April 25, 2012

There are 215 high schools in the state of Arkansas that play football. New Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn wants to visit every one of them. The offensive guru who began his career at Hughes (Ark.) High and Shiloh Christian (Ark.) High has put together his most aggressive play-calling package to date: The A-State Ambush.

"We're going to recruit this state like it's never been recruited," Malzahn said in a press release.

On Monday, the ambush began. The five-day recruiting attack has been met with positive reception from area coaches.

"It is a great idea," said Josh Floyd, the current head coach at Shiloh Christian. "To hit every single school sends a strong message that they take this state seriously and want to keep kids here.

"For the smaller schools that may not have a top kid, or may not ever have a kid get recruited, it makes them feel like part of the process and will help build relationships with the coaches. It shows they want to get out there and really hone in on the local product."

The plan should help Arkansas State make in-roads with previously untargeted prospects -- and add to Malzahn's growing statewide legend.

Before his collegiate success, Malzahn's career blossomed in Northwest Arkansas. After leading Hughes High to a state finals appearance in his second year as head coach, he took over at Shiloh Christian, using his offense-first mentality to propel the small private school into the national spotlight. After back-to-back state titles in 1998-99, he went to Springdale (Ark.) High, where, in 2005, he fielded one of the best teams in state history. That squad produced quarterback Mitch Mustain and wide receiver Damian Williams (both former Arkansas recruits who transferred to USC), as well as several other Division-I players.

Malzahn's college ascent was equally impressive. He was named Rivals' National Offensive Coordinator of the Year in just his second season at Arkansas before moving to Auburn, where he tutored future Heisman winner Cam Newton. Following the 2010 season, the Tigers won a national title.

It is his unique approach to the game -- and now recruiting -- that leads many to believe that he'll continue to find success.

"He is going to compete for the best kids in the state," said Floyd. "And he is going to go after some kids that others may ignore. Different things attract different players, and with an exciting system like his, some may want to go [to Arkansas State] instead of some maybe higher-profile places."

Malzahn acknowledged that the in-state product is important and that he wants to grow the number of local commitments during his tenure. Arkansas State's 2012 class included 11 in-state players, a high for the program since Rivals started keeping track in 2002. The Red Wolves' total dipped to four in 2008.

"We are big believers in the players here in Arkansas and the coaches here in Arkansas, so that's going to be the foundation of our program," Malzahn said. "We're going to do everything in our power to recruit this state."

Har-Ber (Ark.) High coach Chris Wood says the task is daunting, yet feasible.

"The state is the right size to accomplish that approach," Wood said. "The grassroots approach is probably the right one to take for them because people here have deep roots, and if he can get that program to be part of the tradition more kids will want to go there."

Though Wood hasn't sent a player to Arkansas State since the school opened in 2006, he says he'd have no hesitations in the future. In fact, three-star tight end Nick Byrne currently holds an offer from Malzahn.

"There are a lot of kids that want to represent their state," he said, "whether it is at Arkansas or Arkansas State."

No matter what happens, the A-State Ambush is an unprecedented recruiting move for a program in the Sun Belt. And with six assistants hitting the road all week, it could pay some very noteworthy dividends.

"[Malzahn] will get some kids from some spots that you don't expect," Floyd said. "When you start talking about playing on the college level, it really won't matter what your star-ranking is...He will find the players."

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