This was the perfect hire for Gus Malzahn.
That doesn’t mean it’s a great hire. Great hires are usually celebrated with big announcements. Auburn sent out a release at 10 p.m. on Sunday that Malzahn hired Kenny Dillingham as his new offensive coordinator. Deaths, births and alien invasions are the only things that should be announced at 10 p.m. on a Sunday. Everything else can wait.
Unless, of course, the new hire had to be done in secret. In that case, it was perfect timing.
Dillingham is 28 years old, which currently makes him the youngest offensive coordinator in the SEC. It wasn’t the sexiest hire of the college-football offseason, but there isn’t anything Malzahn can do at this point to please or appease anyone at Auburn.
Malzahn is in survival mode, and this hire is about doing things his way. Included in that bewitching news release on Sunday night — the third sentence, no less — was this important announcement: “Moving forward, Malzahn will return to offensive play calling duties for Auburn, as he did during his first three years as the Tigers’ head coach.”
If this 2019 season is Malzahn’s Little Bighorn, then he’s making his Last Stand with loyal assistants. If Malzahn is going out, then he’s going out on his own terms.
In that sense, this was the perfect hire.
Dillingham might be young, but he comes to Auburn well-versed in Malzahn’s offensive schemes. Dillingham was a first-year OC at Memphis this season for coach Mike Norvell, who was a graduate assistant for Malzahn during his Tulsa years. Auburn and Memphis run similar offenses, so Dillingham should make a smooth transition.
Make no mistake, though. This is Malzahn’s offense. Dillingham will develop quarterbacks and perhaps bring some fresh ideas and energy to the offense, but Malzahn will be doing things his way at Auburn from here on out.
Last season was a disaster for Malzahn, former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Auburn was 11th in the SEC in total offense (5.47 yards per play), and the Tigers were ninth in rushing offense (4.28 yards per play). At times, it felt like the offense’s best play was a screen pass to fullback Chandler Cox.
Lindsey left for Kansas, and Stidham is going to try his luck in the NFL Draft.
Malzahn will build his offense this spring around running back Boobee Whitlow, and hope that a quarterback emerges who can run his offense. Dillingham’s primary responsibility will be developing a starting quarterback in time for a brutal 2019 schedule. And by “developing a starting quarterback,” I mean finding one who doesn’t fumble the ball when asked to run.
Stidham was a constant fumble risk, and that liability limited Auburn’s playbook.
Dillingham’s offense at Memphis this season was third in the country in rushing yards per game (285.54), and tops in the nation among offenses that didn’t run the triple-option. Memphis running back Darrell Henderson, who was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, averaged 8.92 yards per carry on 214 attempts. No running back who carried the ball more than 200 times this season came anywhere close to that average.
Auburn has led the SEC twice in rushing yards in Malzahn’s six seasons as the team’s coach (2013, 328.29 ypg; 2016, 271.31 ypg), and that’s where Auburn’s coach would like to return.
That might be his only path to returning to Auburn at all after the 2019 season.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.