A Firsthand Look at the X’s and O’s of Gus Malzahn’s Offense


Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is widely recognized as one of the best offensive minds in football. The Tigers have ridden his unique, run-heavy spread system to four ranked finishes in his five seasons as head coach. His system is run-based but disguises those basic run schemes through formation and pre-snap motions and shifts. Most of the passing game is predicated upon play action, speaking to defenses being committed to stopping the Auburn rushing attack. Here are four basic play designs from Auburn last season, along with their install sheets from Malzahn’s 2010 offensive playbook (when he was Auburn’s offensive coordinator).

Rushing Play – “Zin Saint”

One of Auburn’s favorite plays is the traditional “Buck Sweep,” a play in which both guards pull towards the edge to block for the running back. Malzahn has committed to running this play over the years and is able to run it from multiple formations to keep defenses honest. The main coaching points of the Buck Sweep start with the H-back, or what Malzahn calls the “FB.” His job is to “stalemate” the end man on the line of scrimmage and allow the pulling guards and running back to get outside of him. The play side tackle and center down block away from the play while the guards pull. The play side guard wants to kick the strongside linebacker, and the backside guard needs to seal the weakside linebacker. The “S,” which can be a TE or bigger bodied receiver, has the job of sealing the middle linebacker. The running back needs to continue laterally until he sees daylight, then wants to turn upfield and hit the crease in between the two guards.

Reverse – “Green Saint”

Naturally, on a sweep play, a reverse can be advantageous when the defense begins to over-pursue. In Gus Malzahn’s offense, the entire offensive line is taught to block just like Buck Sweep to force the defense to begin their pursuit. The backside tackle is taught to peel off and block the edge of where the reverse is going, while the backside receiver crack-blocks the safety to his side. The only other lead blocker is the quarterback, who is naturally carrying out his play fake in that direction. This play design is predicated upon the foundation of Buck Sweep and the defense having seen the play enough to begin flowing to the direction of the sweep, only to be caught off guard by the misdirection.

Screen – “Laser”

A common theme in Gus Malzahn’s offense is stretching the defense horizontally with wide receiver screens. A common one is throwing the screen to the backside wide receiver in a 3×1 set. Whenever the cornerback is playing far enough off of that backside receiver, this play call can get the ball into the hands of a playmaker in space. The specifics of the play include the play side tackle getting out to block the cornerback, as well as the center scraping to block the backside linebacker. The play involves a run fake to the running back and the backside guard pulling, once again to hold the linebackers from scraping over to the edge to make a play on the eventual screen pass.

Play-Action – “Little Rock 96”

A common play action pass that is based on either Buck or Jet Sweep involved two main routes: a corner from the play side receiver and a deep cross from the backside receiver. This play action pass usually involves extra players in protection to give the quarterback time to carry out a solid fake and the receivers to develop their routes and generate separation. A common protection that this play is run with is known as “Utah” or “Chief”, and is a seven-man protection to pick up extra blitzers and create double teams. Being able to run play action passing concepts off of multiple run looks allows an offense to run their favorite concepts with a variety of looks to keep the defense honest.

Malzahn does an excellent job of picking his spots to throw the ball and keeping his quarterback in comfortable scenarios. Continually operating ahead of the chains with a successful run game can open up multiple dimensions for a play-caller. Malzahn’s continued commitment to running the football and the success that his teams have had are directly tied together, as well as the efficiency his quarterbacks play with. The Buck Sweep and multiple looks that Auburn has designed off of it is a staple of their offense and a solid starting point when examining their playbook.