May 4, 2006

Arkansas offense meets in the middle

There have been stranger unions.

Billy Bob and Angelina. Tom and Katie.

Now, the University of Arkansas football program brings us Houston and Gus.

Will it turn out to be a buddy-picture blockbuster, or a quickie Hollywood divorce?

Razorback Nation has kept an anxious eye this spring on head coach Houston Nutt and newly-minted, fresh-from-high-school offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. And with good reason.

No Southeastern Conference team has run the ball with the frequency or success of the Razorbacks under Nutt.

The Hogs led the SEC in rushing last season with 216.9 yards per game. That was almost 23 yards per game more than second-place Auburn and 50 yards clear of No. 3 Georgia.

In fact, Nutt's teams have led the SEC on the ground in three of the past five years. They have finished no worse than sixth in the 12-team league since Nutt took over in 1998.

You'd figure with that kind of running game – defenses forced to crowd the line of scrimmage and respect the play-action option – that the passing game would at least be adequate.

You'd be wrong. To call it anemic would be putting a good face on it.

While Nutt's teams have been running to daylight they've been passing in the dark ages. They've been last in the SEC three times in Nutt's tenure and next-to-last twice, including last season.

With that in mind, and perhaps his job in the balance, Nutt hired high school coaching phenom Malzahn in December. Malzahn is a legend in Arkansas, having won three state titles. He made two other championship-game appearances in 14 seasons as a head coach.

"I think every hire is important," Nutt said. "Coordinators are very important because you want them to handle a big-time job. It's coordination, it's organizing, and it's moving a team to a place they can't get to by themselves. You've got to have great ones, especially in this league. It's a critical hire."

Runnin' (Hog) wild
No SEC team was more likely to run the ball than Arkansas last season. But the Hogs had good reason - they led the SEC in rushing at 216.9 yards per game. Here is a look at the SEC last season with the teams ranked by their tendency to run vs. pass:
Team Run Pass Total Run %
Arkansas 481 280 761 63.2%
LSU 510 359 869 58.7%
Auburn 481 339 820 58.6%
Alabama 463 351 814 56.9%
Kentucky 391 304 695 56.3%
Miss. State 385 302 687 56.0%
Georgia 455 363 818 55.6%
Florida 455 385 840 54.2%
Tennessee 399 356 755 52.8%
S. Carolina 365 355 720 50.7%
Ole Miss 332 371 703 47.2%
Vanderbilt 361 467 828 43.6%
Malzahn is known for his passing game. He is the author of a book titled "Hurry Up No Huddle." And he's now the offensive coordinator for a team that ran 63 percent of the time in 2005.

Malzahn says not to worry. He has made it through his first spring on the collegiate level and hasn't felt the need to turn the Hogs into Flying Pigs.

"We're just trying to find a balance," Malzahn told Rivals.com. "We want to find ways to keep the defense honest."

While Malzahn has honed his shotgun, no-huddle attack for the past several years, you might be surprised to learn that his first coaching job was as a defensive coordinator. And you know how those guys tend to appreciate offenses that can grind it out.

"I've been very fortunate to be able to coach some really special quarterbacks," Malzahn said. "But if we didn't have that guy we ran the ball."

What he has at Arkansas right now is a bevy of talented running backs, including Rivals.com Freshman All-American Darren McFadden. McFadden shredded SEC defenses last season, posting 1,113 yards on a sterling 6.3 yards per carry.

"They're a pretty special group," Malzahn said about his running backs. "McFadden is just extremely talented. (Peyton) Hillis is very versatile. He's got great hands, he's a good blocker, and he's a good runner. He's everything you'd want in a back.

"Felix (Jones) has great lateral moves and great speed. And don't forget Michael Smith from Tallahassee (Fla.). He's a redshirt freshman with a lot of speed.

"Obviously running back is the strength of our team."

Word out of Fayetteville is that Malzahn is trying to find ways to get the ball to all of the running backs. While you still can expect to see some traditional I-formation, you also could see any of the four backs split wide - or any of the four in an H-back position.

Things are a little more jumbled at quarterback. Malzahn protégé Mitch Mustain, a five-star prospect by Rivals.com out of Springdale High School, will have every opportunity. But Malzahn said both of last year's quarterbacks, sophomore Casey Dick and junior Robert Johnson, had solid springs.

"I think Mitch will compete, but I think we'll play whoever gives us the best chance of winning," Malzahn said.

Mustain's senior year numbers had to be calculated by NASA. He completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 3,817 yards and 47 touchdowns with only six interceptions. He led Springdale to a 14-0 mark and the Arkansas 5A state championship.

Even though he didn't get to go through the spring, you have to believe Mustain's familiarity with Malzahn gives him a leg up.

"He's extremely accurate as a passer and has a great understanding of the game," Malzahn said. "He'll need to get used to the speed of the game. That will be his challenge."

Malzahn's challenge will be to keep Arkansas running smoothly while figuring out how to mix in an effective passing game.

Who knows, maybe pigs can fly.




 

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