Malzahn's impact as offensive trendsetter felt far beyond Auburn
From his home in Austin, Texas,
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,
"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
The now-ubiquitous Wildcat formation first entered the national conscience in 2006 when Malzahn installed it at Arkansas using running backs
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
"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
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 (
"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
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.
"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
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 --
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
"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."
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
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.