MSU, Auburn coaching staffs have familiar ties

September 10, 2013 8:12:22 PM

Matthew Stevens - mstevens@cdispatch.com

 

STARKVILLE -- It's not a situation where the Mississippi State offensive staff doesn't know what formations are coming from their opponent.  

 

The coaches in Starkville know what is being stressed, taught and put in the game plan from their counterparts at Auburn. They've been on the same side at one time or another. The teams meet at 6 p.m. Saturday at Auburn in the Southeastern Conference opener for both. 

 

"They are really, really good football coaches and you see that they're starting to put their kids in the right spots," MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. "It's not like we don't know what is going to happen after the snap. What is interesting they're mixing coverages more than than we've seen from Auburn in the past." 

 

In its complete transformation from the Gene Chizik era brought by new coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn hired three defensive coaches with strong ties to the MSU program. The Tigers hired longtime Southeastern Conference defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson after Johnson's debut as a head coach last year ended with a 0-12 finish at Southern Mississippi. 

 

Johnson's 4-2-5 philosophy has brought more physicality to the Auburn defense as the Tigers are second in the SEC in tackles for loss after facing two high-powered passing attacks in Washington State and Arkansas State.  

 

Johnson, who has previously coordinated defenses at Appalachian State (1984), Southern Miss (1988-89), Clemson (1995-96), Alabama (1997-2000) and Mississippi State (2004-07), has instilled a ball hawking defense that has picked up four turnovers in two games. In his final season with the Gamecocks, his defense ranked third nationally, allowing just 268 yards per game. That South Carolina defense ranked No. 13 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game) and second in pass defense (133 yards per game). 

 

The big statistic for the Tigers last weekend was keeping a offense very familiar to Malzahn to just nine points after surrendering 422 yards.  

 

"I think our defense is a work in progress like our offense," Malzahn said Tuesday. "We have a lot of new guys out there. We have a lot of inexperienced guys. You are going to make some mistakes out there, and we have, but when you find a way to keep them out of the end zone, I think that is big." 

 

The major problem for Johnson is what he called Monday "trash plays" where his players are in position to make a tackle for a loss or keep the play to minimum but a busted tackle creates a broken play for the offense.  

 

Auburn hasn't allowed a touchdown in the last six-plus quarters covering 19 defensive series.  

 

"I think the effort really is what kept us from giving up points because we really had some trash plays all over the field that could have created some situations for us," Johnson said. "For the most part, I thought we got good pressure on the quarterback, but we're letting him escape too much. In addition to that, we came out of coverage a couple of times when we needed to hold coverage on those scrambles and it created some of their explosive plays." 

 

MSU fans are very familiar with Johnson after seeing him coordinate defenses with the Bulldogs under head coach Sylvester Croom. In 2007, MSU was led by its defensive effort including a 10-3 victory in the Liberty Bowl over Central Florida.  

 

Johnson said Monday he's seen Mullen's spread-option scheme enough during his final two seasons at South Carolina to have a adequate idea of what MSU's philosophy is running and throwing.  

 

"In one year they were in the transition year between Relf and Tyler (Russell) and they were a little bit more of the Tebow offense at the start," Johnson said. "What they do now is throw it a little more but with their power game and counter game on the ground." 

 

Coaching the Auburn cornerbacks is a old friend of several members of this MSU staff in Melvin Smith. Smith left for the same position he had at MSU to join Malzahn's new staff at Auburn last Christmas Day. Smith, Mississippi State's cornerbacks coach from 2006-12,was a semifinalist in 2011 for the Frank Broyles Award, which goes to the nation's top assistant coach. He was part of a 2011 defense at MSU that intercepted 16 passes this season. Smith is working side by side with former MSU secondary coach Charlie Harbison.  

 

"I'm really looking forward to this opportunity to work for coach Malzahn and Auburn," Smith said in Auburn's university release. "When we discussed this job, Gus told me that he was looking for men of character and integrity who were excellent coaches. When I saw who he hired to his staff and having worked previously with Ellis (Johnson), Charlie (Harbison) and J.B. (Grimes), I knew that's exactly that was the type of men he was hiring. This is a tremendous opportunity for me and my family." 

 

Smith first worked at MSU for seven years (1995-2001) under head coach Jackie Sherrill and then came back to Starkville for a second time with the Bulldogs program in 2006 on Sylvester Croom's staff. Smith was retained by Dan Mullen, who replaced Croom following his forced resignation after the 2008 season. 

 

"Melvin is an outstanding secondary coach and is one of top recruiters in the Southeastern Conference," Auburn Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs said last Christmas Day. 

 

Despite being inexperienced in the front seven of the defense, Smith and Harbison are dealing with a secondary depth chart that includes two juniors and a senior. This experience includes 5-foot-9 Robenson Therezie, who leads the Tigers with two interceptions this season.  

 

"I think the effort really is what kept us from giving up points because we really had some trash plays all over the field that could have created some situations for us," Johnson said. "For the most part, I thought we got good pressure on the quarterback, but we're letting him escape too much. In addition to that, we came out of coverage a couple of times when we needed to hold coverage on those scrambles and it created some of their explosive plays." 

 

"They have given teams opportunities to score points and make big plays in their first two games," Koenning said. "I can't tell you when that is going to come in a game but we have to be ready for that opportunity." 

 

Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.