Gus Malzahn will be introduced as Arkansas State's new head coach today. It will be one of the more pleasantly surprising coaching moves in recent memory, and Malzahn inherits an offense well-suited for his tendencies.
I didn't see this one coming. I expected to be writing aboutor Charlie Weis today.
In a crazy world, you lean on constants wherever you can find them. The Simpsons every Sunday night. Uncle Verne Lundquist in the booth every autumn Saturday. Dave Matthews Band concerts every summer. The "B.C. Clark's anniversary sale" jingle every Christmas. Everybody has their own list. For me, ever since my alma mater hired a Jimmy Sexton client as their head basketball coach (Mike Anderson), one of my constants has been that super agent Sexton relentlessly leverages every rumor to pursue a raise for his clients. Sometimes they actually do leave -- Anderson left Missouri for Arkansas last spring, after all -- but the only assured result is money. If you hire a Sexton client, you better be prepared to a) win and b) pony up.
Unless you are Arkansas State, anyway. A year after he almost took the Vanderbilt job, and only a couple of weeks after he was tied to the Kansas job (among 17 others), Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will be introduced as the Arkansas State head coach later today. And for less money than he was currently making.
How does this happen? A year ago, he was the hottest assistant in football; now, he's taking the reins of a Sun Belt school? To be sure, you will hear talk of "home" at Wednesday afternoon's press conference. Malzahn was a receiver at Arkansas and Henderson State (in beautiful Arkadelphia, Arkansas) in college and, as late as 2005, was head coach of Springdale High School near Fayetteville. Malzahn has Arkansas roots, to say the least, so in that regard, it makes sense. Still, this is not the move one expects from a Sexton client. In that regard, this move is ... well, it is pretty fantastic, actually. This cynical heart needs reminders that while money and Jimmy Sexton usually run the world, that isn't always the case. I love when people take unique paths, and if the move becomes official today, Gus Malzahn will have absolutely set out one of the more unique paths in recent memory.
One thing is certain: Malzahn would be inheriting a team well-suited for his offensive approach. This fall, Arkansas State went 10-2 this season under another unique, offensive-minded coach, Hugh Freeze. They will be returning quite a few cogs in what was an interesting spread attack.
Here's a look at what he inherits, without accounting for 2012 recruits.
Ryan Aplin (6'1, 205, Sr.) -- 274-for-418 passing (66%), 3,235 yards (7.7 per pass), 18 TD, 13 INT, 24 sacks for 164 yards; 127 pre-sack carries, 769 yards (6.1 per carry), 9 TD, +16.0 Adj. POE
Andre Smith (6'1, 215, Sr.) -- 20-for-22 passing, 204 yards, 1 TD
By no means is he of the same level of capability or athletic prowess, but Ryan Aplin plays the game to certain degrees like Cameron Newton. He both passed 35 times per game and led the team in rush attempts at a little over 10 per game. At 205 pounds, he is not built like a workhorse back by any means (or, in Newton's case, a tight end), but for the last two years, he has been the primary on-field reason for ASU's offensive improvement. The Red Wolves ranked 110th in Off. F/+ in 2009 but improved to 59th and 70th over the last two seasons. He needs more help than he is getting in the backfield, but Malzahn will find plenty to work with in Aplin, just like Freeze did.
Frankie Johnson (5'9, 185, So.) -- 85 carries, 343 yards (4.0), 1.2 Highlight Yards/Carry, +2.2 Adj. POE; 16 targets, 13 catches, 178 yards (11.1/target)
Sherodrick Smith (5'10, 180, So.) -- 16 carries, 56 yards (3.5), 1.2 Hlt Yds/Carry, -0.8 Adj. POE; 3 targets, 3 catches, -3 yards (-1.0/target)
One of the biggest challenges for Malzahn will be establishing a running game that can take some of the pressure off of Aplin's shoulders. ASU ranked a semi-healthy 63rd in Rushing S&P+, but a lot of that prowess came from Aplin himself. Primary ball-carriers Derek Lawson and Frankie Johnson combined to average just 4.1 yards per carry with a combined Adj. POE of minus-5.8 in 2011. Their lack of Highlight Yards suggests they took whatever the offensive line gave them and nothing more; Johnson was the more promising of the two backs, especially when factoring in his success in catching the ball out of the backfield. If we are continuing to make Auburn comparisons, then Johnson is the de facto Onterio McCalebb. (There is, to be perfectly obvious, no Michael Dyer.)
Kedric Murray (6'3, 265, Sr.) -- 16 targets, 9 catches (56% catch rate), 38 yards (2.4/target)
Anthony Kincy (6'0, 232, Sr.) -- 9 targets, 7 catches (78%), 72 yards (8.0/target)
In terms of general alignment, the only major difference between Arkansas State's and Auburn's offenses this year was the use of an H-Back instead of a tight end. These positions are quite similar, obviously, but in theory the H-Back is part-tight end, part-fullback. At Auburn, Philip Lutzenkirchen was an extremely useful H-Back for Malzahn. He was used mostly as a blocker, then bled out into the flat for key third-down and touchdown catches. Kedric Murray is pretty big for an H-Back, but between he and Anthony Kincy, a decent H-Back should emerge. Kincy showed a little bit more receiving prowess (albeit in a tiny sample size), but Murray was ahead of him on the depth chart, suggesting he is a better blocker.
Josh Jarboe (6'3, 215, Sr.) -- 78 targets, 52 catches (67%), 707 yards (9.1/target), 2 TD
Taylor Stockemer (6'4, 210, Sr.) -- 63 targets, 37 catches (59%), 571 yards (9.1/target), 6 TD
Earl Lucas (5'9, 157, So.) -- 23 targets, 15 catches (65%), 181 yards (7.9)
Allen Muse (6'4, 215, Sr.) -- 23 targets, 16 catches (70%), 154 yards (6.7), 2 TD
R.J. Fleming (5'10, 170, So.) -- 13 targets, 13 catches (100%), 76 yards (5.8)
Julian Jones (6'0, 190, Jr.) -- 5 targets, 4 catches (80%), 88 yards (17.6)
Malzahn will find plenty to work with here. All-conference receiver Dwayne Frampton departs -- the senior came alive (sorry) with 90 catches, a 78-percent catch rate, 1,125 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2011 -- but the two other primary targets return. Between Frampton, Josh Jarboe and Taylor Stockemer, it is quite possible that ASU's receiving corps was better than Auburn's banged-up unit this season.
You probably recognize Josh Jarboe's name. Jarboe was the once-blue chip recruit who signed with Oklahoma but was dismissed before his first game for showing up on YouTube rapping about guns and shooting people. He showed up at Troy, then was kicked off the team there too. His junior college coach convinced Hugh Freeze to take a chance on him, and by all accounts he has been a perfect citizen in Jonesboro. He will presumably take over the No. 1 spot in the receiving corps; both he and Taylor Stockemer provided a nice combination of efficiency (combined catch rate: 63 percent) and explosiveness (combined yards per catch: 14.3), and they should be able to account for the loss Frampton without any serious drop-off.
Projected Two-Deep -- Offensive Tackle
Zack McKnight (6'4, 300, Sr.) -- 12 career starts
Chris Tolbert (6'5, 275, Jr.)
Kevin Galindo (6'5, 285, Sr.)
Projected Two-Deep -- Center
Eric Allen (6'1, 300, Sr.) -- 7 career starts
While the quarterback and receiver positions are well-stocked, there is work to do at both running back and offensive line. ASU ranked 27th in Adj. Line Yards and 57th in Adj. Sack Rate this season -- both strong rankings for a Sun Belt team -- but 55 of the team's 86 career starts depart after the bowl game. All-conference center Tom Castilaw, second-team all-conference tackle Delano Moore and guard Alex Kautai are all seniors and will leave behind a bit of a depleted depth chart.
There are toys for Malzahn to play with on the offensive side of the ball, but perhaps his biggest challenge in Jonesboro will be restocking a depleted defense. The Red Wolves ranked an extremely respectable 42nd in Def. F/+ in 2011 but must replace a whopping four first-team all-conference seniors -- lineman Brandon Joiner (34.0 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks), linebacker Demario Davis (46.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) and defensive backs Darryl Feemster (34.0 tackles, 5 INT, 7 PBU) and Kelcie McCray (46.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 4 PBU).
One has to hand it to the Sun Belt conference. They are figuring out ways to improve their lot in life. Mario Cristobal has built the Florida International program out of nothing, Willie Taggart has basically done the same at Western Kentucky, Mark Hudspeth led Louisiana-Lafayette to its first bowl game in 2011, and old hands Larry Blakeney (Troy) and Dan McCarney (North Texas) are still kicking around and could produce interesting teams in the future. This conference has raised its level of football in recent years, and assuming Malzahn is indeed introduced as Arkansas State's head coach today, they just claimed their most high-profile leader yet.