New Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn has hired former Southern Miss head coach Ellis Johnson as his new defensive coordinator, Malzahn announced Thursday afternoon.
The Opelika-Auburn News learned of the hire Thursday morning.
“Ellis is one of the top defensive minds in all of college football," Malzahn said in a news release. "He is very experienced and has tremendous success coaching in the Southeastern Conference. He is a man of integrity who will be a great ambassador for Auburn. We’re very pleased to have him join our staff and bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to our program.”
Reportedly, Florida State was also interested in Johnson after Mark Stoops left the Seminoles in late November to become head coach at Kentucky.
A Winsboro, S.C., native, Johnson, 60, led Southern Miss to an 0-12 record this past fall and was fired after one season with the program, but he has a long track record of success as a defensive coordinator in the SEC.
He previously was the defensive coordinator at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier from 2008-2011, and helped lead the Gamecocks’ defense against Malzahn’s offense in the 2010 SEC Championship Game.
South Carolina’s defense finished top 15 nationally in total defense during three of Johnson’s four seasons.
“I’m very fortunate for the opportunity to coach at Auburn and return to the Southeastern Conference, where there is so much tradition and history,” Johnson said in a news release. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gus Malzahn, both as a man and a coach, and I really look forward to working for him. Auburn has a wonderful family environment and is a great community, which is a blessing for me and my family. This is truly a home run for me. I can’t wait to get started and I’m ready to go to work.”
Malzahn released all assistants left from former Auburn coach Gene Chizik’s staff Wednesday, one day after being named head coach.
Johnson is Malzahn’s first hire at Auburn, and he will replace former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after he spent one year with the program.
Auburn owes more than $11 million in buyouts to last year’s staff, but athletics director Jay Jacobs said Tuesday during Malzahn's introductory press conference that it would not hinder Malzahn’s ability to hire whomever he believes is best.
"We continue to be fully committed to getting the best coaches we can," Jacobs said Tuesday night. "That is not going to change."
Johnson broke into the SEC as an Alabama linebackers coach from 1990-93, and he was the Tide’s defensive coordinator from 1997-2000.
Sixteen of Johnson’s 37 years of coaching have been spent in the SEC – eight at Alabama, four at Mississippi State and four at South Carolina.
Auburn’s defense has set program records for ineptitude the past two seasons. The Tigers’ 5,046 yards allowed last season were most in program history. Their 340 points allowed were second-most, behind only the 352 allowed in 2011.