It could have been viewed as a panic move or too little too late when first-year Auburn coach Bryan Harsin fired wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams four games into this season.
Auburn had just survived a 34-24 win over 1-2 Georgia State, a four-touchdown underdog that led 24-12 in the third quarter at Auburn on Sept. 25.
Another Auburn head football coach made a similar move in 2008 when Tommy Tuberville fired offensive coordinator Tony Franklin six games into the season after hiring him just months before. The No. 13 Tigers were coming off a 14-13 loss at No. 19 Vanderbilt to fall to 4-2.
That day, Vanderbilt broke a 13-game losing streak to Auburn, which equaled its lowest point total in the series since that last loss to the Commodores: 25-13 on Dec. 31, 1955, in the Gator Bowl. Auburn quarterbacks Chris Todd and Kodi Burns threw for 98 yards. Auburn had played small ball in two of its previous wins, 14-12 over Tennessee and 3-2 at Mississippi State.
“It hurts. It hurts bad,” Tuberville said after practice on Wednesday Oct. 8, 2008 when he announced the firing. “It’s a difficult thing to do in the middle of the season. My responsibility is to this football team, and it always will be. Tony’s a good person. When it all comes down to it, it’s about production. I didn’t think over the last few weeks we were making any progress.”
Tuberville promoted tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to interim offensive coordinator and play caller.
“In order for us to continue to progress like we need to, that change needed to be made and needed to be made now,” Harsin said of his move 13 years later. “Cornelius Williams, first of all, he’s a good man and did a very good job. It’s not ideal (timing). I understand that. We’ve got to get better. I felt we needed to make a change. I feel like it can help us and for the future as we continue to build the program. ”
Harsin replaced Williams with offensive analyst Eric Kiesau, who was Harsin’s offensive coordinator at Boise State, Harsin’s previous head coaching job.
The moves did not work well for Tuberville, who was in his ninth season in 2008. Auburn’s offense did not improve much, if at all, as it lost five of its next six, including 17-7 at Ole Miss, 17-13 to Georgia and 36-0 at Alabama. Auburn’s only win was 37-20 over Tennessee-Martin as it finished 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the SEC. And Tuberville was fired.
So far, Harsin’s changes appear to be working much better. The No. 18 Tigers (5-2, 2-1 SEC) are 2-1 since the move entering their home game against No. 10 Ole Miss (6-1, 3-1 SEC) at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN. Auburn is a 2.5-point favorite by FanDuel.
Auburn beat LSU 24-19 in its first outing after the Georgia State game, and quarterback Bo Nix completed 23 of 44 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Demetris Robertson, meanwhile, caught a season-high six passes for 60 yards.
After a 34-10 loss at then-No. 2 Georgia, Auburn beat Arkansas 38-23 before being open last week. Against the Razorbacks, Nix had his best passing game yet, hitting 21 of 26 for a season-high 292 yards and two touchdowns, including a 71-yard score to Robertson. Wide receiver Shedrick Jackson caught five passes for 61 yards, which was his best game since the opening game 60-10 win over Akron.
“I think we made strides,” Harsin said Wednesday. “Coach Kiesau brings a lot to the table from an experience standpoint of coaching that (receiver) position, from a knowledge standpoint and being able to sit in the room and provide value as an assistant coach for the coordinators and for what we’re trying to do offensively.”
Before Boise State, Kiesau previously was an offensive coordinator at Washington, Fresno State and Colorado.
“Still got a long ways to go, but there has been improvement there,” Harsin said. “I give coach Kiesau all the credit. Through a quarter of the season there, he’s able to step in and kind of get things the way that he needs it in that room in order to maximize the potential of those guys at wide receiver.”
So far so good, Auburn senior offensive guard Brandon Council says of the entire coaching staff, which replaced that of head coach Gus Malzahn, who was at Auburn for eight seasons.
“They know how to win,” he said. “They know what type of work we need to put in to get where we need to be, and that’s a championship caliber program.”
Malzahn, who is now Central Florida’s coach, took Auburn to a 12-2 mark in his first season in 2013-14 and the BCS national championship game, where it lost to Florida State. Since then, though, he averaged five losses a season in six of his remaining seven years.
“It’s just night and day,” Council said. “And I think if they keep doing what they’re doing right now, this program’s going to be unstoppable.”