State Of The Hogs: The New OC

It's nice to be inside the fence at Arkansas' football practice these days. It's nice to watch new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn put the Hogs through their paces.

But what is even nicer is to listen to some real experts after they've seen what Gus is doing on the practice field. It's good to get some inside information from some veteran coaches, often the guests of Houston Nutt and his staff at practice.

That happened two weeks ago when John Thompson and Ronnie Huckeba spent the afternoon watching the Hogs. Earlier this week, it was Jesse Branch. Those three men liked what they saw and were happy to share their thoughts on where the Arkansas offense is headed.

Up, up and away, each of them said.

Branch, UA lettermen and former staffer under Frank Broyles and Lou Holtz, smiled as he discussed why he thinks his school is on good footing with Malzahn in charge of the offense. The former head coach at Southwest Missouri (now Missouri State) and Henderson State, Branch is a big fan of Malzahn. A couple of years back he invited Malzahn to lead his high school coaching clinic at Henderson State. Branch also tried to talk Malzahn into becoming head coach at Henderson State, Malzahn's alma mater.

"I think a lot of Gus," Branch said. "He's as good a coach as I know and I don't care if you are talking college or high school. It comes down to teaching and I think he's just brilliant, maybe as good as I've seen. I sat in that room and listened to Gus talk about his system. He knows offense. He knows the game. He will do great in the SEC. I'm very happy he's here."

Branch isn't alone in his thoughts. One of his favorite coaches is Rick Jones, now at Greenwood. Branch hired him to help coach his offenses at Southwest Missouri. He's followed his coaching career at several stops, including Tulsa Union and Broken Arrow.

"I think Rick Jones is a great offensive mind and you should hear him talk about Gus," Branch said. "He thinks Gus is as fine a coach as there is around football. He's as high on Gus as you could get."

What makes Malzahn great?

"You watch him out there right now and you can see it," Branch said. "He's teaching his players. If they don't get it, he teaches it again. He is coaching them hard and he knows exactly what he wants as far as routes and reads.

"Look, right now he is showing the quarterback the reads. He's the safety or a linebacker, and when he steps one way, the pass goes another way. He's making sure they get the read and the timing just right. It isn't about drawing up plays, it's coaching the plays. He's going to have them doing it just right."

Thompson has coordinated defenses at three SEC schools, including Arkansas. Recently retired from coaching and in private business in Conway, he rode to the UA with Huckeba (father of former UA defender Jeb Huckeba) and other staff members at Harding University. Those two veteran defenses coaches nodded their head in approval as Malzahn's players lined up in the team segment of drills last week.

"Good stuff, very good," said Thompson. "He's got weapons in all of those backs and is using his personnel very wisely. I would not want to defend that package. Part of it is the package, but just as much it is the personnel. When you have backs like Peyton Hillis, Darren McFadden and Michael Smith -- yes, Michael Smith is a dynamite SEC type back -- that puts a lot of pressure on the defense when they are spread across the formation like he's got them right now. Good stuff. I like it. He's got some very good stuff.

"He'll do fine. I've heard a lot about what he was doing at Springdale. He understands offense and he understands defense."

Huckeba is a big fan of Malzahn, too. He has studied plenty of Springdale tape as he both looked for players and watched for offensive trends.

"There will be some things he did not see in high school, but it won't be anything he can't cope with because he's as fine a coach as I've seen come along," Huckeba said. "The speed of the SEC is the best. That will make it a little tougher, but he's seeing speed in practice every day here since he's going against this defense. They are hitting plays against this defense today.

"There will be some junk defenses that he'll see in college where the safeties and corners are moving a little more than he saw in high school, but he won't have trouble figuring it out. It is still football. He's going to do very well in the SEC.

"What I see is that they are still solid in the running game and have added some things in the passing game. They are definitely more multiple as far as formations."

That's the same reason the Hogs' offensive players are happy these days. They like the balanced look of the attack. Senior left guard Stephen Parker, perhaps the most physical blocker on a veteran offensive line, spoke of balance when asked what's the key aspect of Malzahn's offense. Then, he made it clear that the players know it is Malzahn's offense.

"Monday, after we were done, he called us sloppy and told us how it was going to be if we were going to be on his offense," said Parker. "He told us that to play that way was not acceptable. If we couldn't play it the right way, then we needed to get off his offense. He made it clear it was his offense and let us know what was expected.

"He didn't raise his voice. It is cut and dried with him. You don't want it his way, then get off the offense. He stood up and took control yesterday. It was pretty cool.

"I like the offense. We had a good running game last year. We were as good as anyone in the country running the ball. But you can have all of those fakes and spread people around in formations and unless people believe you can pass it, they aren't going to honor any of those fakes.

"With Coach Malzahn we are going to have balance. We are going to be able to protect and do it in man schemes. The blitzes are slowing down now. We see them and we are able to handle them. It's starting to come together. We are going to have that balance this year."

Some of those veteran coaches I've seen at practice believe that, too. Hearing it from a player is one thing, but hearing it from guys like Jesse Branch, John Thompson and Ronnie Huckeba is another story.

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