AUBURN, Ala. — The last thing Gus Malzahn wants Saturday to be about is himself.
He understands why it’s a storyline; any time a coach faces a former team, it’s a topic that will be rehashed until seconds before kickoff. Of course, Malzahn is in a situation that is strange even in the wacky world of collegiate athletics. Saturday, he’ll be coaching against a non-conference foe in Arkansas State that he was leading just one season ago.
Any thoughts or concerns Auburn’s head coach has about the Red Wolves have been put on the back burner, though.
“Personally, I care greatly for a lot of their players,” Malzahn said. “Their administration was great to me while I was there. It was a very good experience, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity they gave me. Professionally, you've got to flip the switch and once the game starts, you do everything in your power to help your team win. And we'll definitely do that.”
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Malzahn’s familiarity with Arkansas State’s personnel, especially offensively, has helped Ellis Johnson’s preparation immensely. The defensive coordinator said Malzahn sat in on a few meetings and discussed some of the plays and formations the Red Wolves were likely to run. When Johnson turned on the film, they did just that.
Yes, there were a few variations in formations, due to Malzahn’s influence combining with new Arkansas State head coach Bryan Harsin’s philosophies. But by and large, Johnson noted few differences.
“They have really good tight ends, and we're more of an H-back, roving moving fullback, so there's a little different flavor in the formations that they do,” he said. “(But) some of the run plays are the exact same run plays, just out of a different set. As we watched the game, it was very good insight.”
Harsin laughed off the notion that Malzahn’s history with Arkansas State will make Saturday’s game any tougher for his team.
It was already a tall order to begin with, he said.
“Our players have watched the film, and they know that the opponent they're going to play against is very good,” Harsin said. “So we have a big challenge on top of that, along with the knowledge that he knows these players and they know he's been around them and so he understands them. But the biggest thing is just the one-on-one battles and the opponent that we have to play.”
The shoe is also on the other foot, since the Red Wolves are aware of Malzahn’s tendencies offensively. To counter this, Malzahn said he and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have talked about making slight alterations to their signals and calls at the line of scrimmage to avoid Arkansas State deciphering the play before the ball is snapped.
“You got to think ahead when you’re playing somebody and all that and you got to keep the integrity of your system and your communication system,” Malzahn said. “That’s always something you’re aware of when you got somebody that used to work with you. We thought through that.”
Foreknowledge aside, the Tigers realize Saturday’s game is far from a guarantee. That the Red Wolves hail from the non-BCS Sun Belt Conference means little. It’s a program that has grown accustomed to winning, capturing back-to-belt conference titles and posting double-digit victory totals each of the past two seasons.
No one has a better grasp on Arkansas State’s winning ways better than the man who will be on the opposite sideline come Saturday.
“Those guys are winners. They've won nine straight,” Malzahn said. “They're going to come in here with the expectation of winning and we'll have to play a really good football game to beat them.”