Malzahn is more than hands on


JONESBORO — Sandwiched around Gus Malzahn’s review of assignments on pass plays, clips from two Auburn games tied together a point of emphasis.

First, a receiver made his cut a step early and the play fizzled. Patience and the deep pass was there, Malzahn said. “Little things matter,” he told the seven receivers on the other side of a table in the conference room that is a closed door from his office.

Minutes later, the man in motion was past the quarterback before the snap and a fake to the back was meaningless. The follow-up was a clip of Kodi Burns in motion, selling the fake by raising his hands to accept the pitch.

“He did everything right and that’s why he has a national championship ring,” Malzahn said. “Little things matter.”

Burns, a graduate assistant who played high school football in Fort Smith, was at the end of the table, near the movie screen, enforcing Malzahn’s review of formations with the appropriate hand signal.

Stuck on “Maverick,” Malzahn dispatched Burns to check with offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Rhett Lashlee. Back quickly, Burns shared the cocked gun signal.

Couched in the language of his offense, many of Malzahn’s communiques were over my head. I got “trips to the boundary,” his explanation of how a play one week would set up something in the weeks ahead, and him encouraging the players to share info.

“You guys can help us call plays this week,” the first-year head coach said. “If you can’t get him (the safety), come back and say, ‘Coach, I can’t get him,’ and that will give us what we could run.”

More than once, his review was punctuated by a rhetorical, “So we’re good with that?” During the presentation, Malzahn was all business except when he acknowledged a visitor with a comment about an Auburn interception vs. Arkansas.

Earlier, he talked about the offense he molded at Arkansas high schools and then installed at Tulsa, Auburn, and now ASU. “To be honest with you, I thought my offense would work in college,” he said. “I didn’t know. I didn’t tell anybody that. You think it’s going to work but until you do it …”

Malzahn checked his watch and told the players they had exactly 15 minutes to get dressed for practice. They departed, leaving behind black binders and blue pens for Burns to collect. On the field, after changing from an open-collar shirt and slacks with an ASU belt, to black shorts, white T-shirt, and red visor, Malzahn was always on the move.

Hands on, for sure.

He fell in step with a defensive back, talked to the punter kicking out of the end zone, and then had a brief consult with a receiver. “He wakes up at 100 percent,” said Jamie Croley, the director of football operations and Malzahn’s brother-in-law. “He stops at 100 percent.”

“I will coach a position,” Malzahn said. “A head coach can’t coach quarterbacks. You don’t known when you’ve got to deal with this or take care of that.”

Outside the right hash mark, he explained to a wide receiver the importance of cutting off a cornerback even though the play was going to the other side of the field.

Two receivers to the left pushed downfield, eventually to block. The third stepped forward, then back to catch the pass, a play he showed them earlier from Auburn-Mississippi State. Malzahn’s throw was low, hard to handle. He apologized, threw a few more, and moved on.

He recognized a receiver was thinking about a move instead of going full bore. “Go hard, drop your hips,” he said.

The horn blew. The five-minute period was up.

Near the goal line for a team drill, Malzahn settled in with a cornerback, teaching.

Although Malzahn’s name surfaces in talk about Arkansas’ next head coach, he seems committed to ASU. No endorsements here, only a take on how a head coach goes about his business.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is hking@arkansasnews.com.