AUBURN — After Arkansas fired Chad Morris as head coach Nov. 10 and before Auburn hired him as offensive coordinator a month later, he missed the game. He missed going to the facility, working with staff and interacting with players.
A serendipitous set of circumstances unfolded to get him back in the game. Memphis coach Mike Norvell took the head coaching job at Florida State. Kenny Dillingham, who had been Norvell’s protégé for five years before taking a job at Auburn last season, followed him to Tallahassee.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn needed a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Morris got the call.
“Yeah, you have no idea how strange that is,” Morris said Thursday in his first interview since being hired Dec. 10.
He was looking for the perfect fit, and it found him.
“We’ve always talked about it, for years. You know, I’ve known Coach since early, early 2000s” Morris said. “I wouldn’t be standing where I am today in college football without Coach Malzahn.
“It goes back to our time in high school, and from that year, ever since, we would always talk football and really get specific, and even sharing staffs when I was a coordinator and he was a coordinator, bringing our guys together. And then to be in the same room with him, I’m excited about learning, and again, continuing to grow and bringing value, and bringing some things that we do.”
The full story of how he first met Malzahn would “probably take an hour to tell, at a minimum,” Morris said, but the gist is this — his Stephenville (Texas) High School missed the playoffs for the first time in 15 years in his first season as head coach in 2003, and an offense that averaged only 24 points a game was the culprit. As he looked for solutions, he came across Malzahn’s book: “The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy.”
“He was on the cutting edge, and he still is, so that really intrigued me,” Morris said of Malzahn, who was coaching at Springdale (Ark.) High at the time. “I’m an out-of-the-box thinker. I love numbers. I majored in math. I minored in statistics. Those things intrigued me. When you can think outside the box and you have to have answers, that’s what I’m about.
“A friend of a friend of a friend got me in touch with Coach, and it took me about two or three weeks of watching him and what he did and was doing to see if that was something I wanted to step out and step over a line knowing that another bad year, you may not have a job coaching high school football. Going and observing him for a few weeks and watching games, I remember sitting in a restaurant in an airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with our staff and I said, ‘If we’re willing to do this now, we all have to be all-in on it because it’s a little bit different.’ And we did.”
Morris has run the base of that offense ever since, to two state championships at Texas’ Lake Travis High and through stops at Tulsa (2010), Clemson (2011-14), SMU (2015-17) and Arkansas (2018-19). But the pass concepts he uses have advanced over the years, specifically during his time at Clemson, when quarterback Tajh Boyd put together three straight 3,000-yard seasons throwing to an elite group of receivers that included Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant.
"It’s really just kind of evolved and maybe went down this branch just a little but more, and we’ve recruited in that regard," Morris said. "Sometimes you have to develop with what you have."
Malzahn’s teams have always been more run heavy, but sophomore wide receiver Seth Williams believes the offense “will be more expanded” next season with Morris on board.
“Just draw up more schemes and things like that. So just find new concepts to go off of and just change it up for us,” said Williams, who led the Tigers with 55 catches for 801 yards and eight touchdowns this season. “So it won't be just one person targeted, two people targeted — it's everybody.”
The quarterback making those throws will be rising sophomore Bo Nix, who completed 57 percent of his passes for 2,366 yards and 15 touchdowns in his debut season. He said that he met with Malzahn after Dillingham left for Florida State. The head coach told him that he planned to bring Morris in, and the quarterback said he was “looking forward to it.”
Morris has worked with some good quarterbacks during his coaching career — Boyd, Jevan Snead, Garrett Gilbert and Deshaun Watson lead among them — and he is already impressed with his newest pupil.
“When you look at Bo, he’s a winner. That’s all he knows,” Morris said. “Being able to observe him on the other side of the field this year and watching his skill set and watching him develop this year from Game 1 to when we played him (Oct. 19 at Arkansas), you just saw progress each week. Now being here just the short five days that I’ve been around, he can’t get enough film work with me, he can’t come in the office enough.
"He’s picking my brain and wanting to know what I see. That’s exciting, because you know you have a quarterback that wants to be elite and is going to do what it takes to be elite.”
Right now, Morris is still in the process of getting familiar with Auburn’s players on offense, the terminology they use and how the team operates. He’s in the offensive meetings, but he’s not running them yet — just observing. For the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Minnesota, the plan is for Morris to assist with the game-planning process and be up in the coach’s booth for the game, which is the same thing Dillingham did for Music City Bowl last year.
As for what the dynamic between him and Malzahn will look like as far as calling the plays on offense next season, Morris echoed the head coach’s message: “Our focus right now is getting through this bowl game,” he said. “Coach and I will sit down and go through all that in the weeks and months to come, but I’m excited about the direction.”