The Razor's edge (cont.)
Posted: Thursday February 22, 2007 4:48PM; Updated: Thursday February 22, 2007 7:03PM
Malzahn, who Nutt insisted would have complete play-calling authority, ran a wide-open, hurry-up offense at Springdale. Upon his hiring, Nutt said he would rely on Malzahn's passing-game expertise to give the Razorbacks a more balanced attack. But Arkansas went 10-4 last season by doing what it's always done under Nutt: running the ball early and often. It was hard to argue with the results: One tailback, McFadden, ran for 1,647 yards, 14 touchdowns and finished second in the Heisman Trophy race, while another, Felix Jones, ran for 1,168 yards.
Still, the Hogs' lack of a passing game (they finished 108th nationally in passing offense) combined with Nutt's hiring of Lee convinced critics that Nutt used Malzahn solely as a pawn to sign a vaunted Springdale High trio and never actually intended to implement Malzahn's ideas, a charge Nutt vehemently denies. (Malzahn has remained mum about his short tenure at Arkansas and declined an interview request for this story.)
"It's hard to understand," said Nutt, who emphasized that Arkansas changed the entire passing-game terminology of its playbook to mirror what Malzahn used at Springdale. "I thought we worked very well together; I thought Gus did a very nice job. The thing is, we had Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis and a strong offensive line. We knew we were going to win some games with them, and Gus added in some nice things [in the passing game].
"But I thought our quarterback play and our receiver play could improve. So when another one of our coaches [QB coach Alex Wood] was being interviewed elsewhere [Wood ended up staying], I thought bringing in David Lee, who took [Cowboys QB] Tony Romo to the Pro Bowl, would really help our passing game, and I brought this to the attention of Gus."
More dicey is the issue of Mustain, who is still enrolled at the school. You may recall reading stories last December about the Springdale parents meeting with Broyles after the SEC championship game. Since that time, they've been portrayed as little league-type parents who presumably whined because their sons weren't getting the ball enough.
According to multiple accounts of the meeting, however, the parents voiced concerns over several aspects of the program (academics, curfew rules, etc.) that had not played out the way they'd been assured during the recruitment process. Most notably, the parents felt Malzahn was not being allowed to run the type of offense for which their sons had been recruited. Broyles reportedly responded that "experts" had told him Malzahn's spread offense would never work in the SEC. (Never mind that Florida won the SEC and national titles last season running a similar system.) Asked later about the meeting, Broyles said mockingly of the parents, "You know what they wanted to know about? Why their tickets were on the 40-yard line." (According to multiple accounts, player tickets did come up, but they weren't the crux of the discussion.)
More troubling details have emerged, however, about the treatment Mustain endured during his short tenure as a Razorback. The freshman started eight straight games at quarterback -- all of them victories -- completing 52.3 percent of his passes for 894 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions before losing his job to sophomore Casey Dick after throwing an interception on his opening snap against South Carolina. Nutt told the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas he'd been contemplating pulling Mustain for some time, citing a "concentration problem" in practice. Dick played the rest of the season, which ended in three straight losses, but was no more effective than the freshman (49.2 percent, 991 yards, nine TDs, six INTs).
According to multiple accounts, Mustain sensed he'd fallen out of favor with Nutt as early as the season's fifth game at Auburn. Multiple staff members had expressed disdain toward the Springdale contingent, in particular Malzahn, whom one assistant reportedly referred to derisively as "high school." (In his interview last week, Nutt said, "I never saw that at all.") Shortly thereafter, Nutt became aware of a then-forthcoming book about Springdale's 2005 title season that included critical comments Mustain made about Nutt during his senior year of high school. (Mustain said at the time Arkansas would have a better chance of signing him if Nutt wasn't the coach.) Nutt insists the comments "didn't have anything to do with" Mustain's benching but does feel they contributed to his poor practices.
"You could tell two weeks prior to the South Carolina game that something was really bothering him," said Nutt. "What happened was, [news of] that book came out. There was a lot of pressure on him because he knew it was coming and a lot of the stuff in there was derogatory to me. I went to him before the South Carolina game and said, 'Listen, Gus told me what's bothering you. I don't care what's in the book. I'm not worried about that, I'm worried about you being the best you can be.' I said, 'Forget about it, let's play.'"
On Dec. 7, shortly after the SEC championship game loss to Florida, Mustain received a particularly hateful e-mail from Arkansas booster Teresa Prewett, a Little Rock physical therapist who once had Nutt's brother, Danny, as a patient and is a friend of the family. "It was awful," Nutt said of the e-mail. The vile three-paragraph diatribe, which began "Hello Mr. Interception King," called the quarterback a gay slur, referred to Malzahn as the player's "lover" and continually repeated the phrase "did I mention that I want you to transfer?"
Around the same time, Prewett sent a similar, longer rant to longtime Arkansas Democrat Gazette columnist Wally Hall, assailing Mustain, Malzahn and the Springdale contingent and copied Houston Nutt's wife, Diana. Diana Nutt forwarded the message to at least one business associate in Springdale along with a note that said, "the Gus and Springdale section are quite funny."
The Democrat-Gazette reported last week that Nutt formally reprimanded Prewett in January over the e-mail sent to Mustain, including revoking her sideline passes to games. But this punishment only occurred after Mustain's mother, Beck Campbell, informed the campus chancellor about the e-mail. Meanwhile, the day after Prewett's e-mail -- which she later said was prompted by reading about Mustain's book comments -- two Arkansas senior defensive players, linebacker Sam Olajubutu and defensive tackle Keith Jackson, instigated a players-only meeting in which they lambasted Mustain over the same comments. Interestingly, Prewett's e-mail -- which was reportedly forwarded to other individuals connected to the program -- included a line about wishing Mustain would be subjected to "a private meeting with the offensive and defensive linemen -- I think I'd even throw [Olajubutu] in there." All parties insist there was no prior knowledge of the players' meeting.
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