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March 8, 2013

Malzahn's past at Auburn a head start on future

MORE: Taggart brings new energy to USF

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Gus Malzahn was gone 358 days. That's it.

The length of time between Malzahn's departure as Auburn's offensive coordinator for Arkansas State and his return as the Tigers' head coach was less than one calendar year.

After Auburn fired Gene Chizik on Nov. 25, it was not long before Malzahn was back on Dec. 4. He feels that his time with the program -- and the limited time away -- gives him an advantage over many other first-year head coaches.

"It has been great to be back here," Malzahn said. "In many respects, it feels like I never left."

The part that feels new is the group of assistant coaches surrounding Malzahn. His first day on the job, Malzahn released the entire staff -- many of whom he had worked alongside when he was an assistant.

"I wanted it to be a new day for Auburn football," Malzahn said. "That was part of my plan, and we brought in a new staff quickly so that they could get out and recruit.

"I came back being familiar with most of the personnel on the offensive side of the ball, but there were some challenges defensively. Because I was the offensive coordinator and didn't know too much about those guys, my first task was to hire my defensive staff so they could get their recruiting strategy and move forward."

Malzahn hired former Southern Miss head coach Ellis Johnson as his defensive coordinator. He surrounded Johnson with Rodney Garner, Charlie Harbison and Melvin Smith.

He brought Rhett Lashlee with him from Arkansas State to be the offensive coordinator. He added Rich Biscaccia, Dameyune Craig, J.B. Grimes and Tim Horton to that side of the ball.

Garner, the recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach, told AuburnSports.com that the group jelled immediately.

"The staff didn't take time to bond; that was instantaneous," Garner said. "We didn't have to clear that hurdle. We had to come in, identify who we were going to go after, guys we wanted a part of this program for the right reasons, and I'm not going to say it was easy, but it was enjoyable to work the hours it took, grind it out like it took. I thought everyone here was passionate about getting Auburn back to the status where it belongs."

The group did a better job than most anyone would have predicted.

After two months of uncertainty and conjecture about the class collapsing, Malzahn capped a fantastic close to the class of 2013. At the top of the class, the staff kept a five-star in Carl Lawson and added another in Montravius Adams. The coups did not stop there. Four-star defensive end Elijah Daniel flipped from Ole Miss, while four-star offensive guard Deon Mix jumped the Mississippi State ship to join Auburn. The class also added Mackenro Alexander to the secondary. Alexander is listed as a three-star prospect but has a major chip on his shoulder because of it and could become a nasty force for the program.

The class finished No. 8 in the Rivals.com team rankings.

Garner said the finish was tremendous.

"I was excited," he said. "I think this staff did a great job of working together and selling Auburn. I don't think Auburn is a hard sell. Even when they are going through tough times, Auburn is special. If we get the chance to get a young man on campus, we've always got a chance because this is a special place."

Malzahn is happy with the group. He said he thinks it can return a missing element to the program.

"We need to get our edge back," he said. "That is really the No. 1 thing for us. Playing good, hard, physical football will help us in all we do, and that includes recruiting."

Malzahn does not see a need for much change in recruiting even as the staff has to battle without nationally respected recruiters Trooper Taylor, Curtis Luper, Tommy Thigpen and Mike Pelton.

"We have a strategy," Malzahn said. "For us, it starts in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. We have ties in Arkansas as well, but our main area of focus will be close to campus like it always has been."

This year will be a challenge for the staff because there are numerous positions of need. Linebacker, running back and offensive line have been troubling positions.

The new staff was unable to keep the nation's top linebacker in 2013, Reuben Foster, committed -- even after he got an Auburn tattoo on his forearm -- and it did not land Trey Johnson at the position. Running back was moderately recruited, but few believe the program has the name-brand back it likes to rely on.

The offensive line is a major question because no one is sure what Auburn has there. Avery Young is supposed to be good, but he got hurt last year. Jordan Diamond is supposed to be good, but he was hurt all of last year. Greg Robinson was merely OK last year. Shon Coleman was a five-star guy, but he missed a full year while undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. The program didn't target an offensive lineman in 2013 and will have to do something this year.

Malzahn is not allowed to comment on specific players, but he said he is aware of the roster situation.

"We will recruit the positions of need first and foremost," he said. "We will be looking for guys who fit our scheme.

"I feel like I have a good handle on what we have here and what we need. Familiarity with the roster helps a lot with that."

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