Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2020 season and beyond.
No. 20: Zach Arnett, Mississippi State
No. 19: Larry Fedora, Baylor
No. 18: Justin Hamilton, Virginia Tech
No. 17: Sean Gleeson, Rutgers
No. 16: Adam Fuller, Florida State
No. 15: Matt Lubick, Nebraska
No. 14: Mike Bobo, South Carolina
No. 13: Rhett Lashlee, Miami
No. 12: Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce, Arizona State
No. 11: David Ballou and Matt Rhea, Alabama
No. 10: Scott Cochran, Georgia
No. 9: DJ Durkin, Ole Miss
No. 8: Joe Moorhead, Oregon
No. 7: Todd Orlando, USC
No. 6: Chris Ash, Texas
Who: Chad Morris, Auburn
Title: Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Previous stop: Arkansas head coach (2018-19)
Why he’s important: When high school buddies room together in college, the relationship typically goes one of two ways. You’ve likely witnessed this phenomenon, or perhaps experienced it yourself. Either the personalities of the roommates click together like pieces of a puzzle and the friendship elevates another plane — peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, twins born from separate wombs.
Or, the relationship goes in the opposite direction — quickly, and with a vengeance. One roommate’s a neat freak and the other’s a slob, or one’s a night owl and the other’s an early bird, and by Thanksgiving two guys (or gals) that were best friends when they lived apart find themselves sharing a living space in icy silence.
Such are the stakes for the Gus Malzahn-Chad Morris relationship at Auburn.
This arrangement in nearly two decades in the making. Depending on how deep in the legend you want to go, Malzahn saved Morris’s career, back when the former was a legend-in-the-making in northwest Arkansas and the former a Texas high school coach struggling to salvage his career.
“And since then, he and I have been friends. We’ve talked ball every year,” Morris said in 2018. “And I definitely consider him and his wife Kristi, Paula and I consider them very dear friends and have helped me get to where we are today.”
“I always knew he had something special about him,” Malzahn said of Morris before the pair met as opponents for the first time in 2018. “He’s a great person. He’s one of the good guys in our business. But he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. So we just kind of developed that relationship.”
Malzahn has been the trailblazer of the relationship. It was he who made the jump from high school head coach to college OC first, at Arkansas in 2006. Morris did the same at Tulsa in 2010, occupying the same chair at the same program where Malzahn coached in 2008-09. Malzahn became a head coach in 2012, Morris in 2015. Malzahn got an SEC job in 2013, Morris in 2018.
After close to 20 years as colleagues and confidents, Malzahn and Morris have turned their platonic relationship into a professional one.
“I’m super excited to have Chad Morris join our staff at Auburn,” Malzahn said upon announcing Morris’s hire back in December. “He’s a tremendous offensive mind who has had success with several top-ranked offenses during his time in the college ranks. I’ve known Chad for almost 20 years, and he is a tireless worker and a perfectionist. He is a great addition to our program.”
Morris wasn’t convinced he wanted to coach at all in 2020 after his two-and-done run at Arkansas, but the offer from his old buddy and a stern conversation with his son pulled him back in.
“When you go through (a firing), my focus was my family and what was right for the next step in our journey,” Morris said in December. “I was wanting to make sure that if I did get back in that it was going to be in the right situation. And here it is.”
After having a documented push-pull relationship with play-calling, Malzahn is handing the proverbial clipboard over to Morris.
“You don’t hire a guy like Chad Morris unless you’re going to do that,” Malzahn said in January.
On paper, this is absolutely the right call. Morris runs a similar scheme to Malzahn’s — that’s the genesis of this story, after all — and he made his name at the major college level as an excellent offensive coordinator and an elite identifier and developer of quarterbacks. In fact, one could argue Morris’s early identification of Deshaun Watson college football’s single biggest turning point of the last decade.
Bo Nix showed plenty of flashes in his true freshman season: throwing for 2,500 yards with 16 touchdowns against just six picks while running for seven more scores. In a season where Auburn faced six of the year-end AP Top 10 teams, Nix led Auburn to wins over No. 5 Oregon and No. 8 Alabama, with 1-score losses to No. 10 Minnesota, No. 4 Georgia and No. 1 LSU. In fact, no one played the 2019 national champions closer than Auburn.
With three years to mold Nix, it’s absolutely possible that the Malzahn and Morris pairing could lead Auburn to the College Football Playoff, if not in 2020 then quickly thereafter.
This is still the SEC West, and this is still Auburn. Alabama, Georgia and LSU are still on the schedule every year, and because of that Auburn will remain the ultimate pressure-cooker job in a pressure-cooker sport.
It’s easy to pat your buddy on the back and say nice things when your first game is nine months away. What’s the dynamic going to be like when Alabama’s up a touchdown and the Auburn offense just went three-and-out for the second straight drive?
We all hope that won’t end with Gus threatening to put a rat trap in between Chad’s knees, but it’s impossible to know for sure until the moment arrives.