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December 14, 2006
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This season didn't go exactly as Gus Malzahn imagined.
The new Arkansas offensive coordinator figured on bringing more of a passing game to the college ranks. He had run a no-huddle, spread offense at Springdale (Ark.) High, and with five-star quarterback Mitch Mustain pulling the trigger his team was burying opponents. The Bulldogs went undefeated and claimed the state championship in Arkansas' largest classification. Mustain joined Malzahn in Fayetteville, and the faithful believed they might be seeing the birth of the Air Hogs.
Lo and behold, Arkansas didn't come to pass. Mustain and Casey Dick traded the quarterback job throughout the season, with neither seizing the reins.
"I think any time you go through three starting quarterbacks, it's not ideal," Malzahn told Rivals.com while breaking down film of Wisconsin - Arkansas' opponent in the Capital One Bowl. "We'd like to go with one guy and have him hang in there and have him keep improving.
"We went with the hot hand. If a guy was having success, we tried to ride him. Casey and Mitch played extremely well at times."
And at times they didn't. So Malzahn, Rivals.com's National Offensive Coordinator of the Year, had the Hogs do what hogs do best, root around in the mud.
The 41-year-old coordinator knew running back Darren McFadden was good. Anyone could figure that out watching TV on a Saturday afternoon just as Malzahn had. What he didn't fully appreciate was how good until he became his coach.
"During spring I saw the speed and the acceleration up close," Malzahn said. "As the season went on ? he wasn't 100 percent early because of (a toe injury), but that kept improving and he kept improving."
It didn't hurt that Malzahn began thinking of ways to get McFadden the ball as soon as he understood what he had in the 6-foot-2, 212-pound sophomore. He installed the "Wildcat" formation in the spring, a formation in which McFadden played quarterback out of the shotgun.
"We started having some success with it, and we kept expanding it as the season went on," Malzahn said.
Malzahn deserves credit for ensuring the success of Arkansas' running game and subjugating any ego over his vaunted no-huddle spread. He often split McFadden and talented running back Felix Jones wide, he let McFadden throw passes, and he got the ball to his playmakers.
Not only did McFadden rush for 1,558 yards and 14 touchdowns, he also had three touchdown passes.
"With McFadden and (Felix) Jones, people knew we'd run," Malzahn said. "We have some guys who can block big time. We worked hard on pass protection, and even though we've not thrown a whole lot this year we gave up only six or seven sacks (No. 1 in the country in sacks allowed per game), so they've done a good job.
The only team in the SEC to attempt fewer passes was Auburn. Yet Arkansas' run game remained ultra-productive. Defenses knew they had to stop the run, and still they couldn't do it. The Hogs gained more rushing yards against Auburn, South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU than those teams yielded in any other SEC game. LSU, which ranked 15th nationally against the run, surrendered 298 yards to Arkansas. No other SEC team had more than 100 yards against the sturdy Tigers.
Malzahn said his transition to the college game, while far from complete, has been enjoyable. He said other than the speed of the game things on the field haven't changed that much. It's still blocking and tackling, getting your O's more room to maneuver against their X's.
He said the hardest part has been juggling recruiting with coaching.
"It's really difficult to balance during the season," Malzahn said. "I've tried to do well and hopefully I've done well, but you really don't know until Signing Day."
Malzahn's success may open the door for more high school coaches to jump into the college game in positions of prominence.
"A lot of high school coaches called early to encourage me, and that was a really special feeling," Malzahn said. "I believe my whole career I've been in the right situation at the right time with the right people."
Or maybe the people, time and situation have all been fortunate to have one common denominator: a former high school coach whose successes continue to mount.