Auburn's Malzahn set to face former team, Arkansas State
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Gus Malzahn didn't spend much time at Arkansas State, just enough to win a quick Sun Belt Conference title and land a bigger job in the SEC.
The first-year Auburn coach and much of his staff will have a reunion with their old team Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium, nine months after leaving Jonesboro. Malzahn is businesslike more than sentimental, but speaks fondly of a Red Wolves group he describes as "a lot of winners."
"Personally, I care greatly for a lot of their players," he said Tuesday. "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."
Maybe Arkansas State will have a little extra motivation. The Red Wolves have won two straight league titles only to lose their coach to the SEC West. First, Hugh Freeze, who stayed one year and was hired at Mississippi. Then, Malzahn, who returned to the school where he spent three seasons as offensive coordinator before taking his first college head coaching job with the Red Wolves.
His Arkansas State successor, Bryan Harsin, figures the relationship between his players and Malzahn and facing a Southeastern Conference team "are very hard to not think about."
"I think our guys will handle that," Harsin said. "They've been in some of those games, but I know that will be an emotional game."
Malzahn took offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, offensive line coach J.B. Grimes and most of his support staff with him to Auburn.
That familiarity means the offensive-minded Malzahn spent a little extra time with the defensive staff discussing Arkansas State's personnel.
Lashlee said he recruited a "handful" of players on Arkansas State's offense and one or two on defense. Now, they'll try to beat each other.
"I thought last year that we brought in a pretty good class at Arkansas State," Lashlee said. "Those guys are winners. They've won nine straight. 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."
They're certainly familiar with Arkansas State tailback David Oku, who rushed for 16 touchdowns last season after transferring from Tennessee. Oku was one of four Arkansas State players to rush for 100-plus yards in the opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
He's now on his fourth head coach in as many years, going back to Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley at Tennessee. Oku said he signed with the Red Devils largely because he wanted to play in Malzahn's offense.
He said his initial reaction to the coach's departure was, "Oh no, not again."
"Who could possibly dream that up or even think that could happen to them?" said Oku, who was recruited by Auburn. "To me, it was crazy, and I wondered if I made the wrong decision.
"Coaches are going to do what's best for them, but It's helped me become a lot stronger today."
AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Jonesboro, Ark., contributed to this report.