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What would a Gus Malzahn (or Norvell, or Morris) Spread Offense look like at Arkansas?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Speculation is flying on who will end up taking the job at Arkansas but there is a pretty good indication that a No Huddle Spread scheme will be on the resume of the hire. The game in the SEC has been steadily trending toward fast paced spread offenses over the last several seasons, and it is hard to find a traditional under center offense anymore. We have even witnessed teams like Alabama scrapping the old one back power running game in favor of a spread based zone read, RPO version that still relies on downhill runs.

If the names floating around become a reality either Gus Malzahn, Mike Norvell, Chad Morris, or another guy not mentioned will take over, and odds are that they will be based out of a shotgun spread offense. There just are not many traditional under center offenses out there with Stanford, Michigan, Wisconsin, formerly Jim Mcelwain at Florida and of course Bielema over the last 5 seasons.

As much criticism as Jeff Long received, his choice of going against the grain in terms of football evolution was the biggest risk and it failed miserably.

The fact is that Gus Malzahn has developed a power spread offense that relies on fast pace, misdirection, quick screen passing and deep playaction. Those are the foundations of his philosophy, and yes he likes to have a running quarterback in the mix and fortunately Arkansas has just that in Cole Kelley.

The Auburn Offense under Malzahn has finished within the top four rushing offenses 4 times out of the last 5 seasons. That is no easy feat against Alabama, LSU, and permanent SEC East rival Georgia every year.

When Gus can run the ball he does, when he can’t he runs it in different ways. One of the favorite formations to do just that in his offense is Slant shown below.

Malzahn Arkansas offense

The H back is key to running the ball out of this look where teams will likely show a 7 man box on standard downs. That Hback type of player is actually a strength for the current roster at Arkansas before any transfers. Austin Cantrell, Hayden Johnson, Cheyenne O’grady all fit that mold perfectly. To a lesser extent Will Gragg, Jeremy Patton, Jack Kraus are more of true TE’s and Kendrick Jackson a true FB. The utilization of an H-back creates a lot of the +1 match ups where the H-back is asked to lead on a DE on power, or IZ with an arc block or kick out.

If those plays get stuffed with extra defenders crashing inside the jet sweeps and bubble screens to the Z receiver are used to force that extra LB or SS out of the box to contain on the edge. Arkansas has fallen victim to this inside outside dilemma against Auburn the past couple of seasons where they were lacking versatile linebackers.

Additionally the Malzahn Power spread tends to take shots in the play action passing game deep downfield setting up many big plays.

What weapons would a spread offense have already at Arkansas?

Running backs: Depth at this position would not be ideal for any of the potential coaches. Devwah Whaley had an unimpressive Sophomore season with only 559 yards on 127 carries. Whether he is a prominent feature in the backfield with a new system is a big question mark when another coach has Chase Hayden and Maleek Williams as a choice. If Hayden can return from his injury 100% he could add that quickness in the zone blocking scheme reminiscent of Tre Carson, Michael Dyer and past Auburn backs.

Malzahn has churned out 1000 yd rushers every year he has been in the SEC, and would likely do the same with any of these three backs and a rotation.

During his tenure at Auburn he has gone several directions both using RB by committee and at times going with the majority of carries to one back. How those touches would be distributed would be a big question mark.

Quarterback: Yes Malzahn likes to run zone reads, RPO’s, and designed quarterback runs. Does his offense always have to have a guy that is a great runner? No, not necessarily, but when he does they are a match-up nightmare. He has had success with guys at the position that were just average runners (Stidham, Sean White, Ryan Aplin (ASU)) and some that were explosive. (Newton, Marshall)

Neither Norvell or Morris feature the QB in the run game like Malzahn, but the called runs would be a cheap addition to any offense.

In the passing game, play action and moving the pocket at times is used. Also throwing quick screens on RPO’s has been a staple very much like what Dan Enos brought to the table in the last couple seasons at Arkansas.

TE/HBack: As discussed above the H-back is key in multiple formations handling inside blocking duties. Slipping out in pass routes and verticals are a big part of the job and Arkansas has a wealth at the position to fill all needs here.

Offensive Line: Obviously the least talented spot, and whoever the new HC is will need to recruit their way out. Herb Hand is as good as any oline coach out there and would be highly influential in developing a quicker, more mobile offensive line at Arkansas. Pace of play is a big part and it seemed Arkansas offensive line faded at the end of games over Bielema’s tenure. Malzahn slowed down his pace over the last few seasons but before the 2017 season vowed to pick it back up. They are currently in the upper 13 of College Football in plays per game and 2nd in the SEC.

2017 SEC Tempo

Conf. Team Poss / Gm Plays / Gm Plays / Poss Plays / Min Avg TOP (min) Avg Drive Time (min)
Conf. Team Poss / Gm Plays / Gm Plays / Poss Plays / Min Avg TOP (min) Avg Drive Time (min)
SEC Mississippi State 13.42 76.17 5.68 2.26 33.7 2.51
SEC Auburn 13.67 72.83 5.33 2.31 31.49 2.3
SEC Texas A&M 14.83 71.92 4.85 2.47 29.13 1.96
SEC Missouri 13.83 70.67 5.11 2.82 25.04 1.81
SEC Alabama 12.25 67.5 5.51 2.26 29.84 2.44
SEC Mississippi 13.75 67 4.87 2.66 25.22 1.83
SEC Arkansas 12.75 66.92 5.25 2.13 31.41 2.46
SEC LSU 12.83 65.58 5.11 2.04 32.16 2.51
SEC Florida 13.18 64.64 4.9 2.08 31.05 2.36
SEC Georgia 12.42 64.33 5.18 1.99 32.33 2.6
SEC Kentucky 12.17 62.92 5.17 2.04 30.85 2.54
SEC Vanderbilt 12.5 62.33 4.99 2.12 29.37 2.35
SEC South Carolina 12.08 62.25 5.15 2.15 28.95 2.4
SEC Tennessee 12.67 59.58 4.7 2.11 28.23 2.23

WR: Not a wealth of talent or experience at the position, especially going to a base 3 or 4 wide offense but there were some bright spots in 2017. The best case would be for Jordan Jones, Nance, Martin, Pettway and TJ Hammonds to make steady improvement in a simplified passing game. As many have pointed out Malzahn doesn’t spend as much capital complicating the passing game as some coaches, but balances this with motion and presnap shifts.

So it is a good guess to say that what ever name is announced will have a background in no huddle spread. I really think Arkansas has the pieces in place to run what any of the three coaches would like to build on offense. A transition in offensive philosophy is always tricky and a slow start would be expected but the toolbox of talent is not completely empty.