Rhett Lashlee has emerged as one of the rising stars in college coaching. The 30-year-old Auburn offensive coordinator helped turn the Tigers from a bottom of the SEC West team into one that played for the BCS National Title while breaking in a new QB. The Tigers led the nation in rushing (336 yards per game); were 11th in total offense (505 yards per game) and 12th in scoring (40 ppg). I caught up with the former Arkansas quarterback to discuss, among other things, how the Tigers are looking to follow up the staff's spectacular first season at Auburn; QB Nick Marshall's development and a key point of emphasis for the offense this spring.
Q: How has spring practice gone so far?
Lashlee: It's going good. We only got three days in and only one day of pads so far, but it's been good.
Q: What has been the staff's emphasis this spring to build off of what you did in that first year there?
Lashlee: It's a lot of things. Obviously, we look back from last year to all the things we need to improve on, and we've looked at those things over the past two months. We're emphasizing a bunch of things with regards to that.
The biggest thing, with it being Year Two -- and it's refreshing to see, is they understand the tempo, they understand the expectations. They understand how we want them to practice. For most of them, with the exception of our four mid-year guys, they understand the scheme. So, we're not coaching those things as much as we're trying to perfect the plays, perfect the technique, perfect the fundamentals. We're really more trying to get better at our craft that suits our personnel as opposed to coaching the effort and coaching the intensity, coaching the tempo. We're light years ahead of where we were this time last year.
Q: What are those things that you guys think you've learned about the team coming out of last year?
Lashlee: The one thing we learned is that we've got guys that are tough, that'll play hard and will stick together. With the majority of those guys coming back, that is a good character trait to have. We know what our guys are really good at. We know what they may be deficient at and need to work on, or maybe what we shouldn't ask certain guys to do. Obviously with Nick (Marshall), we have a good feel for Nick now. He's much more comfortable in the system. Now, it just becomes perfecting the base foundation of the system with him and so we're trying to take the foundation that fits his strengths. It's kinda that way with every position.
Q: What has stood out to you with the things you've seen from him so far?
Lashlee: A couple of things: You can tell that he's comfortable with the offense now. We have the ability to run the whole offense. He's not unsure of where to go with the football or anything like that. The other thing is that now he's comfortable in the system -- last year you'd call a play and he'd just worry about himself and what he had to do and it was, 'How do I do my job?' -- now he can worry about other people as far as leadership goes.
He's been much more vocal the first three days than he was at any point last year. And he was one of our leaders last year, but it really was more by example 'cause our guys believed in him. Now if our level of practice dips, he's one of the guys who gets on them about picking the tempo up before our coaches have to do it or he's encouraging guys. Now, he's even going to receivers and saying, 'Hey, I need you to do this on this route.' He's taken more ownership in things.
Q: Did he have the flexibility last year to check out of plays at the line?
Lashlee: No. We tried to just put him in good situations and let him go play. As the year went on, we would give him more responsibilities and things like that. We didn't ask him to do too much of that.
Q: Will you guys let him do that this year since he's more comfortable in the offense?
Lashlee: Yeah. But because of our tempo, we don't check a ton. There's definitely things that we didn't ask him to do last year, that we will ask him to do this year, without a doubt. I think he'll be able to handle that and it'll make us better.
Q: I know D'haquille Williams, your big receiver came in from JC with a big reputation. How has he looked?
Lashlee: He's looked good. Our receivers as a whole have looked good. I sound like a broken record now about guys being more comfortable. We have guys making plays now and it's more than one, which is nice. We have a couple of young guys who were kinda in the mix last year that I think will step up.
In the passing game, when you have the same quarterback and the same receivers, the more you can continually get on the same page, with the route adjustments and knowing where the guy is gonna be, the better.
D'haquille has fit in well so far. He's gonna be an added value. He's an all-around really solid player. He's a great route-runner. He's probably about 6-2 1/2 and about 225. He's strong. He attacks the ball like you want a receiver to do. I think he's confident. He's one of the four guys that we have that this isn't carry over. This is brand new to him. The speed we go, and the tempo we play at, that's an adjustment, especially at his position.
Q: So at 225, he's a big, physical kid?
Lashlee: Yeah, he's a big, physical kid. Not a blazer but runs really well. From getting off press-coverage to attacking the football, he's very physical.
Q: Sounds like he should help a lot especially in the Red Zone...
Lashlee: I would think. That is an area of emphasis for us this year. We were really good in the Red Zone last year, but a lot of it was running the football, and we hope to always be that way because it's a lot easier to run it in. But we know we're going to have to make plays throwing the football down inside the 10, inside the 15, so that it a point of emphasis for us this spring.
Q: Everyone knows about Nick's arm strength, but it seemed like he became a lot more accurate as the season went on. Was that more about him getting more comfortable within the system and more confident or did you guys also tweak some things with him mechanically?
Lashlee: I think it was a couple of things. One, he definitely got more comfortable. You look at some plays we ran in the middle of the year and towards the end of the year we ran the same ones and he was a lot sharper. We did work on his footwork, the best you can in-season, and I think that got better. This is a big point of emphasis for him, and he knows it, is to get his lower body consistent. He's got a strong arm when he throws on balance and when his feet are right, he's pretty accurate. It's just a lot of his inaccurate throws didn't necessarily have to do with his arm talent, it was more either getting comfortable in the play or just getting his lower body fundamentals consistent.
Q: You think that stems from him knowing his arm was so strong that his body got used to him just relying on being mostly all arm?
Lashlee: I think a little bit of that. In the past in high school and junior college, he was just asked to make plays and he did a great job of that. He probably got away with a lot of throws because of his arm talent. We ask him to throw on rhythm and on time in the pocket more than maybe he's done in the past, and that is an adjustment. And he's now gotta do it against a lot of high-caliber plays in the SEC so you gotta be perfect.
We saw how he improved during the year and that's why we're so optimistic he's gonna make some great leaps.
Q: Tre Mason had a fantastic year for you guys last season, but now he's moving on to the NFL. Has anyone stepped up at the running back spot so far?
Lashlee: Yeah, we feel really good about Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. We felt good about those guys last year. They both ran for over 600 yards. They both have that professional mindset and attitude to practice that you want. They're always on time. They're always eager to learn. They just do everything right.
Cameron is a good downhill runner. Corey's got that great change-of-pace speed, and now he's got more size to run between the tackles than he did last year. Peyton Barber is a young man we redshirted last year who is going to get a good opportunity this spring. He's been really good. In the first three days you can really tell that redshirt year helped him. Things have really slowed down for him. He's got a chance to make an impact as well.
He's more of your every-down back, more of a downhill guy like Cameron Artis-Payne, Ben Tate--that style of back, but he also has some good change-of-direction and has good feet and has no problem bouncing it and running on the perimeter. He has good speed for his size. I think he fits in really well for what we do.
Q: How much do you think your guys are motivated by hearing some people try and say some of what happened last year was 'flukish' and that it was some sort of one-year wonder and they want to prove these guys are here to stay on top of the SEC?
Lashlee: I think they're motivated by that. I think they're motivated by being so close and not finishing. You feel like you had an opportunity to do something more special than people thought you could do and we didn't just finish it the way we wanted. There's the motivation in that in and of itself.
I don't get too caught up in "flukish" and I don't know that our guys do. It take some breaks to get to the national championship game. Doesn't matter who you are. Obviously, the catch at Georgia is the one everybody thinks about, but after that, I think we had some breaks go our way, but I think we earned a lot of what we got.
They're more motivated than anything about, when you get to that stage--on the biggest stage that there is and you experience it and you're so close and you feel it, and then don't put your best foot forward and end it the way you could have, I think that's the only motivation that our guys really need to get back and try to seal the deal.
Q: You guys at Auburn are in such a unique place because of the rivalry with Alabama and the intensity of it and how much it gets talked about publicly all year around. How do you approach that your guys may hear more or are exposed to more of that stuff coming at them from maybe the other side of things or people not trying to give them credit?
Lashlee: You try to block it out the best you can, but there's the reality to it. At this time last year, we were telling them, 'We have to get our edge back.' We feel like did that at Auburn. Now we have to keep our edge. Keep that hard-nosed, physical, winning mentality that Auburn is known for.
Like you said, our guys know that it is different. The target is now on us, as opposed to us sneaking up on people. There are a lot of people out there wanting to see, 'Are they a one-hit wonder? Were these guys for real or are they gonna have sustained success?'
Our guys know it is just part of it, that in this state it's college football 365. Our guys are very exposed to it and it's just something they're gonna have to get used to.
Q: Did you guys as coaches go out and visit any other places or check out some other things scheme-related?
Lashlee: We're pretty comfortable with what we do. We just have such a good concept of it. Coach (Malzahn) has done it for so long. I've been in it for so long. We now have some coaches that are starting to gain years in our system. We're like everybody else. We're gonna try to fix what we didn't do well and tweak things. We did not go anywhere. There are some select staffs out there that we have some past relationships and some similarities with that we may bounce some things off of.
We're trying to get to where we execute better than anyone else. Looking at our championship game, we played a great team, and a great defense. There were areas if we just executed to the level that we needed to, we'd have been fine. But in critical moments, we might not have executed to the level that we needed to, and that's why we weren't able to close the deal.
Q: As an offensive coach in such a fast-tempo offense how much attention did you pay to all the talk about the defensive substitution rule proposal?
Lashlee: We really let that play out and let coach Malzahn handle that. I think he handled it very well. I feel good about what happened and where we're at.