It seems like everything about first-year head coach Gus Malzahn's debut season at Arkansas State has been fast. With Oregon and Nebraska on the schedule right out of the gate and the introduction of a high-paced no-huddle offense, the Red Wolves has a lot on their plate this spring.
Over the next few weeks, HuskerOnline.com will go in-depth on NU's 12 opponents coming out of the spring and what their strengths and weaknesses are heading into the 2012 season. Today, we caught up with RedWolfReport.com publisher Luke Matheson to get his thoughts and perceptive on the Red Wolves coming out of spring ball.
Obviously the big topic this spring was the introduction of Malzahn. Talk about what you saw from him and how the team transitioned to him over the course of spring ball.
"It's been a transition for the kids, definitely. A lot of guys I've talked to on the team talked about how learning the offense was not that complicated because (former coach) Hugh Freeze, before he went to Ole Miss, he ran Malzahn's offense, or one similar to it anyway. A lot of it was learning the different play calls between the different staffs, but the big thing was, I had Ryan Aplin and even Phillip Butterfield, the two quarterbacks, they were like, 'Gosh, we thought we were fast under Hugh Freeze. This is a completely different thing under Gus Malzahn.'
"I've spoke to Malzahn about that, and he said, 'We're going run hurry-up, no-huddle all game long. Even our defense will go no-huddle.' That's something that he was really pushing hard through the spring, to be conditioned for that very thing. Just for instance, in the spring game, in a two-hour long game, they had almost 200 snaps. They had a game's worth of snaps in less than an hour. That's how fast they were running the tempo."
I know Nebraska has had some issues switching to a fast-paced offense over the past couple years. How have the players adjusted to Malzahn's offensive tempo so far?
"They're moving fast, but he realizes that he's got to do a little bit at a time at the same time. The team, by the end of spring camp, they talked about how they realized the tempo's going to be even faster in fall camp, but over the those couple weeks (of spring) they were able to pick up the tempo. That was something even Malzahn said, he was very satisfied and very impressed with the tempo of the spring game and the way the team handled it."
Last year, Arkansas State was a perfect 8-0 in the Sun Belt, won a conference championship, but lost in its bowl game. Where is the confidence level of this team right now?
"Well you know, the team, they've got some confidence coming in after last year, winning the conference championship. They probably should've won their bowl game, but with everything that happened with Freeze, it had a mental effect on the team. I remember there were several guys that I saw on Twitter and heard them in person saying 'What's the point of even playing this game?' And that was the night before kickoff. It was a lost cause because of the mentality the team had. At the same time, they realize what caliber of opponents they have when they go up to Oregon and what kind of opponent they have going to Nebraska. I think that's a lot of the reason they're working on such a tempo, is Arkansas State, let's be honest, they're only going to have minimal advantages, and that may be the case.
"It's a cliché that you've got to out-score your opponents to win, but with the fact that the defense lost so much - they're going to be playing a lot of true freshmen on defense, it looks like - they're literally going to have to out-score their opponents to win, be it Oregon, Nebraska, Louisiana-Lafayette or Louisiana-Monroe. It's not just Oregon or you guys either. It's everybody until that defense gets on. That was really the key to last year's team. They had a salty defense, and I think that was evident with how many defensive players went to the NFL this year."
With last year's success in mind, where is Arkansas State's talent level compared to what it had in 2011?
"Offensively they've got a lot of talent, and then you've got the ace in the hole in Michael Dyer. If for some reason they're able to get the NCAA to give him eligibility this year, regardless of the opponent, it's going to be tough to stop Michael Dyer. I mean, he's a 2,500-yard rusher in the SEC. I mean, it's very unlikely at this point that Michael Dyer is going to play, and Coach Malzahn said that himself about two days ago. They've got two solid quarterbacks, and they've got a solid receiving corps. They lost some receivers, but they do have some key receivers coming back also. Allen Muse is coming back, and Josh Jarboe is coming back. Jarboe, I don't know if you remember, he was a five-star receiver that signed with Oklahoma originally out of high school. There is a solid group of receivers coming back.
"There's some questions on the offensive line, but they've got some juco guys coming in that could potentially fill some of those roles there. Like I said, defensively, man, it's going to be a lot of question marks on defense. I've got a kid from my hometown that's a linebacker who signed with them, and they told him 'you're already bigger and faster than half the guys we've got on our squad out here playing.' That's what I think is going to hurt Arkansas State the most this year, is the defense. As I eluded to earlier, they're going to have to rely on Malzahn's offense to literally out-score people, where last year they had a good offense that could score, but they depended on the defense a lot. They're not going to be able to do that this year."
With the inexperience issues you've mentioned on defense, is there any concern about running such a fast-paced offense and not focusing on keeping the defense off the field?
"I don't think so with Malzahn, because if you look back to when he was at Tulsa and they had a similar situation, he and Todd Graham kind of got into it about that. He was saying that Malzahn wasn't leaving his defense enough time because they were young and weren't used to that. But Malzahn, he was full throttle offensively. Yeah, I have that concern, like crap, you go out there and score in three plays, then you're defense is out there for nine to 12 plays on a good long drive. Then you go back and score on three more, and they're out there for another nine to 12, or the offense decides to slow it down and you're out there longer, maybe even a 16-play drive. Yeah it's going to impact the defense, and I'm concerned about that and I know some fans are. But just going by what I've heard so far, I think Malzahn is going to go full throttle on offense."
In your opinion, what are your honest expectations for Arkansas State this season?
"Well you know there are several teams around the Sun Belt that are not really in a rebuilding mode, but a lot like Arkansas State where they've got bits and pieces here and there, but they might not have a complete team. I don't think that they're going to go undefeated in conference this year the way they did last year, but I do think that if they can get all the pieces to go with the younger guys they have coming back on defense and get some confidence in them once you get into conference play, I think they could still make a run at the conference championship. Definitely now that Arkansas State has a couple of extra bowl tie-ins, I still think that they can finish in the top three and go to a bowl game."