While we don't know for sure who our next head coach will be, I wanted to take a moment to dissect a bit of what these candidates do schematically. It's an involved article, but I hope many of our readers actually take the time to read it. It will hopefully help you determine what you want in terms of on-the-field coaching.
It was not my intention to discuss whether I thought any of the candidates were good hires in terms of satiating the alumni base. I mention recruiting a bit, but I'm not sure short-term recruiting should be a major deciding factor. In this column I simply discuss what each coach brings on the field to their respective side of the ball. I cannot predict who each would hire to man the other side of the ball, so I didn't try. I hope those of you who don't know the information contained in this article learn something. I hope those of you who do know the information contained herein don't tear my understanding of football to shreds.
I should add that the candidates I've listed are simply the ones who have remained the most constant. I know we all want Bill Cowher with Mike Leach at OC and Tim Tebow at DC, but it's not happening.
Auburn Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn
While many pundits may argue differently, Malzahn's offense is progression-based. He does not ask quarterbacks to watch one receiver to see if he's open and then dump it off or run if he's not. His quarterbacks have to be able to go through reads in the passing game, unlike some other spread offenses which heavily rely on artificially creating open field by running receivers in and out of it to draw defenders away. For more information on Malzahn's approach to passing, read Smart Football's great breakdown of Cam Newton criticisms here. Malzahn's teams use a no-huddle approach when their personnel allow it (read: are fluent enough with the offense to handle a no-huddle). To get familiar with Malzahn's offense shouldn't take an offense very long though since there are only a handful of plays; each changing a little bit based on formations. Malzahn preaches the basics and executing several plays well instead of dozens of plays poorly.
His running game uses tons of misdirection looks, reads, reverses, options, sweeps, etc. and has been strong everywhere he has coached. Don't be fooled though. Just because Auburn doesn't go under center all that often doesn't mean they aren't running power plays. Their power plays simply develop differently, with previous passes having made the defense hesitate for just an instant.
When Malzahn's offense is clicking, he's tough to beat. The problem lies in when the offense is not clicking. Malzahn hasn't yet shown an ability to take a disastrous quarterback and make him look good. Ole Miss isn't going to consistently have
good decent quarterbacks and probably needs someone managing the offense who is capable of making not-so-good quarterbacks serviceable. Without superior talent at quarterback, Malzahn has struggled at least a little bit. This season, the Tigers have passed for just 1800 yards while completing 56 percent of passes with 16 TDs and 13 INTs. Their running game has flourished, but they would be doing better than 7-5 with a more potent passing offense.
In terms of recruiting, Malzahn isn't a fierce recruiter, but his name and Cam Newton help bring recruits aboard. Certainly he would be able to secure one or two of Mississippi's scrambling quarterbacks this season and begin to right the ship at that position.
Arkansas State Head Coach Hugh Freeze
Hugh Freeze's offense has already set more than ten Arkansas State offensive records. Freeze's no-huddle approach focuses on quarterbacks making the decision to run or pass in space. I'm sure most of you know this, but this offensive style eliminates the defense's advantage of not having to defend one player (the quarterback). When a defender in the flats is faced with covering a receiver or attacking the quarterback, they can easily end up caught between two options, allowing either. Those of you who have ever played NCAA Football or Madden likely use this strategy and infuriate the twelve-year-olds against which you play online. Then you tell yourself that's not creepy.
Back to Freeze, there is a small concern that he tries to get too cute with playcalling, devising a significant number of trick plays. I understand how that could be disconcerting to several readers, but trick plays make highlights, and when they work, you smile. While Freeze was wide receivers and passing game coordinator under Ed Orgeron, we gave him one game to be offensive coordinator. In that game, 2007 against LSU, Freeze's offense put up 466 yards of offense and provided a blueprint to hang with the Tigers. The next week, we went away from Freeze (because Ed Orgeron was really silly).... and the rest is history.
In terms of recruiting, Freeze doesn't bring any significant name recognition. He is, however, known as a tireless worker who has great connections in and around North Mississippi and West Tennessee. In terms of recruiting, Freeze wouldn't make an instant impact, but he could probably secure some of our commitments from the state of Tennessee and produce a few more from the area. Again, due to his up-tempo offense that lets quarterbacks run, scramblers would probably be interested in us.
Louisiana-Lafayette Head Coach Mark Hudspeth
Mark Hudspeth has literally written several articles about the spread offense and how to best utilize what it does to the field. His offense is, at least in style, quite similar to that of Freeze's. He runs a no-huddle up-tempo spread that places a strong athlete at quarterback and gives him the option to run or pass. A first year head coach, Hudspeth took a downtrodden team that went 3-9 last year then turned them around to 8-4. His starting quarterback, Blaine Gautier, completed just 50% of his passes last year with a penchant to make mistakes throwing three touchdowns to six interceptions. He appeared lost and in over his head. With one off-season's tutelage from Hudspeth, Gautier has completed 63% of his passes with a 20:5 TD:INT ratio. The turnaround is staggering.
But just like the aforementioned offensive coaches, Hudspeth's teams don't just pass. The Ragin' Cajuns have rushed for over 1,500 yard behind two freshman halfbacks (one of whom is USP star Qyendarious Griffin) and Gautier's efforts on the ground (which have yielded 464 yards). While the yards per carry of the team (just 3.6) are not impressive, a lot of that can be attributed to Griffin's plodding style of running with 3.0 yards per carry. Griffin, who has been phased out of the offense in his freshman campaign struggled against defenses and was replaced by Alonzo Harris (averaging 4.3 ypc).
Hudspeth's affect on recruiting is difficult to determine. He has significant contacts in Mississippi, having served as Mississippi State's offensive coordinator and recruited a good bit. he is an energetic coach with connections all throughout the South. My concern with Hudspeth's recruiting is the same I have for Freeze's. There's no chance he would bring with him a commitment from his current school who had other SEC offers. We're going to have to lure over former targets of our next head coach. I'm not sure that we want the targets of UL-L or Arkansas State.
Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart
While there's some speculation over how much of an impact Smart has over the Alabama defense, I'm going to talk about the schemes Bama runs and then hope Smart would bring those same schemes to Ole Miss.
First off, the Crimson Tide base defense is a 3-4 which places three linemen at the line of scrimmage and four linebackers (somewhat) off the line. A lot of things can change to manipulate that set up, but that's basically how it works. Teams that run a 3-4 like to use complex blitzes so that defenses are never sure which linebacker(s) they'll have to block. This leaves offensive linemen often blocking no one. To run a 3-4, you have to have a front seven with a unique skill set. The ends are generally undersized defensive tackles who can generate a bit of a pass rush if given the opportunity but are primarily there to eat up blockers and stop gimme plays. The nose tackle (the key to the defense) is a behemoth who can't be blocked with one player and hopefully can't be blocked with two. Terrance Cody and Haloti Ngata are good examples. The outside linebackers are generally a hybrid of traditional middle linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends. Because they'll be asked to move up to the line of scrimmage and rush the quarterback, they have to be able to take on a block. The middle linebackers are generally assigned to fly to the football, but some teams have taken to using one stronger linebacker to take on an offensive lineman and allow the faster MLB to make the play.
Our defense stacks up relatively well in every aspect but NT. D.T. Shackleford and C.J. Johnson could be elite 3-4 OLBs with Serderius Bryant and Mike Marry manning the middle. Uriah Grant and Bryon Bennett have the frame and strength of 3-4 DEs. The only problem lies at nose tackle. There's no one on Ole Miss' team at the moment who would flourish there. Sure, Gilbert Pena is big. The question is whether he's athletic and strong enough to take on multiple blockers. Smart would likely have to bring in a recruit to play this position, which is asking a lot of any first year player.
Bama's defense has a ton of elite athletes, sure. But their defense really succeeds so well because they play incredible fundamental football and always know their assignments. You never see sweeps or reverses work against them because they know to mind their gaps and let the other players make plays elsewhere.
In terms of recruiting, Smart brings a big name. He coaches a phenomenal defense at Alabama, and defensive players would likely be lining up to play for him. With the right offensive system, he could turn in a strong year during transition and hit the ground running on the 2013 class. With the defensive talent in Mississippi this year, it's important for us to sign a good chunk of them. With Smart, we'd have a fighting chance.