Power or finesse? Auburn answer starts up front

Dec. 29, 2013

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes says putting defenders on the ground is the key to Auburn’s offense (Todd Van Emst photo)

By Phillip Marshall

AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn’s running game has shredded some of the nation’s top defenses in the Tigers run to a matchup with No. 1 Florida State in the BCS National Championship. Alabama couldn’t stop it. Missouri couldn’t stop it. Georgia couldn’t stop it.

Auburn and first-year head coach Gus Malzahn have the most prolific running game in college football, averaging 335.7 yards per game. The Seminoles are confident they can stop it.

“Trickery,” Florida State defensive end/linebacker Christian Jones calls it.

Linebacker Telvin Smith goes even further. Auburn’s success on the ground, he says, has come because of poor play on the other side of the ball.

“I feel like it’s a lack of execution on other people’s ends,” Smith said. "That’s why we’re going hard in practice, making sure we prepare well.”

The underlying theme among Florida State players and college football analysts is that Auburn’s running game is all about sleight of hand orchestrated by quarterback Nick Marshall, tailback Tre Mason and a fleet of scatbacks.

At Auburn, the view is quite different. At Auburn, the running game is about a physical and talented offensive line led by center Reese Dismukes and left tackle Greg Robinson and complemented by bulldozing fullback Jay Prosch.

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes says that, while the misdirection and hurryup elements of the offense are important, the most important part is putting defenders on the ground.

“There are only five offensive linemen,” Grimes said. “We can’t block but five of them. The key to the whole thing is, those five guys we are assigned to block, we have to block them. Then you have a guy like Jay Prosch. I don’t know how anybody could say there is anything tricky about that dude. He has the power of being a blunt instrument. It’s not a velvet hammer, either. It’s truly a hammer.

“We take a lot of pride in being physical. Is there some trickeration in it? Yeah, but the physical part of it is still there.”

Malzahn, who created the offense as an Arkansas high school coach, has spent years disputing the notion that it’s about finesse. Without physicality, Malzahn says, none of the rest matters.

“It all starts up front with the offensive line and Jay Prosch,” Malzahn said. “You have to be very physical.”

Malzahn knew when he arrived at Auburn last December that getting physical and rebounding from the 3-9 disaster of 2012 would go hand in hand. He told his new staff early that getting back to Auburn’s football roots would be a priority in spring practice.

"That is what we harped on when we first got here," Malzahn said. "We felt like we needed to get our edge back, that physical, hard-nosed, blue-collar edge that starts up front. We are a run, play-action team. A lot of times you hear spread and you think pass to open up the run, but we run to open up the pass."

To help get that done, Malzahn hired Grimes, a veteran of 34 seasons who was been his offensive line at Arkansas State last season. It didn’t take long for Grimes to realize he had talented players, too talented to have gone 3-9. And then he realized that they were ready to move forward.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever inherited one I feel so strongly about as this group,” Grimes said. “It’s a great group of kids. They yearn to be coached. I didn’t know that coming in, but they really want to be coached and they want to get better. When you have a bunch of talented guys that listen and want to get better, that’s when you get good.”

Auburn’s offensive line got good, and blocked its way to the Southeastern Conference championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl for college football’s biggest show. Robinson, Dismukes, redshirt freshman guard Alex Kozan and junior guard Chad Slade have started every game. Sophomore right tackle Avery Young has started the last eight games. Sophomore Pat Miller started the first four.

For Grimes, who has won a dozen championships as a player and coach, it’s an opportunity that would have seemed far-fetched when preseason camp started in August.

“This is a great feeling for me,” Grimes said. “It’s a great feeling for my family, to be able to come to Auburn and hopefully make a difference.”


Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: