LINCOLN — Run it, run it, run it, RUN IT!
Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin knows his coach and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is behind him in practice, barking for the offense to go faster, faster, faster.
“As fast as humanly possible,” Aplin said in a phone interview. Within 12 to 15 seconds of the play clock starting during a game. In practice, it's even quicker. A pace that produced 1,149 yards and 67 points in Arkansas State's first two games. A pace that flustered Nebraska's defense at UCLA, and could again when the Red Wolves head to Lincoln for their 11 a.m. game Saturday.
“We want 80-plus plays every game,” Malzahn said in his weekly press conference.
Between the lines, the ultra-competitive Malzahn — who's been in college football since just 2006 but won a national title in 2010 directing Cam Newton at Auburn — is a perfectionist's perfectionist. No detail's too small, Aplin said. No aspect of the game too small for the offense to do again if it isn't done right the first time.
Exhibit A: Malzahn wants a pass thrown to the receiver's outside shoulder. Aplin throws it to the inside shoulder. Repeat. Then he hits the receiver in the numbers. Repeat. Outside shoulder. There's only one place where that ball can go.
Exhibit B: Malzahn gives his offense five plays to run without a hitch. One mistake — alignment, drop, read — the five plays reset. Recently, the Red Wolves got to play No. 4, messed up, and started over. Malzahn likes to test his players when they're tired, Aplin said, “because that's what separates good teams from great ones.”
“You're going to do it until you do it right,” Aplin said. “It gets under your skin a little, but in the end, he makes you a better player. He's one of the best minds in college football.”
Aplin — a 6-foot-1, 205-pounder from Tampa — had accomplished a lot before Malzahn arrived from Auburn.
He was the 2011 Sun Belt offensive player of the year. He entered his senior season already owning the school record for completions; he's in the ASU record book in total offense. Arkansas State won 10 games in last year, sweeping through the conference undefeated. That season earned then-ASU coach Hugh Freeze a promotion to Ole Miss.
Malzahn, who had already turned down the Vanderbilt job, took a pay cut to move from Auburn back to Arkansas — where he'd become a high school head coaching legend at two schools with his no-huddle offense.
He even wrote a book on it: “The Hurry-Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy.” In a yellowish seal on the cover, Malzahn's book touts “The Offense That Averaged Almost 7,000 Yards Per Season!” Malzahn spent one year coordinating Arkansas' offense, two years at Tulsa and three years at Auburn.
Malzahn cemented his pedigree with Newton. In one year, Newton threw for 2,854 yards, rushed for 1,473 and accounted for 50 touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. The Tigers won the national title.
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Fast forward to this spring. Whenever Aplin wanted to watch cut-ups of Malzahn's offense executed to the hilt, the new coach turned on some clips of Newton.
“And I thought, ‘Wow, I don't look anything like that,'” Aplin said.
Still, Aplin said, the film sessions helped him to understand the level of efficiency and poise Malzahn demands from his quarterback. Aplin has to digest a lot. He calls late on a Tuesday night after a meeting with coach.
Malzahn knows there's a learning curve for Aplin and the offense. Though Freeze ran a similar offense, Malzahn's is faster, using different terminology. And Arkansas State has lost a glut of wide receivers to a variety of issues, including Allen Muse leaving the program Wednesday for personal reasons.
“(Aplin) is a veteran guy,” Malzahn said during the Sun Belt coaches' call. “At the same time he's still learning our offense. He has two games under his belt. I really felt like he's done some solid things. He's a very good decision-maker and he's protected the ball pretty well so far.”
So far, Aplin's thrown for 606 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. That included 304 yards and three scores against Oregon, which raced to a 50-3 lead before coasting to a 57-34 victory Sept. 1. In a 33-28 win against Memphis last weekend, he completed all three passes and ran for a first down on the game-winning drive.
Next is Nebraska. Aplin's praise for the Huskers' defense is effusive and hardly acknowledges the 36-30 loss at UCLA last week. Of particular concern to Arkansas State, Aplin said, is senior safety Daimion Stafford.
Then again, Aplin's memory of NU — a 38-9 loss in 2009 — includes one of the best defenses in Husker history, anchored by multi-award winner Ndamukong Suh and motivated by a crowd that Sun Belt schools like Arkansas State like to face.
“We enjoy it,” Aplin said. “With 60, 70 or 80,000 fans booing you.”
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