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Spring Practice Stories: The Misunderstood Genius of Tulsa

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Scrimmage spin.

The same day his former star back had a good ol' time with Arkansas legislators, delayin' Senate bidness, strikin' em up some Heisman poses and "callin' the Hogs in unison" at the state capitol, Natural State refugee Gus Malzahn was working hard across the state line installing his version of the hurry-up, no-huddle spread at Tulsa, where he seems less offensive coordinator than co-head coach with defensive-minded boss Todd Graham, an old Arkansas prep rival. The coordinator is certainly capturing the spotlight there.

SMQ understands the intrigue, because the more he reads about Malzahn's offense, the more he can't wait to see its mad scientist perversion on full display. Or else be thoroughly disappointed by it. Not that whatever funky junk he's cooked up over the years won't be effective, even if it is the first time he's unleashed it on a college level, and even if he is doing it with Tulsa's players rather than, say, Mitch Mustain, Darren McFadden and Marcus Monk. But SMQ has his doubts as to how new or hot this system is actually going to be. The furor over whether it was actually employed in any sense last year, and if not, why the hell not?, has built a kind of bizarre mythology around its singular brilliance. Ten wins, an SEC West title, the school's first Heisman finalist, and why aren't you idiots running this incredible offense? What are we talking about here?

Malzahn is largely credited with the wildly successful employment of the "Wildcat" last year at Arkansas, which with the specific personnel in the Razorbacks' version of formation was near impossible to consistently defend, but that was only an extension of the renaissance of the spread-based running quarterback, a la the single wing, en vogue over the country on the heels of the respective successes of Rich Rodriguez and Vince Young (and, er, Matt Jones). At the opposite spectrum, which is apparently where Malzahn prefers to operate, Hawaii and Texas Tech have busied themselves for years with heaving as many balls around the field as possible (preferably into the flat). Unless he's planning the Emory and Henry as his base set, there's not much practical Malzahn or anyone else can employ that isn't a rehash of another well-worn idea. Not that there's anything wrong with that; innovation at this point is mostly in cyclical reaction to the broader trends, which are themselves reactions to the last innovation, etc.

Malzahn: Unappreciated in his own time? In his own state, at least. But soon they'll see. Those eyes, staring, forever, glaring, unblinking, those terrible eyes! Oh yes...soon.
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The thing with Malzahn's offense is that it's continually referred to in news stories, almost reverentially, as his own unique concoction, which leads to all kinds of fantastic possibilities. Is it just really from another planet, or what? In the above link, it's not the spread offense, not the multi-receiver sets dozens of other teams have used for years, it's "Malzahn's spread offense" and "his offensive strategy." The spread is the reason Graham brought in Malzahn, it says, intimating that there's a difference in Malzahn's philosophy and that of the many, many other employable coordinators who could bring four and five-receiver sets to Tulsa's base packages for various ends. Several times it references philosophy, talks about coaches agreeing about philosophy, plugs Malzahn's book about the philosophy, and quotes the coordinator saying, "This is who I am as a coach." Gus Malzahn is not a coach who adjusts his tactical cake to suit the "ingredients" on hand, his players; Gus Malzahn is a rare gridiron philosopher whose success is assured as long as players execute his personal philosophy. Again, see the reaction of his supporters after Arkansas' most successful season since joining the SEC. SMQ wants to see this genius in action already.

The real difference in the "Malzahn philosophy," according to the first chapter of his book, is pacing, tempo and putting the pressure on the defense. Right now, receivers are dropping passes and not conditioned to do what Malzahn wants to do, which is "turn the game into a fast break type of football game," accomplished by "snapping the football within five seconds after the referee puts the ball into play," a "window of time...that can give you an unbelievable advantage until more and more teams run it or learn to defend it." He talks about "lengthening the game," turning it into a "five quarter game" that encourages aggressive risk-taking (the more plays, the more opportunities to overcome a mistake or, on a more positive note, make more good things happen). He will go for it on fourth down in his own territory, he will use "four different onside kicks at any given time during a game." On the dust jacket, his high school system is credited by other coaches with winning championships, overcoming a lack of talent, making practice more fun, inducing players to work harder and "revolutioniz[ing] the game of football in the state of Arkansas," according to Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts. Again, let's see it. In practice, it sounds crazier than anything Mike Leach would consider. But it could certainly work - it did in high school, consistently, at Springdale and at Malzahn's stops prior to it, in state championship games with scores out of the Arena League. SMQ can't wait.

He'd like to compare the results to Tulsa's offense the past two seasons under Steve Kragthorpe, who took one of the worst head coaching jobs in America, won a conference championship and stepped up to a pretty plum Louisville gig by being fairly creative himself, albeit in just about the most non-descript manner imaginable. When Southern Miss played Tulsa in October, the Golden Hurricane ran the most frustrating version of offensive small ball the Eagles saw all season, and executed the hell out of it despite zero downfield passing threat or even a viable tailback. In Hattiesburg in 2005, a game SMQ did not watch, Tulsa doubled USM up on time of possession, where it was very good again in 2006. The Hurricane were never very fearsome for a league frontrunner, but they were balanced (36th in rushing offense last year, 38th in passing), smart, occasionally unorthodox, converted third downs, didn't turn the ball over much and were consistent with mediocre talent, even by C-USA standards. Paul Smith is the anti-Mustain, physically, a heady guy who makes great decisions and improvises well but can't get the ball downfield and isn't particularly athletic. He's very good at what he does, but that isn't much; if Malzahn requires more than screens, hitches and quick slants, Smith may not have the arm.

Or he may win the Heisman and revolutionize the quarterback position in the most innovative system the sport has known in 50 years, whatever. USM doesn't play Tulsa this fall, so let it all hang out, coach.