AUBURN — Gus Malzahn wasted no time making his first hire to the Auburn coaching staff.
Malzahn said he was going to take his time naming a staff during his introductory press conference on Tuesday but in less than two days, he interviewed and hired longtime SEC coordinator Ellis Johnson to be his defensive coordinator, making the formal announcement Thursday.
“Ellis is one of the top defensive minds in all of college football,” Malzahn said in a statement released by the university. “We’re very pleased to have him join our staff and bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to our program.”
Johnson was fired from Southern Miss after going 0-12 in his debut season as coach but he has a long resume of coaching SEC defenses.
Before last season, Johnson spent 2008-11 at South Carolina as defensive coordinator. In his final season, the Gamecocks’ defense ranked third nationally, allowing just 268 yards per game.
Under Johnson, South Carolina finished in the top 15 nationally in total defense three times. In addition to the 2011 mark of No. 4 overall, the USC defense ranked No. 13 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game) and second in pass defense (133 yards per game).
“This is truly a home run for me,” Johnson said in a statement. “I can’t wait to get started and I’m ready to go to work.”
He also served as defensive coordinator at Appalachian State (1984), Southern Miss (1988-89), Clemson (1995-96), Alabama (1997-2000) and Mississippi State (2004-07) as well as head coach at The Citadel (2001-03) and Gardner Webb (1983). Johnson has coached in four SEC Championship games and been part of one national title - as linebackers coach at Alabama in 1992.
The contract terms for Johnson were not yet available. Malzahn and Auburn agreed to terms on a five-year $11.5 million contract on Tuesday.
Johnson inherits a defense which allowed a school-record 420.5 yards per game (80th nationally), including a program-record 671 yards allowed against Texas A&M, and gave up an SEC-worst 197.6 rushing yards (96th nationally).
Under first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder, Auburn allowed 28.3 points per game this season, ranking 66th nationally and ninth in the SEC - barely improved from 2011’s program-worst 28.9 points.
VanGorder and eight other full-time assistant coaches who served under Gene Chizik were released by Malzahn on Wednesday.
The total buyout for Chizik and the outgoing staff is $11.09 million, though if any of them earn compensation during the remaining term of their contacts with Auburn it offsets against what the school owes.
On Tuesday, Malzahn said the Tigers defense would be “attacking.”
“These days, all these spread offenses and the things that they do, you’ve got to have a multiple defense,” Malzahn said. “We will be attacking in all areas. It will be fun for our fans and we will get this thing turned around.”
The Tigers were outscored 150-21 in their last three SEC games, including shutouts by Georgia and Alabama, and allowed those final three conference opponents to score touchdowns on 16 of their 18 first-half possessions.
AL.com reported Malzahn contacted Tennessee Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who played at Auburn from 1985-88, and served in the same position on Chizik’s original staff in 2009-10, about returning to the Plains.