I noticed a tweet last week from Charles Goldberg, formerly of AL.com, who now writes for the official Auburn athletics site:
Freshmen and sophomores have accounted for 88.9 percent of Auburn’s total offense this season. pic.twitter.com/lczztNYBFH
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) September 28, 2016
He updated the figure this week, noting that the total is now 86.3 percent.
Nothing against Goldberg, but I don’t like the measure of total offense he’s using. It’s the old standard one that only counts passing and rushing yards towards individuals’ total offense amounts.
This total offense stat fails in two regards. First, it completely ignores the contributions of wide receivers on passing plays. Second, for the matter at hand of looking at which classes of players are contributing which amounts, about half or more of it is simply measuring what class the quarterback is from. Both last year and this year, 13 of 14 SEC programs have gained 45 percent or more of their total offense from passing. LSU is the sole exception at about 41 percent in each season.
One way to measure the total offense contributions without those drawbacks would simply be to look at rushing and receiving yards together. So far this year, 72.6 percent of Auburn’s yardage in those categories has come from underclassmen. It’s second in the conference behind South Carolina, where a staggering 91.6 percent of rushing and receiving yards come from freshmen and sophomores. Steve Spurrier’s recruiting really tailed off towards the end of his tenure in Columbia, forcing Will Muschamp to play young guys all over the field.
In Auburn’s case, how could this happen? Gus Malzahn is not in Year 1 of a massive rebuild as Muschamp is. He’s in Year 4 of his rebuild after Gene Chizik’s tenure, an era in which he had a large influence as offensive coordinator for three of the four years.
The majority of upperclassmen on the Tigers’ roster should be coming from the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. In them, Malzahn signed 18 combined players at quarterback, wide receiver, running back, and tight end according to the 247 Sports commit lists.
A tight end from the 2014 class, Jakell Mitchell, is deceased after being shot in December of that year. It’s an unfortunate situation all around, further details of which are beyond the scope of this piece.
Two of the 2013 signees were QB Nick Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne. They were JUCO transfers who were big contributors but whose eligibility ran out before this year. Another was running back Peyton Barber, who used his big 2015 campaign to go pro. He wasn’t drafted, but he did make the Tampa Bay roster. All three were successes, and they’re not on this year’s roster for good reasons.
Johnathan Ford signed as a running back out of high school in 2013, but he moved to the secondary in fall camp of that year. He’s been one of the team’s top players ever since.
Three of the 2014 signees left the team after not playing much: receiver Myron Burton, tight end Chris Laye, and tight end Hunter Wood. Sometimes players just don’t pan out as expected. That’s college football. With eight players accounted for, that leaves ten more to go.
Here is where things begin to get rough for the program.
Malzahn dismissed two players from those classes, receiver Duke Williams a year ago and running back Jovon Robinson shortly before this year. Williams was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver in 2014 and figured to be the top guy in 2015. Robinson was the Tigers’ second-leading rusher in 2015 and figured to be the top guy in 2016. Williams would have been out of eligibility this year anyway, but he was still a disciplinary headache as Robinson was.
Two more players transferred out. One, 2013 signee Dominic Walker, left after never climbing up the depth chart at wide receiver. He has two catches for Troy this year. The other, however, was 5-star signee running back Roc Thomas. He never found a way to produce at the level of his recruiting rankings on the Plains, and he’s currently second in both rushing and receiving yards for FCS power Jacksonville State.
That leaves six players left to go. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson was the opening-day starter last year but played his way to the bench. The five remaining guys are contributors this year: QB Sean White, receiver Tony Stevens, receiver Marcus Davis, receiver Stanton Truitt, and running back Kamryn Pettway. Though White, Truitt, and Pettway signed in 2014, they all redshirted. Even though those guys are third-year players, they count towards the underclassman portion of total yardage.
In short, the reason underclassmen make up such a tremendous share of the offense is because Stevens, Davis, and 2016 JUCO transfer John Franklin III are the only upperclassmen who have logged at least 100 rushing and/or receiving yards. Others could have been there to help, but Barber is in the NFL, Robinson couldn’t get his act together, and Thomas felt the need to move on.
That said, there is another way to look at the shares of offensive contributions of upperclassmen and underclassmen.
I went through and calculated the percentages of total offense using rushing yards and a 50-50 split of passing and receiving yards. It gives quarterbacks and receivers equal credit for the passing game.
Auburn’s underclassman percentage of total offense rises from 72.6 percent in the first system to 79.4 percent in this one. This fact should not be surprising given that the sophomore White has the vast majority of the team’s passing yards.
However, the Tigers are still second in the SEC, and it’s not because of the Gamecocks this time. Topping them with 82.8 percent of total offense going to underclassmen is in-state rival Alabama. At 70.4 percent in the prior system, the Crimson Tide is very close to the Tigers either way you calculate the measure.
The situations are different, of course. Alabama is leaning on underclassmen — Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley, Damien Harris, and Joshua Jacobs — for a couple of reasons. One is that older players from last year — Jake Coker, Derrick Henry, and Kenyan Drake — are gone. Another is that those four underclassmen I mentioned are spectacularly talented and beat out older players who either have lesser roles or left town altogether.
How the officials in Auburn’s athletic department view the youth situation on offense will go a long way in determining Malzahn’s job security this fall. Not even halfway through the season, Malzahn has time to win enough games to stick around. At present, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system projects the Tigers to finish 8-4 with a win over Georgia but losses to Ole Miss and Alabama. Even with the win over LSU from a couple of weeks ago, I honestly don’t know if that’s enough—particularly if the Tide blows out the Tigers.
Only three other teams are in the same area as Auburn in “underclassman share of total offense” using both calculations. One is South Carolina, about which no details are analogues to AU’s situation. Another is Alabama, as mentioned above.
The third is Florida, assuming you allow me to fudge a bit. The Gators are only four percentage points below the Tigers in the first system, but they’re about 12 percentage points below in the second. The latter disparity is entirely due to sophomore QB Luke Del Rio’s injury. Senior Austin Appleby has filled in the last two weeks. Had Del Rio played the whole way, UF’s percentage would be in the high 70s as Auburn’s is, and Del Rio starting is what Florida would’ve preferred.
If Jay Jacobs thinks Florida is the apt comparison, it will be in Malzahn’s favor. Jim McElwain has had to turn over nearly his entire offensive roster since he’s been in Gainesville, which makes the youth movement a sign of promise to come. Due to everything I’ve documented above, Malzahn also has had to revamp a large portion of his offensive roster in recent years. Stevens and Marcus Davis will run out of eligibility at season’s end, but every other key contributor should return next year. Everyone being a year older and more experienced could lead to a return to form for Auburn’s offense.
However, if Jacobs thinks Alabama is the apt comparison, it’s bad news for Malzahn. For my part, I don’t think the Tide should be the measuring stick here, as no one has recruited at Nick Saban’s level over the past few years. Not Malzahn, no, but even the other recent national championship winners Urban Meyer and Jimbo Fisher haven’t either.
Saban’s Alabama can field a dominant team that leans on offensive underclassmen to a great degree, but no one should expect any other coach to be able do the same. With the LSU job already open and Texas potentially coming open too—to say nothing about struggles at other marquee programs such as Oregon and USC—this offseason might not be the best time for Auburn to be looking for a new coach anyway.
Auburn is not unique in having to lean on underclassmen for production on offense, but the particulars of its situation and how it got there will decide whether Malzahn is back in 2017.