Who is Chad Morris? The former Arkansas HC might be the perfect fit to be Auburn's new OC
AUBURN — In some ways, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn stayed inside his circle when he hired Chad Morris to be the fourth offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of his tenure on Tuesday.
He and Morris have never coached together, but they go way back, all the way to their high school days in Arkansas and Texas, respectively. Malzahn considers Morris to be one of his closest friends in the industry.
But in another way, this is a step in a different direction for Malzahn. Each of his first three offensive coordinators at Auburn — Rhett Lashlee, Chip Lindsey and Kenny Dillingham (who left for the same job at Florida State on Monday) — fit a similar mold: Young, up-and-coming coaches who were getting their first opportunity to be a coordinator at the Power 5 level.
Lashlee was Malzahn's protege, having been with him since his days at Springdale High in Arkansas. Lindsey was an offensive analyst in 2013 before he returned as coordinator in 2017. Dillingham had never worked for Malzahn before, but he did work under Mike Norvell, who was a graduate assistant under Malzahn at Tulsa from 2007-08.
Morris, though, is Malzahn's peer. He's three years younger than his 54-year-old boss, but they have a lot of similar experiences. They were both ultra-successful high school coaches. They both began their careers as offensive coordinators, working their way up to high-profile Power 5 jobs before getting Group of 5 head coaching jobs. They have both been head coaches in the SEC West.
The most recent entry on Morris' resume is not flattering — two disappointing seasons as the head coach at Arkansas, where he went 4-18 overall; lost 14 consecutive SEC games; dropped nonconference games to Colorado State, North Texas, San Jose State and Western Kentucky; and got fired with two games left on the schedule. His offense ranked in the the bottom 25 both seasons, averaging fewer than 341 yards and 22 points per game.
But that's just one unsuccessful stop after a long list of very successful ones.
Here's a rundown of everything you need to know about Auburn's new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and why he might be the perfect fit for the job:
He once sought out Malzahn to learn his offense
Morris' first season at Stephenville High did not go particularly well. The Texas powerhouse had made the playoffs in 14 consecutive seasons dating back to 1989 — the first year of longtime coach Art Briles’ tenure there — but that streak ended in 2003 with a 6-4 campaign under Morris, who was coming off successful stints at Eustace, Elysian Fields and Bay City high schools.
The problem was an offense that averaged only 24 points per game. Morris tried to mesh the spread offense he ran at Bay City with the pass-heavy tendencies preferred by the holdovers from Briles' staff, and the result was "kind of a mess," according to assistant Tommy Dunn.
That offseason, Morris ran across a copy of "The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy," which is the book Malzahn wrote about his offense. His Shiloh Christian teams averaged 7,000 yards per season and won two straight titles in five seasons there. He led Springdale High to a state title in his second season in 2001.
So, Morris decided to fly to Arkansas and track him down. Malzahn was reluctant at first, but after some persistence, the future Auburn head coach invited Morris and his entire Stephenville staff to Springdale in January of 2004.
Dunn said they spent three days there, during which Malzahn was "100% forthcoming. He outlined the different formations he used, the plays he ran and how he disguised them.
Morris took that offense with him back to Stephenville. The result was a 10-1 season in 2014 and 13-1 season in 2005, with the only loss in 2005 coming to a Matt Stafford-led Highland Park team in the state semifinals. He finished his high school coaching career with a 169-38 record, which included back-to-back undefeated runs to state titles with Lake Travis High in 2008 and 2009.
He's the one who overhauled Clemson's offense
It wasn't all that long ago that Clemson wasn't a college football powerhouse. The Tigers went 6-7 in 2010, Dabo Swinney's second season since having the interim tag removed. The offense averaged a paltry 334.5 yards (88th nationally) and 24 points per game (86th).
That was Morris' first season in the college ranks. He was the offensive coordinator at Tulsa under head coach Todd Graham, who hired Malzahn to the same position three years earlier. The Golden Hurricane averaged 505.6 yards (fifth) and 41.4 points per game (sixth).
Swinney hired Morris to bring his hurry-up, spread offense to the ACC. Clemson improved immediately, jumping to 440.8 yards (26th) and 33.6 points per game (23rd) in 2011. The offense ranked top 10 in both categories over the next two seasons, averaging more than 508 yards and 40 points per game.
You have surely heard of some of the players who starred on those offenses — Tajh Boyd at quarterback; Andre Ellington, Roderick McDowell and Wayne Gallman at running back; and Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. That's a three-time 3,000-yard passer, three 1,000-yard rushers and four 1,000-yard receivers.
Clemson went 42-11 overall over those four seasons, winning two division titles and one ACC Championship. Morris left before Clemson truly rose to national prominence with national title game appearance in 2015 and championships in 2016 and 2018, but he helped lay the framework for the offense that got the Tigers there.
It's not the only struggling offense he's helped turn around, either — SMU had arguably the worst offense in college football in 2014, averaging just 269 yards and 11.1 points per game during a 1-11 season. By the end of Morris' tenure in 2017, it ranked 13th nationally averaging 478.5 yards and 12th averaging 37.8 points per game during a 7-6 campaign.
He has a strong record with quarterbacks and as a recruiter
Boyd completed 64.8% of his passes for 11,575 yards and 103 touchdowns (to 36 interceptions) and rushed 482 times for 1,132 yards and 25 touchdowns over three seasons playing for Morris from 2011-13, earning first-team All-ACC honors twice and being named the ACC Player of the Year in 2012.
Deshaun Watson played only one season under Morris, as a true freshman in 2014 (he completed 67.9% of his passes for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns before injuries ended his year), but the former Clemson offensive coordinator was the first one to offer him a scholarship when back when he was a freshman at Gainesville (Ga.) High. Watson went on to become an ACC Player of the Year, two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, national champion and first-round NFL Draft pick.
Morris also developed Texas and Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead and Texas and SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert at the high school level. G.J. Kinne completed 59.8% of his throws for 3,560 yards and 31 touchdowns at Tulsa in 2010, and Ben Hicks improved from 55.5% completion, 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first season playing for Morris at SMU to 58.5%, 3,569 yards and 33 touchdowns in the second.
Quarterback Chad Kelly and tight end Jordan Leggett were among the other prospects Morris helped land during his time at Clemson, where he recruited relatively the same area (Georgia, Florida) that he will at Auburn.
His passing concepts are considered to be more advanced than Malzahn's
The offenses that Morris and Malzahn run are very similar in a lot of ways, which dates back to those days they spent meeting together as high school coaches in Springdale, Arkansas. But as coaches, they're not exactly the same.
Morris has relied on the pass a lot more during his career than Malzahn, who has obviously been quite run-heavy. Clemson threw the ball on at least 45% of its plays during each of Morris' four seasons as offensive coordinator, ranking top-15 in passing S&P+ during the first three of those seasons (before Watson's injuries derailed things in the fourth). All four of those offenses averaged at least 34 pass attempts per game.
To compare: Malzahn's Auburn teams never passed the ball more than 39% percent of the time until the past two seasons, when that number has gone up to 46% and 42%, respectively. This past season was the first of Malzahn's tenure as head coach that the offense averaged more than 30 pass attempts per game (30.8). The Tigers ranked top 15 in passing S&P+ with Nick Marshall at quarterback in 2013 and 2014, but haven't ranked inside the top 20 since (and have ranked outside the top 50 twice).
Auburn has building blocks in place in the form of true freshman quarterback Bo Nix (57%, 2,366 yards, 15 touchdowns) and wide receivers Seth Williams (55 catches, 801 yards, eight touchdowns) and Anthony Schwartz (46 touches, 509 yards, three touchdowns). But its passing game could use some upgrades in terms of scheme and concepts, and Morris is the type of coach that can provide them.
He's someone who Malzahn might truly listen to
A common criticism of Malzahn is that he doesn't take much input from his staff. He's a head coach who likes to be in full control of the program, which bleeds into the way he runs the offense.
When Lashlee and Lindsey called the plays, people thought Malzahn might have been meddling during games. When he returned to calling the plays this season, people thought he might not be involving Dillingham and wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Kodi Burns enough in the process.
There seems a real chance that things will be different with Morris, though. He might not have signed on if they weren't — he's been a play-caller throughout his career, but it seems unlikely that Malzahn will relinquish those responsibilities again after finally taking them back this season.
And while the story of the two coaches' relationship starts with Morris seeking help from Malzahn, it has gone the other direction, too.
"In the past, we’ve shared ideas," Malzahn said before Auburn faced Arkansas last season. "He’s helped me, too."
That's why Morris might be the perfect fit for the job. He probably won't have quite the same impact on Auburn's offense as Joe Brady did on LSU's this season — there's a reason the former New Orleans Saints analyst is about to become one of the nation's highest-paid assistant coaches after just one season — but he doesn't need to.
Auburn's offense wasn't far off the mark in 2019. It had its share of bad games (Florida, LSU, Ole Miss and Georgia chief among them) but there were moments in each of those games where you could see that the Tigers were just one or two plays away from turning the outcome into something different. They finished the season ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring offense averaging 30.8 points per game against Power 5 competition despite those struggles.
Morris might be the coach that helps Malzahn's offense take a necessary step into the future.
"I’ve known Gus since the early 2000s and consider him a dear friend and someone that helped me get into the profession at the college level," Morris said in a statement on Tuesday. "I’ve admired the success he’s had at each of his stops and look forward to adding to the success that he, his staff and the players have built."