Malzahn set to make debut at Arkansas State
The last time Gus Malzahn stalked the sidelines as a head coach, he led Springdale (Ark.) High to a state championship win.
Much has changed for Malzahn since the end of that dream 2005 season. His reputation as an offensive guru has spread from Arkansas across the Southeastern Conference and beyond. He has made stops as offensive coordinator at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn. He famously helped guide Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and the Tigers to the 2010 national championship with a win over Oregon.
Malzahn will see the Ducks again on Saturday when he makes his collegiate head coaching for Arkansas State on the road. It's a position Malzahn could only dream of when he left his secure position as a high school coach nearly seven years ago, one he finally reached when he was hired by the Red Wolves last December.
The wins and losses now once again fall squarely on Malzahn's shoulders, a fact he's well aware of while trying to improve a program that won last season's Sun Belt Conference championship.
''I think any time you do something new, there's going to be a learning curve,'' Malzahn said. ''But the fact that I have been a head coach before, just not at this level, will definitely help with that.''
Malzahn's philosophy is no secret. His book, written while still coaching in high school, is titled ''Hurry Up, No Huddle.'' His offenses, for the most part, have stayed true to that in college. Except for a tension-filled season with former Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt, Malzahn's teams have embraced the up-tempo game and that won't change with the Red Wolves.
Arkansas State ran the spread offense under former coach Hugh Freeze last season, but the players were not ready for their first spring and preseason camp under Malzahn.
''I think I speak for the team when I say last year was fast, but this is extremely fast,'' quarterback Ryan Aplin said. ''Not only in games, but for practice also.''
What Malzahn has also brought with him to the Red Wolves is familiarity. He worked with receivers coach Casey Woods while at Auburn and running backs coach Eli Drinkwitz with both the Tigers and dating back to their time together at Springdale High.
Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have a relationship dating to Malzahn's pre-Springdale High days, when Lashlee was his quarterback at the tiny northwest Arkansas private school Shiloh Christian. The two worked together at Arkansas and Auburn, and Lashlee has seen just about everything the detail-oriented Malzahn has to offer - except when it comes to his ever-changing playbook.
''He's adapted over time and his offense has evolved,'' Lashlee said. ''He's done a really good job of changing either what he has to or changing for the better, but also keeping his core philosophy and the identity of his offense.
''Way back when, when I was playing for him, a lot of those principles are still what he uses today in our offense. That said, if you were to look at the offense as a whole, it's different than when I played.''
Malzahn's first offseason as a college head coach has already served as a learning curve. He took a chance on accepting troubled transfer Michael Dyer from Auburn but had to kick the running back off the team last month after learning a state trooper had found marijuana and a gun during a traffic stop.
Malzahn has also suspended one player for the season and dismissed another over the past week - all aspects of the job that differ greatly from his high school experience.
''That's part of the deal, being a head coach at this level,'' Malzahn said. ''Everything is public and the decisions you make are public. That's just part of the job of getting your program to that level where people care about it and are interested in it.''
On the field, Malzahn will battle a tradition of futility at Arkansas State despite last season's success. The Red Wolves were 10-3 last season, earning an invite to the GoDaddy.com Bowl, but they were 4-8 in each of the two seasons before that and hadn't had a 10-win season before last year since 1986.
In Malzahn's corner, however, is Aplin - last season's Sun Belt Player of the Year who threw for 3,588 yards and accounted for 29 touchdowns (19 passing, 10 rushing). The senior isn't about to let last year become a one-season wonder.
''We've been at the bottom, so we know what it feels like,'' Aplin said. ''Now we've tasted what it feels like to be on top, and that's the only taste we want to have for the rest of the time.''
Malzahn's goal this season is for the Red Wolves to return to a bowl game. That journey includes difficult nonconference road trips to Nebraska and this week's visit to Oregon, where coach Chip Kelly's high-octane offense figures to trump even Malzahn's need for speed.
Just don't tell Arkansas State that.
''A lot of people are probably doubting us and saying we're going to get killed and whatnot, but that's just fuel to our fire,'' Aplin said. ''We're going to go out there and give them hell and do what we do best, up-tempo, and hopefully put a shock to them.''