How Auburn, Gus Malzahn got their offensive groove back

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Nix settling in as Auburn's signal-caller (1:20)

True freshman QB Bo Nix talks with ESPN's Heather Dinich about his increasing comfort level running the Tigers' offense. (1:20)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Auburn receiver Seth Williams knew it was coming. He had heard it all week from coach Gus Malzahn.

In the third quarter of Saturday's win at Texas A&M, it was second-and-goal when Williams was lined up on the left side, one-on-one against cornerback Myles Jones. Williams took off, turned and cut in a few steps, where true freshman quarterback Bo Nix found him for the 9-yard touchdown pass, and Williams hung on to the ball as Jones tackled him for a 21-3 lead.

"It was a good playcall by Malzahn," Williams said. "He called it up. He knew. He said all week it was going to be a touchdown and it happened. He called it up right."

"I like it a lot when they work," Malzahn said, "I'll tell you that."

That Malzahn "called it up" at all is part of the difference in Auburn's offense and the Tigers' 4-0 start.

Three years after relinquishing playcalling duties, something he called "a mistake" this past summer, Malzahn is back at it, doing what he truly enjoys for the first time since 2016, when he turned it over to then-offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and then again to Chip Lindsey the following offseason. Both former assistants have since moved on, giving Malzahn an opportunity to reassess his role after the offense regressed during last year's 7-5 regular-season finish.

The timing of his decision coincided with another summer filled with chatter questioning his job security -- noise he was well aware of but also embraced. Now, after an undefeated start that includes arguably the two best wins of the season, Malzahn has regained control of the offense, and possibly his future.

"Now that he's the one calling the plays, he's really passionate," senior right guard Mike Horton said. "He's really fired up about what he does. Before he was kind of trying to stay behind the scenes and let the other coaches do their jobs. But he's really passionate. He's really involved in everything we do."

On Saturday against the Aggies, with a methodical, in-your-face running game, a reverse that went 57 yards for a touchdown and a flea-flicker that should have worked for the second straight weekend, it's looking like Malzahn's offense again. It's part of his coaching identity -- shifts, motions, different formations, trick plays and a fast-paced philosophy that matches the blazing speed of his talented receivers -- and it was on display against the Aggies.

"That's what I love to do," he said.

What was different about Saturday, though, was that Malzahn and Nix finally had a healthy cast of characters to work with, as both Williams (shoulder) and Anthony Schwartz (hand) returned from injuries. The offensive line is also more mature this year, and Nix doesn't look like a true freshman -- unfazed by the unforgiving crowd of more than 100,000 at Kyle Field -- and learning each week from his mistakes.

Malzahn said having a true freshman starting quarterback impacts what plays he calls each week but added that Nix is "not your normal freshman."

"We knew that when we recruited him," Malzahn said. "One thing I like is the moment ain't too great for him. Not even close. He's real tough on himself, but he articulates on the sideline what he sees, what he likes.

"You just gotta get a feel for the game and you gotta get a feel for what he's comfortable with," Malzahn said. "I'm learning him as he goes. He's learning me as we go. That's why I think we have a chance to improve as we move forward."

Malzahn said there are more packages for backup quarterback Joey Gatewood, and he wants to get Schwartz the ball more on the outside to take advantage of his speed.

"We're just a little bit away from clicking on all cylinders as a whole," Nix said.

The question is if the Tigers can hit their stride when it matters most -- against LSU, Georgia and Alabama. Every game in October is on the road. The Tigers are confident heading into Saturday's home game against Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) and deservedly so after beating Oregon and Texas A&M. ESPN's Football Power Index gives Auburn a 78.1% chance to win -- but less than a 50% chance to beat Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama.

"Nobody expects us to win," Horton said. "Even this game we weren't favored to win, but nobody gives us a chance, so we're just going to continue to prove people wrong."

There's a confidence that comes with the success and a renewed enthusiasm that even the young players say have trickled down from Malzahn. Schwartz, whose speed is jaw-dropping, said that before he even turned the corner Saturday, he knew he was going to score.

"I'm like, 'OK, I'm ready,'" Schwartz said. "Then he called it. I'm like, 'All right, touchdown. Get the band ready.'

"I enjoy the offense because it's fast -- attack them and then beat 'em deep," Schwartz said. "He's a very animated coach. You want to see that because when he gets happy, it's pretty fun to watch. It's fun for everyone when he's happy."

Williams said he can tell Malzahn "is a different person when he's calling plays."

"Just knowing how he won championships with his offense, how he came from Arkansas, how he ran with Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, all these quarterbacks and everything, how he can score and put points up," Williams said. "I love how he calls plays."

Saturday was a glimpse into an offense that with time can grow from good to great. Following the win, Malzahn and his key playmakers weren't just talking about what they did against Texas A&M, they were equally if not more focused on what they're capable of doing.

"We're finally getting to a point where I think we can get our timing down in the passing game, and I think that'll help us moving forward too," Malzahn said. "When we get all of our pieces to the puzzle, I think we have a chance to be a good offense.

"The future is going to be fun."

At the very least, it's in his hands now.