On the Beat: Kevin Steele has been a job-saver for Gus Malzahn at Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. — When Tennessee hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as its new head coach last week, some Auburn football fans celebrated.

It wasn’t because the Tigers’ biggest rival lost a key assistant coach. Instead, it was because one of their own top assistants — Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele — wasn’t returning to his alma mater after interviewing for the job.

A lot can change in two years. When Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hired Steele before the 2016 season to replace the outgoing Will Muschamp, reactions were lukewarm at best from fans and media members alike.

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Steele was coming off a decent year as LSU’s defensive coordinator. But his rough ending as Clemson’s defensive coordinator in 2011 — the Tigers gave up 70 in his final game — was still fresh in a lot of minds.

It’s been an entirely different story on the Plains. Steele is arguably the most popular coach on campus after turning Auburn’s defense from team weakness to one of the best in college football over two seasons:

STAT 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Yds/play 5.96 (95th) 5.67 (76th) 5.37 (47th) 5.07 (24th) 4.58 (9th)
Pts/game 24.7 (47th) 26.4 (63rd) 26.0 (54th) 17.1 (7th) 17.3 (10th)
Yds/pass 7.3 (75th) 7.1 (69th) 6.3 (21st) 6.4 (17th) 5.9 (7th)
Yds/rush 4.60 (86th) 4.45 (78th) 4.54 (80th) 3.74 (25th) 3.55 (25th)
Sacks 32 (31st) 21 (94th) 19 (103rd) 25 (71st) 36 (13th)
TFL 90 (23rd) 82 (42nd) 53 (122nd) 83 (41st) 80 (41st)
3rd down% 33.00 (13th) 35.75 (26th) 44.95 (110th) 34.83 (23rd) 32.21 (19th)
1sts/game 20.6 (58th) 22.1 (92nd) 22.7 (101st) 19.2 (33rd) 16.4 (16th)

For Malzahn, the hire of Steele has been a job-saver. In the last two seasons, Auburn’s biggest letdowns have come on the offensive side of the ball. Without Steele’s defense keeping scores low, there’s no telling where this program would be after it struggled on offense late in 2016 and early in 2017.

Steele was a deserved finalist this season for the Broyles Award, which goes to the top assistant coach in college football. Malzahn is a Broyles winner, taking home the honor in 2010 as Auburn’s offensive coordinator.

And Steele has been Auburn’s best assistant coach hire since Malzahn himself.

In 2009, Gene Chizik hired Malzahn to bring his famed hurry-up, no-huddle offense from Tulsa to Auburn. The Tigers were coming off the end of the Tommy Tuberville era, which was known for its lower-scoring, ball-control offense that tended to be too conservative.

(Tuberville hired Air Raid coach Tony Franklin in 2008 to change the scheme, but he fired him halfway through the season.)

Malzahn’s offense broke school records at Auburn in 2009 with JUCO transfer quarterback Chris Todd. A year later, Cam Newton arrived and ran away with both the Heisman Trophy and the national championship.

Malzahn’s stint as Auburn’s offensive coordinator and return to become its head coach in 2013 took the Tigers from old-school offensively to a program known for its dynamic spread offense.

Steele did the same for the defensive side of the ball. He led the Tigers back to elite marks on defense, the ones fans remember when coordinators such as Muschamp and Chizik served under Tuberville.

The transformation was a simple one, in truth. Steele kept much of the defense Muschamp started to install in his one year as coordinator in 2015. Muschamp brought improvement in a few areas to the defense, but it still struggled in a lot of ways.

Steele picked up where he left off, even going so far as not changing the basic terminology of the defense. He focused on playing simple but stifling football, one that provided plenty of pressure with four defensive linemen and relied on man coverage on the outside.

It was an instant success in the 2016 opener against Clemson — a low-scoring loss to the eventual national champion. Steele built on that in his second season, as the Tigers put up even better numbers without top-tier defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams.

And now Steele appears set for another year at Auburn, where he could return as many as eight starters and every one of his defensive linemen. Top-tier defense is now the demand instead of a dream.

If Auburn can get another year of it from Steele in 2018, the Tigers could prove to be one of the biggest winners of what has been a free-for-all silly season in the SEC.

The post On the Beat: Kevin Steele has been a job-saver for Gus Malzahn at Auburn appeared first on SEC Country.

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