Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn (shown here), new co-offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham and co-offensive coordinator/passing game coordinator Kodi Burns believe the adjustments they've made and cohesion they have can help them improve Auburn's offense this fall. [MARK HUMPHREY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

AUBURN — There have been times since Kenny Dillingham came to Auburn in December that head coach Gus Malzahn has walked into his office at around 10:30 at night, randomly, and told the offensive coordinator about a play he’d like to install.

And it wouldn’t be a play that the “offensive genius,” as Dillingham described him, just designed or ran last season; it would be a play he hadn’t used in years, and maybe not ever with the Tigers.

“Something about, ‘1999 or 2011, I ran this versus this team on the right hash with a minute and 37 seconds left. And I think it'd be great this week,’” Dillingham said. “So that's fun for me, to be around a guy who has such a great memory and knows what he wants to do.”

Those two coaches make a fascinating pair. The 53-year-old Malzahn is going into his seventh season as Auburn’s head coach. He’s laid back and famously guarded. His go-to food is Mexican, though he’s been trying to eat healthier. Dillingham, on the other hand, is only 29 years old. This will be just his second season as a college offensive coordinator and first in the SEC. He’s a ball of energy. He’s a big chicken tenders guy and still looking for recommendations around Auburn, if you have any.

Together, along with Kodi Burns — who added passing game coordinator to his responsibilities as co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach this offseason — they’re responsible for getting a Tigers offense that ranked outside the top half of the SEC in every major category back on track this season, which starts Saturday against Oregon in Arlington, Texas.

The working relationship between them will be crucial, especially with a true freshman quarterback in Bo Nix leading what is an otherwise experienced offense.

“These two guys right there I lean on a lot,” Malzahn said. “They are both very young, energetic, smart guys and understand how we think.”

Malzahn admits now that he made a mistake when he listened to the “advice” given to him early during the 2016 season that told him to relinquish offensive play-calling duties — his bread and butter — to then-offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and, over the better part of the next two seasons, Chip Lindsey. The head coach believes that was proven when he guided Auburn to 586 yards and eight offensive touchdowns in a Music City Bowl rout of Purdue.

Before that game, when Malzahn made the decision that he was going to go back to his comfort zone after a trying 2018 season, the head coach set out to find an offensive coordinator that satisfied three major criteria — good at coaching quarterbacks, understands Auburn’s system and OK with not calling the plays. Once friend and former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze decided to take the head job at Liberty and Bobby Bentley decided to stay at South Carolina, Dillingham became the choice.

And, based on that criteria, the 29-year-old is a perfect fit. The two quarterbacks he worked with over three seasons at Memphis, Riley Ferguson (2016-17) and Brady White (2018), averaged 3,750 yards on 63 percent passing. Dillingham spent those seasons working under head coach Mike Norvell, who worked with Malzahn at Tulsa from 2007-08. Norvell calls the plays for Memphis, so Dillingham is familiar with the arrangement.

“There's a lot of times that he already knows, and a lot of times, he'll give me reminders, too. And you'll go, 'Oh, OK. Yeah.' So it's really been refreshing for our quarterbacks,” Malzahn said. “His hairs are on fire. He doesn't have any bad days with his energy and just everything that goes with it. He's a young guy, but he also has experience with what we do. That's been his foundation. You know, in the bowl game, he was up in the booth and was my right-hand guy. It felt really natural.”

That will be Dillingham’s role during the season, too: Malzahn’s eyes from above the field in the coaching booth, from which he’ll be able to offer a different perspective from what the head coach sees on the field, same way he did for Norvell.

Dillingham described his biggest responsibility on game days as adjustments — “Saying, hey, they're doing this, they're doing this. They're spiking the front here, they're playing this on first down, playing this on second down. These are our built-in answers. This is what they're doing the pace plays, this is what they're doing when we get inside the red zone this week. Just anything that is different from our plan, being able to communicate it in the same language that myself and Coach Malzahn can make an adjustment quickly.”

So just because Dillingham doesn’t call the plays doesn’t mean he won’t be a significant part of what the Tigers do on Saturdays. Besides, he said, coaches call plays a maximum of 15 days per year; it’s what they do during all the other days that makes them successful.

Dillingham will be integral to that process, which includes, in his words, “creating game plans and presenting ideas and thoughts of what we want to do on base downs on a certain formations, what things give defenses problems” to Malzahn. Burns will, too — his promotion to passing game coordinator was announced at the same time as Dillingham’s hire and Malzahn’s return to play-calling.

It’s not just a ceremonial title, either. Dillingham describes himself as a run-first coach, same way Malzahn would. Burns provides balance — he played both quarterback and wide receiver under Malzahn during his playing career for the Tigers from 2007-10 (you may remember he caught a touchdown pass from Cam Newton the last time Auburn played Oregon in the 2010 BCS National Championship game), returned in 2016 to coach wide receivers, and spends parts of his summers studying what NFL teams do in the passing game.

“We added a few passing concepts, maybe some run concepts, and really just brought some ideas to the table,” Burns said of what he's done in his new role. “I think we've gotten better at some new things, a few new things that we're going to try to bring out this year. But the balance is great. I mean, I know Coach Malzahn like the back of my hand, and he knows me like the back of his hand. Just that work environment has been really, really good, and it's been really positive.”

It didn’t always seem that way last season, though Burns said there weren’t any awkward or uncomfortable moments. There were times when it seemed that the play seemed to take too long to get from Lindsey in the booth down to quarterback Jarrett Stidham on the field, and when the offensive coordinator left soon after the end of the regular season, it was initially to take the same job at Kansas before he ultimately received a promotion to be the head coach at Troy. There were also times where Malzahn was visibly frustrated with the offense.

“When you're passionate about something, to kind of sit back and allow other people to do it, there's always going to be a little bit of — he wants to do certain things,” Burns said. “But he's back at home calling plays, he's back in his comfort zone. He doesn't have to second-guess a play call or think about, 'Was that the right call?' He's making the call now.”

But he’s not doing it alone.

“All three of us working together and being on the same page — that’s all it boils down to. Plays are great, but belief is what matters,” Dillingham said.

“End of the day, we both want the same goal.”

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