LITTLE ROCK — Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s last encounter with the Gus Malzahn offense is irrelevant.
About the only things the Auburn offense of 2011 has in common with the 2013 version are the mastermind and the moniker, Malzahn and hurry-up. Pruitt was Alabama’s secondary coach when Auburn’s starting quarterback was Clint Moseley, who was no threat to run, and Tre Mason carried all of three times for 10 yards in a 28-point loss. Auburn totaled 140 yards — 78 rushing and 62 passing.
Pruitt was still in Tuscaloosa last year when the offense, revamped by order of Gene Chizik, made 174 yards in a 49-point loss.
This time around, quarterback Nick Marshall can outrun many cornerbacks and Mason has had 154 carries in the last five games. Completing his first year in Tallahassee, Pruitt is charged with slowing both and their cohorts who knocked out 841 yards rushing against Alabama and Missouri.
In town Tuesday as one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, Pruitt offered the proper respect for Auburn but did not sound like a man in awe. Instead, he is eager to begin dissecting Auburn by personnel and formation. Pruitt dismissed 42-14 in 2011 and remembered Auburn’s 2010 comeback with Cam Newton at the controls. That year, he said, resembles this year.
“Lots of the same type of runs that had success then,” he said in a telephone interview that began with him calling breakfast with former Arkansas coach Frank Broyles the highlight of the trip.
Against Auburn, defenses wind up chasing ghosts because of Marshall’s superb fakes, motion for a speed sweep and myriad formations, including one in the SEC championship game where the Tigers convinced Missouri to cover Sammie Coates even though the Tigers’ top receiver was ineligible because of the alignment.
Prepared to ask about such distractions, Pruitt beat me to the punch.
“A lot of window dressing going on back there,” he said. “You have to know your keys at all times and be disciplined. At the end of the day, you have to sink your teeth in there and strike some blockers.”
On the plane to Little Rock, Pruitt watched game tape of Auburn 59, Missouri 42. Another showing was scheduled for his return trip.
“The big thing is how physical they are,” he said. “That starts with Gus. Everywhere he’s ever been, all the way back to high school, people think spread, throw it around, and he knows how to do that, but he likes to run the ball and believes in it.”
Wrapping up the weekend of conference championship games, former coach Lou Holtz opined that assignment football is a must against Auburn.
“I would agree with that,” Pruitt said. “A lot has to do with your eyes.”
For starters, Marshall is never a spectator. After handing off the ball, he takes off around the end.
“When you carry out your fakes like that, the little tenths of a second it holds that ‘backer, you’re able to gash them,” Marshall said recently.
Whether it’s Mason or Marshall or one of Auburn’s other ball carriers, the Seminoles must make one-on-one tackles like LSU’s Craig Loston did late in the second quarter against Arkansas. After the Razorbacks recovered a fumble, Arkansas had second-and-10 from the 17 when Brandon Allen rolled right and Hunter Henry slipped out to the left. When Henry caught the ball with only Loston to beat, I thought the tight end would score. Instead, Loston made a textbook tackle at the 5 and Arkansas settled for a field goal and 17-14.
Ironically, Pruitt said initial preparation for the Jan. 6 BCS title game would not involve Auburn. Instead, bowl practice will begin with tackling drills.
“The first thing that shows up in bowl games is the lack of tackling,” he said.
Against Auburn’s speed, whiffs result in points.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.