Auburn Football: Grading Gus Malzahn's Defensive Staff Hires

Brett Mixon@@TrueBlueAUContributor IJanuary 2, 2013

Dec 4, 2012; Auburn, AL, USA: Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn speaks during a press conference after being introduced as the head football coach at Auburn.  Behind him are former Tiger players Bo Jackson (center) and Pat Sullivan (right).  Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

New Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn hired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee at the same pace that he runs his renowned hurry-up, no-huddle offense.


"I told you I was going to take my time hiring coordinators and it took me about 48 hours," Malzahn said in his press conference introducing the new coordinators (via Auburn Athletics).

Malzahn slowed his initial pace of hiring considerably after hiring his coordinators—that is due, in large part, to recruiting. With the NCAA-mandated "dead period" that has been in effect since December 17 and will remain in effect until January 3, Malzahn has been able to focus more on building his staff. 

It is presumed that Malzahn has completed his defensive staff for the 2013 season with the hires of Johnson, Charlie Harbison, Rodney Garner and Melvin Smith. 

A glaring deficiency of the Auburn teams under former head coach Gene Chizik was the play on the defensive side of the ball. Prior to Chizik, Auburn had been known for stout, hard-nosed defensive play. 

Malzahn wants to get back to that brand of defensive football.

The theme of this defensive staff is familiarity. Excluding Garner, every other assistant has worked under Johnson as an assistant in the past.

Let's take a closer look and grade Malzahn's hiring of his first defensive staff. 

Ellis Johnson, defensive coordinator/linebackers coach: A

Malzahn hired the most proven defensive coordinator who was immediately available in Johnson. Johnson has 16 years of coaching experience in the SEC. As a coordinator, he has had stints at Alabama (1997-00), Mississippi State (2004-07) and, most recently, South Carolina (2008-11). 

Johnson runs a unique 4-2-5 base defense, which should aid in stopping the spread offense that is quickly gaining popularity in the SEC. At the same time, it can play a multiple, attacking style of defense with the front six. 

Johnson's defenses at South Carolina were ranked in the top 20 nationally three of the four years he was in Columbia. In 2011, the Gamecocks defense ranked No. 4 in the country. 

On the recruiting front, Johnson is responsible for recruiting 2013 probable Heisman candidate, Jadeveon Clowney (which gives me a perfectly legitimate reason to insert the jaw-dropping hit Clowney had in Tuesday's Outback Bowl).

Rodney Garner, defensive line/recruiting coordinator: A+

It's not often that the hiring of an assistant can make national headlines. When Auburn hired Garner on December 20, it did just that. 

That is because of Garner's recruiting ability and his coaching acumen. 

Auburn brought the Leeds, Ala., native back to his alma mater after multiple attempts over the last decade. He had spent 15 years on Georgia's staff in the same capacity that he will serve on Auburn's staff. 

“I’ve been approached many times about this opportunity. But it’s my alma mater. It may be more of a pride thing, just looking at where they are right now and feeling like I really wanted to be a part of getting them back on track. I just felt like God was leading me in this direction. It’s something I prayed about and it was not an easy decision. I would not have left for any other reason than Auburn," Garner told Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Garner was a captain and All-SEC player on Auburn's 1988 SEC Championship team.

With the loss of elite recruiter Trooper Taylor, the hiring of Garner is very significant because of Garner's ability to reel in top talent. Since the hiring of Garner, top DT prospect Montravius Adams will make an official visit, according to

As a coach, Garner was a part of very successful defenses at UGA and coached multiple first-round NFL draft picks that include Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, Charles Grant and Jonathan Sullivan. 

Charlie Harbison, co-defensive coordinator/safeties: C

Soon after hiring Johnson as defensive coordinator, Malzahn hired Harbison away from Dabo Swinney and Clemson. 

In my opinion, this is the most questionable hire of the group. Although Harbison is a top recruiter, his coaching ability resembles a lot of what Auburn just got finished going through in the secondary—that is, a top recruiter that is an average coach. 

Harbison has sent some players to the big leagues. He coached 2012 Tennessee Titans draft pick Coty Sensabaugh. However, Clemson fans (on Twitter) did not seem too upset about seeing Harbison walk out the door:

@trueblueau Prepare yourself for great recruiting, but also be prepared for 6'1" safeties-turned-corner and routinely blown coverages.

— ClemsonRealist (@ClemsonRealist) December 6, 2012

And then if you look at the improved play of Clemson's secondary in the bowl game after not being under Harbison's tutelage, it should raise concerns:

Clemson's secondary was being coached by GAs during bowl practice and it improved. Charlie Harbison? Ummm ...

— Travis Sawchik (@travis_sawchik) January 1, 2013

To be fair, Clemson's pass rush against LSU played a big role in the secondary's success in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. 

As I mentioned earlier, Harbison is very familiar with Johnson. He coached with and under Johnson on three occasions, at Clemson, Alabama and Mississippi State. 

Melvin Smith, cornerbacks: B

Malzahn finished up the defensive coaching staff on Christmas Day when Auburn announced the hiring of Smith. Smith had been on Dan Mullen's staff at Mississippi State. 

Smith's secondaries at Mississippi State have been extremely successful. The Bulldogs had 16 interceptions in the 2012 regular season. 

Johnthan Banks, who Auburn fans remember intercepted two passes off of Auburn QB Kiehl Frazier in Week 2, won the 2012 Jim Thorpe Award under Smith's coaching. 

Here is that word again: Smith is very familiar with his defensive coordinator. Smith coached under Johnson at Mississippi State in 2006 and 2007. 

On the recruiting trail and on the field, Smith is regarded as one of the top coaches in the Southern region. 

"Melvin is an outstanding secondary coach and is one of the top recruiters in the Southeastern Conference," Malzahn said. "He has a reputation for his ability to develop players and his 31-year coaching resume speaks for itself. We're excited to have Melvin join our staff" (via Auburn Athletics).

Malzahn has put together a solid group of coaches for his first defensive staff that has proven recruiting and coaching ability. According to Aaron Brenner of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, the defensive staff has been around the SEC block once or twice:

Auburn adds Melvin Smith; Tigers' four defensive coaches have 68 SEC coaching years |

— Aaron Brenner (@wareagleextra) December 25, 2012

That experience will come in handy as Auburn tries to get back to the defenses that Auburn fans came to expect before the prior coaching regime. 


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