Malzahn's impact as offensive trendsetter felt far beyond Auburn
Gus Malzahn helped bring the no-huddle and Wildcat to the college and pro ranks
Four seasons ago, Malzahn made the jump from the high school ranks to the SEC
Now, he's transformed Auburn's offense from 104th nationally in 2008 to No. 3
From his home in Austin, Texas, Chad Morris watches every Auburn game, just as he did for Tulsa the past two seasons and Arkansas the year before that.
Morris, the coach at reigning state champion Lake Travis High, had no prior affiliation to any of those schools. But like many in his profession, he's a fan of the Tigers' offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn.
"It's really neat to watch how a guy who was a high school coach just a few years ago has changed the trends of college football, and even into the NFL," said Morris.
Indeed, in the four seasons since then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt took the unusual step of plucking the coach of nearby Springdale High to run his SEC offense, the soft-spoken, bespectacled 43-year-old Malzahn has become one of the sport's most innovative offensive minds, not just in the college ranks, but in all of football.
The now-ubiquitous Wildcat formation first entered the national conscience in 2006 when Malzahn installed it at Arkansas using running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones; now, it's a staple of countless college and NFL playbooks. And that wasn't the only trend Malzahn helped popularize. While still at Springdale, he wrote the book -- literally -- on the increasingly popular hurry-up offense.
After producing the nation's top-ranked offense at Tulsa in 2007 and 2008, Malzahn has returned to the SEC, where he's engineered another remarkable transformation. Using virtually the same cast of players that slogged through a disastrous 5-7 season last year, Auburn is off to a 4-0 start thanks largely to an offense that has improved from 104th in the country ... to No. 3 (526.3 yards per game).
On Saturday, Auburn -- which has beaten Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Ball State -- visits 2-2 Tennessee, where new coach Lane Kiffin said his father, renowned defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, "spent a lot of time this offseason looking at Gus's offense, tying to break it down, because it is so different than anything we've seen.
"He does things I don't think anyone else has the guts to do. When you look at it, it's just wild and crazy, like when you're little and draw plays up in the dirt."
Two staples mark Malzahn's no-huddle offense: unconventional formations (unbalanced lines, pistol running backs and constant motion) and a frenetic pace ("We're trying to run a two-minute offense the entire game," said Malzahn). At its core, however, Auburn's attack centers on the most traditional of concepts: straight-ahead running.
First-year Tigers coach Gene Chizik said he was looking for someone that was "innovative and did things that gave defenses a problem" when he went looking for an offensive coordinator last winter. However Chizik, who served as Auburn's defensive coordinator during the Carnell Williams-Ronnie Brown era, said his most important criteria was "a running game that's physical, back to the old-school Auburn way."
Most wouldn't peg Tulsa as the logical place to go looking for a power-running guru, seeing as the Golden Hurricane produced a 5,000-yard passer (Paul Smith) in '07 and a 4,000-yard passer (David Johnson) last season. However, a closer look reveals Tulsa had more rushing attempts last season (674) than any team besides option-based Air Force and Navy. In Malzahn's attack, the threat of the run sets up play-action opportunities.
"I told our kids when we first got here, we're going to be a two-back, run-first team, with an emphasis on taking downfield shots," said Malzahn.
So far, the Tigers have lived up to his vision. Led by the tailback tandem of senior Ben Tate and true freshman Onterio McCalebb, Auburn ranks fifth nationally in rushing offense (261.3 yards per game), while senior quarterback Chris Todd (1,012 yards, 11 touchdowns, one interception) is No. 6 in pass efficiency. Kodi Burns, the Tigers' starting quarterback for much of last season, has produced five touchdowns as the Wildcat specialist.
The no-huddle Tigers are also averaging nearly 75 snaps per game -- though that's not up to Malzahn's standard of 80.
"We need to get a little bit faster than what we are," he said. "You have a chance to mentally and physically wear down your opponent if you run fast. It's a different kind of 'in-shape.' There's a football shape and basketball shape, and we're someone with a little bit of both."
Auburn is hardly alone in running the hurry-up, an increasingly common staple of college offenses. Chizik spent the past four seasons in the Big 12 (two as Texas's defensive coordinator, two as Iowa State's head coach), where nearly every successful team operates without a huddle. Oklahoma, in particular, raised eyebrows with its breakneck speed during last year's run to the BCS Championship Game.
But Malzahn's history with the no-huddle dates farther back than most. He first installed it in 1997 while the coach at Arkansas' Shiloh Christian High, where the team shattered state and national offensive records en route to consecutive state titles in 1998 and 1999. In 2001, Malzahn took the offense to Springdale, where he won another title in 2005.
Chris Brown, author of the Xs and Os blog SmartFootball.com, said Malzahn uses the hurry-up for more than just wearing down opponents.
"Whether a run play is successful is usually determined within a second of the snap, and whether the blocking was effective typically hinges on the leverage and angles blockers do or don't have," said Brown. "Because Malzahn combines a lot of formations and motions with varying strengths, angles, or numbers advantages with a very quick pace, defenders often wind up out of position. And small mistakes can equal big gains for the offense."
When Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman decided last winter to switch to the hurry-up, he consulted Morris, the aforementioned Texas high school coach whose team holds the longest current winning streak (35 games) in the state. Morris, an A&M alum, was happy to oblige, but admits he learned the hurry-up from his friend Malzahn, whom he first visited at Springdale in 2004 and still trades tips with on a weekly basis.
Much like Auburn, the Aggies' offense has thus far exhibited a complete transformation, improving from No. 78 in total offense in '08 to No. 1 through three games this season (574.3 yards per game).
"[The hurry-up] is something that Gus was onto before anyone else," said Morris. "It's changed the way defensive coordinators are playing defense. It's a trend-setter. You're seeing colleges catch on to it, much like the 'Wildcat' that Gus himself was running at Springdale."
Malzahn is reticent to take credit for the Wildcat, which has roots in the century-old single wing formation. Its more recent origins remain a source of much debate -- Hugh Wyatt, a double-wing coach in the Pacific Northwest, claims he first dubbed his direct-snap package "the Wildcat" (named after his school's mascot) in a series of videos and coaching journals in 1998; others believe it originated at Kansas State (also the Wildcats), where Bill Snyder used a similar formation as far back as the mid-'90s.
Whatever the source, there's no denying Malzahn's role in the Wildcat's recent explosion. Having run the formation (an unbalanced line with both tackles and a guard on one side and a tight end on the other) and its two main plays (the "QB Power" run and the "Speed Sweep") at Springdale with quarterback Mitch Mustain and receiver Damian Williams (both now at USC), Malzahn brought up the idea to Arkansas' staff upon his arrival. However, at the suggestion of running backs coach Danny Nutt (Houston's brother), he employed McFadden at the quarterback spot and Jones as the motion receiver who would take the fly-sweep.
"We were just trying to get [McFadden and Jones] on the field at same time," said Malzahn. "It was the same formation [Arkansas had previously used] and done a toss sweep out of it with the regular QB. We used the same formation, but with McFadden at QB running the power and speed sweep."
David Lee replaced Malzahn as offensive coordinator the following season but continued running the Wildcat. He brought it with him last season to the Miami Dolphins, which unveiled the package (with Ronnie Brown at quarterback) in a game against the New England Patriots last October. A year later, everyone from the Philadelphia Eagles to Notre Dame is running a similar package.
Though the Wildcat became Malzahn's biggest legacy from his lone season in Fayetteville (which included a 10-game winning streak and a SEC West title), at the time he unwittingly found himself at the center of controversy. Many believed Nutt only hired Malzahn to help land four blue-chip recruits from his Springdale team (including Mustain and Williams). According to various accounts, Nutt junked Malzahn's preferred offense after the first game, a 50-14 loss to USC, and in December, a group of disgruntled parents for the "Springdale Four" secretly met with athletic director Frank Broyles to voice their displeasure.
After the season, Nutt hired Dallas Cowboys assistant Lee to serve as "co-offensive coordinator," at which point Malzahn left for Tulsa and Mustain (who lost his starting job after nine games) and Williams transferred. Malzahn, however, has never spoken publicly about the details of the Arkansas soap opera and remains grateful to Nutt for allowing him entree to the college level.
"Things have happened extremely quickly," said Malzahn. "It's a true blessing for me to coach at this level and experience some of the things I have."
The only potential downside to Malzahn's budding acclaim is that soon, some of his own tactical advantages may wear off.
"One of the things that hurts you when you're innovative is everyone's copying you," said SmartFootball's Brown. "It's only a matter of time before everyone's running the Gus Malzahn hurry-up."
Traditionally, coaches have looked to the pros as the ultimate source of innovation. This time, they're following the lead of a recent high school coach.
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