by Bruce Marshall, Goldshhet.com Editor

Never mind Miami-Ohio.

Is Arkansas State about to become the new “cradle of coaches” in college football?

Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, but if we dust off the Sun Belt’s crystal ball, we might be able to get a clearer look at 2013 and the possibility of a fourth Arkansas State gridiron coach in as many seasons, with two coaches being lured to higher-profile locales after just one year on the job, something that hasn’t happened since Jackie Sherrill (to Pitt) and Warren Powers (to Missouri) left Washington State in the back-to-back years of 1976-77 in one of the other rare examples of a four-coaches-in-four-years scenario.

Forgive us gazing into the future in Jonesboro, and for assuming that first-year Red Wolves HC Gus Malzahn is going to stay in town for less time than Lou Saban used to stick on the job near the end of his coaching and administrative career. But it’s understandable, considering where Malzahn has been and where is he is likely to go in the future, the latter being a constant source of speculation in and around the South.

Meanwhile, the Red Wolves coaching job is suddenly looking as temporary as a campaign manager position. Prior to Malzahn and Freeze, balding predecessor Steve Roberts had walked the plank following the 2010 season. We’ll find out by January if the Red Wolves are going for four-coaches-in-four years as did Wazzu in the mid ‘70s.

The bottom line is that Malzahn landed the post at Arkansas State last winter after predecessor Hugh Freeze, on the job all of one season, suddenly became a coach du jour after leading the Red Wolves to 10 wins, the Sun Belt title, and a rare bowl bid last January in Mobile’s GoDaddy.com Bowl. For those who were only paying attention to the bowl sponsor’s risque commercials featuring race car siren Danica Patrick, we remind you that Ark State lost that game to Northern Illinois by a 38-20 count, but the result could not dampen the enthusiasm of a breakthrough campaign.

Nor could it stop Freeze from bolting to Ole Miss, a job that many believed might have been a better fit for Malzahn.

What gives?

Malzahn, whose credentials as an offensive mastermind spawned from a legendary Arkansas prep coaching career at Shiloh Christian and Springdale Highs in his native state, had recently been the flavor of the month in coaching circles after serving as Auburn’s offensive coordinator for the Tigers’ national title run with Cam Newton at QB in 2010. Regional sources believed Malzahn, whose reputation had also gained further gloss with a wildly successful run as Tulsa’s o.c. after a brief stop at Arkansas (with his decoratred high school QB, Mitch Mustain) in 2006, would eventually have his pick of plum assignments thanks also to super-agent Jimmy Sexton (right), the Memphis- based power broker whose client list includes Nick Saban and reads like a who’s who in college (especially Southern) coaching circles.

Indeed, Sexton appeared to have Malzahn all lined up for the opening at Vanderbilt after the 2010 season, but Gus peeled away from a reported $2.5 million + deal per year at the last moment. Shrewd regional observers suspected that Sexton and Malzahn might never have been serious about the Vandy position, rather using Dores’ Vice Chancellor David Williams to simply up the ante for Malzahn’s services and create a monetary base by which Sexton could begin future negotiations.

So why didn’t Malzahn wind up at some higher-profile locale than Jonesboro, and why is he working for pay that is about one-third of the salary he was going to receive in Nashville?

Twelve months can make a big difference in the coaching world, and the post-Cam Newton Auburn of 2011 didn’t exactly set the SEC afire or put Malzahn in the catbird seat as has happened the previous year. Moreover, an unexpected distraction arose in the form of Gus’ wife Kristi, whose vision began to pop up all over the web in what could gently be described as holy roller (and not the Dave Casper type) videos.

Informed observers say potential employers, such as North Carolina and Kansas, might have been spooked by Kristi’s act and veered away from Malzahn in their coaching pursuits.

Sources close to Sexton, however, believe Malzahn will still end up in a high-profile job, sooner rather than later. Both Malzahn and Sexton both believed that Malzahn’s eventual candidacy would be enhanced by some college head coaching experience, and Gus was motivated to find one of those jobs before his star might fall too far at Auburn.

Though some are still surprised that Malzahn didn't land the Ole Miss job after last season, sources say that Sexton believed the Rebel assignment was a better one for Freeze, Malzhan’s predecessor at Ark State, and that Gus will be a serious candidate at better SEC jobs than Ole Miss once he establishes himself as a head coach in the college ranks.

And, for what it’s worth, Malzahn has been saying all of the right things since taking the Red Wolves job. “We’re fixin’ to take this thing to the next level,” said Malzahn of his new assignment shortly after being hired.

It didn’t take long, however, for the rumor mill to whirr in Malzahn’s home state when Arkansas canned Bobby Petrino in the spring, creating a wildfire of speculation that had Malzahn at the top of the Razorback wish list. Which still might come true after 2012 and John L. Smith’s one-year contract in Fayetteville. But it wasn’t about to come true before the Red Wolves’ first game with Malzahn calling the shots. Among other things, regional sources said the Razorbacks were not about to anger Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, an Ark State alum, and suffer possible political repercussions if immediately stealing the Red Wolves’ coach. But insiders say that Arkansas could yet make another run at Malzahn, after waiting for Governor Beebe to calm down following the 2012 campaign. Stay tuned for further developments.

Among other possible future assignments, Sexton reportedly has Malzahn also poised to pounce upon that potential opening in Fayetteville, as well as on a short list at South Carolina should Steve Spurrier retire. Tennessee, coached by another Sexton client, Derek Dooley, might be another possibility in the near future, and with Dan Mullen a candidate to be lured from Mississippi State, Malzahn could also get into the discussion in Starkville should the Bulldog job open soon.

The other major development of the offseason for the Red Wolves was news that ballyhooed RB Michael Dyer (left) was following Malzahn to Ark State from Auburn. Dyer, a key component as a frosh for the Tigers’ 2010, Cam-led national champs and having rushed for 2335 yards in two seasons on the Plains, is still hoping to get a waiver from the NCAA to allow his eligibility for the Red Wolves to commence this fall, although Malzahn intimated in spring that it seemed unlikely such developments would occur.

But don’t feel sorry for Malzahn, whose noted bag of tricks, which includes expertise in the spread, no-huddle, and Wildcat looks, ought to come in handy for what might be his only season in Jonesboro. Malzahn also inherits multi-dimensional senior QB Ryan Aplin (right), the Sun Belt MVP a year ago when passing for 3588 yards and running for another 588, and accounting for 27 TDs, and who appears to be the perfect triggerman for the Malzahn attack.

Sun Belt sources report that Aplin, also particularly deft at the zone read, quickly picked up on the Malzahn offense in spring after pacing attack that posted 32.5 ppg a year ago, a mark that could be surpassed this fall with some added contributions from the support cast. Although Aplin’s favorite target last year, WR Dwyane Frampton (who caught 94 passes), has graduated, plenty of established targets remain, including rangy sr. wideouts Taylor Stockemer (left) and well-traveled Josh Jarboe (at Oklahoma and Troy earlier in his career), who combined for 102 catches and 7 TDs a year ago. And at 6'4 and 6'3, respectively, each offers inviting targets vs. the many smaller DBs of the Sun Belt.

Of course, if Dyer should become eligible (and we’re not holding our breath), the dynamics of the infantry would change completely. Soph scatback Frankie Jackson gained 355 YR in limited work last fall and should bring a bit more pop to the backfield than last year’s leading rusher Derek Lawson, who gained less than 4 ypc. Although remember that it was none other than Aplin who led Red Wolves rushers a year ago. Some rebuilding is also going to be necessary on the OL, which lost three starters, including both on the left side. Mammoth 6'6, 315-lb. juco OT DeShawn Byrd has been added to help plug those gaps.

It’s rare to see a Sun Belt side appear in the top 25 of national defense stats, but that’s exactly what the Red Wolves did a year ago when ranking a quite respectable 24th in total “D” and 25th in scoring defense, which is darned near Alabama-like for a Belt rep. A repeat might be a tall order, however, especially considering how the defenders might be wondering who is coaching them this fall. The Red Wolves have had three different d.c.’s since late last season, before 2011 coordinator Dave Wommack joined Freeze’s Ole Miss staff, then saw replacement Keith Patterson (who had been Todd Graham’s d.c. last year at Pitt) lured by Frank Beamer to Virginia Tech after just six weeks on the job.

Malzahn’s new defensive coordinator is a familiar name, John Thompson, who has coached stop units almost everywhere in the South (Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss, LSU, South Carolina, Memphis, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern State and, most recently, Georgia State) and had a short stint as HC at East Carolina prior to the arrival of Skip Holtz in Greenville. Thompson, however, inherits only four starters from what was the Sun Belt version of the Dallas Cowboys’ old Doomsday Defense.

Thompson and Malzahn went the quickest available route for reinforcements, raiding the juco ranks in looking for immediate help. Expect several of those to contribute right away, including DT Dexter Blackman, DEs Ishmail Hayes, Lawrence Cayou, and John Gandy, LB Eddie Porter, and CB Chris Humes.

The Red Wolves’ numbers against the rush (103 ypg and 13th-ranked nationally) were especially good last year, but spring work suggested the new-look defensive front could be due for a big drop-off unless the juco additions make a significant impact in the fall. Let’s also see if Thompson, who will align his stop unit in 4-2-5 looks, can resurrect his career after being one of the most sought-after defensive minds in the region a decade ago.

Ark State, which has never been accused of ducking anybody, won’t again this season, as Malzahn has to deal with thankless road games at Oregon and Nebraska in the first three weeks of the season. But there look to be plenty of potential wins on the slate, and the Red Wolves are projected by many regional pundits as the likely class of the Sun Belt once again in 2012.

Spread-wise, however, Malzahn has a tough act to follow after Freeze’s team recorded a 10-2 regular-season mark vs. the line (the same as the straight-up record) a year ago.

Summary...It’s apparent that Ark State is making a serious commitment to the football side, illustrated by the hiring of Gus Malzahn. Although we hope that AD Dean Lee doesn’t think he’s going to keep Malzahn in the fold forever; right now, Red Wolves fans would be thrilled to get three years out of “Groovy” Gus, who is already on a short list of schools (such as Tennessee and Arkansas) likely to make coaching moves in the near future. Meanwhile, if Ark State doesn’t get beaten up too badly in those early dates at Oregon and Nebraska, this fall could be as fun as the last one in Jonesboro as long as QB Ryan Aplin stays healthy and new d.c. John Thompson can scheme something out of the rebuilt stop unit. The home slate in particular holds room for encouragement, with Ark State expected to be favored in all six games at ASU Stadium in Jonesboro, likely preceding another postseason invitation. Imagine...the Red Wolves as bowl regulars!


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