Malzahn’s offense struggle in the Outback Bowl in a loss to Minnesota. It’s more because Malzahn announced that he’s going back to giving play-calling duties to someone else. More specifically, new offensive coordinator Chad Morris is running the offense now.
According to Malzahn, Morris is “the best offensive coordinator in college football.” That’s what Malzahn said in his post-Late Signing Day press conference:
Gus Malzahn said in July that giving up play-calling was a “mistake” but he says now he’s confident he just hired “the best offensive coordinator in college football” in Chad Morris, which is why he’s certain it’s not a mistake this time around.
— Tom Green (@Tomas_Verde) February 5, 2020
Look. I get that Morris is Malzahn’s guy. Their rises as high school-to-college offensive gurus somewhat coincided, and they’ve been close for the last couple decades. Go back to what Morris said at 2018 SEC Media Days when asked about facing Malzahn every year.
“Absolutely, Gus and I have had a relationship going back to the very early 2000s. And I consider him a very dear friend for 364 days a year,” Morris said in Atlanta. “But, you know, we’ve played against each other before, and — but he — he’s been very instrumental into me standing on this stage today.”
In other words, Malzahn’s ringing endorsement of Morris played a part in him getting the Arkansas job. It’s also true that Malzahn’s ringing endorsement of Morris suddenly has him leading the Auburn offense as the team’s play-caller.
On the surface, I don’t have a problem with a coach seeking outside help after his offense was ranked No. 89 in passing efficiency. The struggles of Nix in the passing game were well-documented.
I actually am of the belief that Morris can be a much better coordinator than he was a head coach. I think a lot of people are built that way. Their skill set is more suited to focus specifically on the Xs and Os rather than all of the other things that come with being a Power 5 head coach. Morris could certainly fall into that camp.
But Malzahn said he only gave up play-calling duties because he believes Morris is the best offensive coordinator in college football. There are a few holes in that logic. For now, let’s ignore Morris’ time as a head coach at Tulsa and Arkansas so that we can focus specifically on what he did as an FBS coordinator at Tulsa (2010) and Clemson (2011-14):
Yes, leading a top-10 offense at 2 different schools is a sign that Morris knew what he was doing. Tajh Boyd, who was Clemson’s starter from 2011-13, predicted that Nix is about to see a major boom in his production with Morris at the helm:
Bo Nix throwing for 3800 and 35 this season https://t.co/FnpMvvq0IA
— Tajh Boyd (@TajhB10) January 27, 2020
Call me crazy, but are Boyd and Malzahn putting a little too much faith in results from 7 years ago? Defenses have adapted to high-flying spread, up-tempo offenses. What Morris does is now more mainstream than ever. Is it fair to wonder if everyone has caught up to Morris?
Morris’ only top-70 offense during his time as a head coach came in his third year at SMU. During his 5 years as a head coach, he never beat a Power 5 opponent in large part because his offense averaged 18 points in such matchups (those numbers fell to 17 points once he joined the SEC).
More troubling than the raw numbers was watching how many quarterbacks couldn’t grasp Morris’ offense. Seven of them were used during Morris’ 22 games in Fayetteville.
To me, that shows a couple things. One is Morris’ refusal to adjust his system to his personnel. Are we convinced that Nix is going to be this perfect fit in Morris’ system? Besides the unknown about how a second-year quarterback adjusts to a new coordinator, Morris wants to throw, throw and throw some more. With Auburn’s personnel (Nix included), I’m not convinced that’s going to work.
We already know that the offensive line only returns one starter (center Nick Brahms), which means from a protection standpoint, this group might not be built for what Morris typically wants to do.
We also saw the surprising news last week that the team’s leading rusher, JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow, entered the transfer portal. That’s an odd thing to see from an undergraduate running back who led the team in rushing each of the last 2 years. Perhaps that could’ve partially been due to Morris running the offense. We don’t know that with certainty.
We do know that Morris plans on having the running backs be bigger factors in the passing game. Rumor has it that’s pretty important in a modern offense.
But what happens if this isn’t a perfect marriage? What if Malzahn realizes after his team travels to face Georgia in mid-October that Morris’ system isn’t ahead of the curve anymore? Shoot, what if Malzahn realizes that after the UNC game in Atlanta in Week 2?
There’s no room for error. There’s no turning to a defense that had guys like Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson (4 starting defensive backs are also gone).
I don’t think Malzahn can afford to watch Nix have an up-and-down season like he did last year. His job, we expect, will depend on how Morris fits in.
Morris might not have to be the best offensive coordinator in college football, but for Malzahn’s sake, he had better be darn close to it.