Why Bryan Harsin's Auburn football offense might differ from what you'd expect | Toppmeyer
Nix took a snap from under center – yes, that’s still allowed – executed a play-action fake and completed a pass to tight end Tyler Fromm.
In truth, those plays at Boise State were the desserts of Harsin’s offense that features a sturdy diet of meat and potatoes.
“Everyone thinks it’s just trick plays and stuff, and that’s not really it at all,” said B.J. Rains, the Boise State beat writer for the Idaho Press who covered Harsin’s seven-year tenure as coach of the Broncos.
“It’s a pretty balanced offense. For all the big numbers (posted by Boise State quarterbacks like) Kellen Moore and Brett Rypien, they had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he was at Boise State as the head coach” before the truncated 2020 season.
That’s good news for Tank Bigsby and Shaun Shivers, who could emerge as the SEC’s top running back duo after Harsin was hired as Auburn’s coach in December to replace Gus Malzahn. The Tigers also returned their entire starting offensive line.
College football’s path to a national championship in today’s era calls for an elite passing attack, and whether Nix progresses as a third-year starter under Harsin will be the most influential factor in Auburn’s record this season.
But the value of a 1,000-yard rusher shouldn’t be overlooked. Auburn last had one of those in 2017, when Kerryon Johnson led the SEC with 1,391 yards. That also happens to be the last time Auburn reached 10 victories.
Jay Ajayi topped 1,800 yards in Harsin’s first season as Boise State’s coach and then became a fifth-round NFL Draft pick. Subsequently, Jeremy McNichols and then Alexander Mattison each had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons under Harsin before getting drafted.
Most SEC coaches express a preference to spread carries among two, or ideally three, running backs. But Harsin didn’t shy away from relying heavily on a feature back at Boise State.
In all but one season during his tenure, Boise State’s leading rusher had more than twice as many carries as its second-leading rusher. Three times under Harsin, Boise State had a running back top 300 carries in a season.
That probably isn’t a sustainable number in the SEC, which hasn’t had a running back reach 300 carries in a season since Alabama’s Derrick Henry and LSU’s Leonard Fournette hit that mark in 2015.
But look for Bigsby to increase last season’s average of 13.8 carries per game.
Presnap shifts and motions are a staple of Harsin’s offense, and tight ends play an important role.
“You’ll see some sort of shift or motion on pretty much every play,” Rains said. “Sometimes, two or three different motions, where they’ll motion into one formation and then motion again into something completely different. Their whole goal is to find a mismatch with the presnap movement.”
Throughout Harsin’s tenure, 53.8% of Boise State’s plays were runs. That includes quarterback scrambles and sacks, which count as rushing attempts. Such a percentage would have ranked eighth in the SEC last season for percentage of run plays.
Kentucky was the SEC’s most run-oriented offense in 2020, with 64.2% of its plays staying on the ground, while Mississippi State had the most pass-oriented offense, running on just 26.8% of plays.
Auburn rushed on 52% of its plays last season, marking its lowest percentage of run plays throughout Malzahn’s eight-year tenure.
Harsin’s Boise State offense tilted toward the shotgun but included an ample dose of under-center plays, and Auburn will embrace a similar mix. That’s in contrast to Malzahn, whose spread offense operated almost exclusively from the shotgun.
“Somebody told me one time, 'You’ve got to let them know you’re at the ballpark,’” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said this spring. “And sometimes, there’s not a better way to do that than to get under center and run power.”
There’s also value in a coach knowing what he has and what he doesn’t.
Auburn has what should be one of the SEC’s best running attacks, and Harsin’s track record suggests he’ll embrace that.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.