by Michael Bradley
Once Robert Cooper started his impression of Gus Malzahn during Auburn’s “Rookie Night” show late last summer, Clint Moseley couldn’t control himself any longer. He didn’t merely laugh at the dead-on Malzahn impersonation. He howled. He yelled.
“I wasn’t just laughing, I was screaming,” says Moseley, a sophomore with designs on the Tigers’ quarterback job this fall. “That’s the only way I could show how funny it was.”
There’s a good chance that after spending a couple weeks trying to digest Malzahn’s complicated offense and satisfy his constant attention to detail that Moseley experienced a cathartic experience once Cooper — a tight end no longer with the team — began to imitate Malzahn’s rapid-fire speech, dry sense of humor and peculiar mannerisms. The shouting was just part of the therapy.
“(His offense) is a lot for a quarterback,” Moseley says. “He stresses everybody on offense a lot, but especially the quarterback. It’s very, very demoralizing to be stressed like that. When you’re a freshman, you know nothing, but once you understand the offense, you can see why he’s stressing you.”
Malzahn is a perfectionist with the stated goal of directing the nation’s No. 1 offense every season. To do that, he must force his players to adopt many of the same qualities that have made him so successful and allowed him to become one of the nation’s most accomplished offensive coordinators. “Gus is meticulous in everything he does,” says Pitt head coach Todd Graham, for whom Malzahn worked while at Tulsa from 2006-08. “He’s very highly organized.”
Malzahn’s methods clearly work. Auburn won the national title last season, even though the Tigers finished “only” seventh in the national total offense rankings, a few steps up from 2009’s No. 16 finish. (His 2007 and ’08 iterations at Tulsa led the country.)
Although Malzahn tailors his scheme to his personnel — this year’s attack will not resemble 2010’s Cam Newton-led assault — the overriding principles are taken from just about every offense imaginable, from the Wing-T to the zone-gap running game to shotgun passing. Throw in a healthy dose of whimsy that leads to offbeat formations, constant motion and a high-speed approach, and you have something that defies characterization. It’s complicated, but it’s successful. Very successful. Last year, Newton accounted for 50 touchdowns (30 passing) at its helm and helped the Tigers average 41.2 points per game.
Perhaps even more amazing than the offense’s success is Malzahn himself. He began as a high school coach with no particular goal of moving up. But once given a break by Arkansas’ Houston Nutt — more on that later — Malzahn stepped across the divide and began a journey that has left opposing defenses confused, overwhelmed and often gasping for air. At a time when every team in the country is trying to find new ways to exploit spread-formation football, Malzahn has one of the most original approaches. When he worked at Tulsa with Graham, who is more defensive-oriented, he was always asking questions to learn what would give opponents more trouble.
“The key to Gus’ offense is that it’s physical,” Graham says. “It’s a run first, play-action offense, and it’s explosive. By utilizing spread formations and being multiple and innovative, he can run ‘old’ plays differently than others.
“Most people hear ‘spread, no-huddle,’ and they think pass. What Gus runs is different. It’s not like Texas Tech (under Mike Leach). It’s based on the fact that we want to mentally and physically wear a team out and run so many plays that we create a fifth quarter.”
Believe it or not, Malzahn’s first job in football was actually on defense. In 1991, he was hired as the defensive coordinator at tiny Hughes High School in northwest Arkansas. Within two years, Malzahn was head coach at Hughes, and he wasted little time uncorking a wide-open throwing attack, at a time when the idea of throwing the ball all over was still somewhat novel.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, so I went around picking the brains of Arkansas college coaches to learn,” Malzahn says.
The lessons paid off quickly. Hughes reached the state title game in ’94, and Malzahn was a hot commodity. Shiloh Christian High School lured him to campus in 1996, and it was there that his offensive philosophy truly germinated. The Arkansas prep world had no idea how to deal with him. In ’98, Shiloh Christian set a national record with 66 passing touchdowns and won the first of two straight state titles. That success led him to Springdale High, a perennial powerhouse that Malzahn would lead to the state championship in 2005.
Shortly after that victory, Malzahn joined Nutt’s Arkansas staff as offensive coordinator. The move surprised many, outraged some and set off some alarms for others, who believed the only reason Nutt would tab a high school coach to run his offense was that Malzahn had agreed to deliver Springdale standout quarterback Mitch Mustain and three others to Fayetteville in return for the gig. It was an uneasy alliance from the start, since Nutt was uncomfortable with Malzahn’s high-speed offense. The Hogs won 10 games that season, but the offense was built around a power-running game that featured Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. Malzahn was technically the offensive coordinator, but Nutt was clearly in charge of the ’06 Arkansas attack.
When Nutt brought in David Lee to “co-coordinate” the offense after 2006, Malzahn left for Tulsa, where he created an attack that overpowered opponents on the ground and through the air. That’s right, on the ground. In 2008, Tulsa had the nation’s third-most rushing attempts (674), behind only Air Force and Navy, two option teams. The biggest misnomer about Malzahn’s system and a big reason it is successful in the SEC is that it’s not just a passing attack.
“One thing he stresses for sure is our physicality and running the football,” Moseley says. “If you can’t run the football, you’re not going to have a successful football team on offense. That’s the first thing he stresses.”
Malzahn joined Gene Chizik’s Auburn staff before the 2009 season and continued the big production. Last year, with Newton at the helm, the Tigers averaged 499.2 yards per game, and their 75 TDs were the third-most in the country. But for the third straight year, Malzahn will be working with a new starting quarterback, either Moseley, Barrett Trotter or possibly true freshman Kiehl Frazier. “Somewhere down the line, I’d like to have a starting quarterback back for a second year,” he says. “It takes a lot of work preparing a guy, and it takes three, four, five games to see how he reacts in every situation.”
If Malzahn keeps it up, he won’t have to worry about breaking in a fresh triggerman every season. Last December, premature reports had him as the new head coach at Vanderbilt, and it shouldn’t be long before he has a team of his own. “I definitely want to be a head coach at this level, but I’m not in a hurry,” he says. When Malzahn ascends to a top job, he won’t have to worry about people doubting his pedigree, even though he’ll still act like a high school coach who caught a few breaks. Those who have seen his work will know why. “We don’t want to conform to college football,” says Graham, whose roots are also in high school football. “We want to stay true to who we are.”
And that’s no laughing matter.
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