Home / Columns / Top Gun: Military Tenets of the Gus Malzahn Offense, Part I

Top Gun: Military Tenets of the Gus Malzahn Offense, Part I

Gus Malzahn’s offensive system has reached a level of celebrity that his play design copycats now include Pete Carroll, head coach of the world champion Seattle Seahawks. But there is more to Malzahn’s methods than an innovative playbook melded from the Wing T, innovative blocking schemes, zone read, and a modern aerial attack.  A deeper understanding of how Malzahn is usually two steps ahead of opponent defenses is found in the military doctrines and theories of Col. John Boyd’s “OODA Loop” and maneuver warfare.  In a two-part series for TWER, Doug Dean takes a deeper dive into the conceptual parallels of Malzahn’s offensive system and maneuver warfare theory.


“And that is the business of decision cycles, or inside the decision loop, as people say.  If, in fact, you can deceive [your enemy] with respect to what you are going to do, to cause him further confusion and make him keep his force in place one day too long, then, in fact, you find yourself all the way to Baghdad.”  

— Gen Tommy Franks, Commander, USCENTCOM in Peter Boyer, “The New War Machine,” The New Yorker, June 30, 2003

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

—  Sun Tzu, the Art of War


In the beginning, there was smash mouth football, and football fans saw that it was good, and normal, and quite American, and they smiled.  Indeed, the early roots of football celebrated raw American brawn, and the game properly symbolized the labor-intensive steel production of its day, the beating heart of the economy.  The point of the game was a test of pure size and explosive strength, with interior lines crashing violently into one another at the fairly predictable snap of the ball.

Deception was infrequent in offensive tactics, giving way to a cloud of dust on a three-yard gain.  But the game was normal for its day, and quite American.

While the legalization of the forward pass forced by Roosevelt in 1906 would not usher in high octane offense overnight, the motivation of its proponents bears a striking resemblance to the debate over modern day offenses.  The New York Times said in September 1906 after that rule change that “. . . the main efforts of the football reformers have been to ‘open up the game’—that is to provide for the natural elimination of the so-called mass plays and bring about a game in which speed and real skill shall supersede so far as possible, mere brute strength and force of weight.”

Sparing the reader of a concise history of American offensive football following the advent of the forward pass, suffice to say that the evolution of the passing attack – interrupted curiously in the ‘60s and ‘70s by the wishbone attack’s adaptation of ground attack origins – forced major shifts upon defensive coaches to account for the entire field.  It can be argued that this paralleled the shift in the American economy from agriculture / manufacturing to a more diverse economic machine as seen in post-war prosperity and the post-industrial service economy.

As a wide array of styles and offensive systems brought diversity and electricity to the game, and records from a by-gone era were shattered, it was natural to conclude that the well of innovation in offenses was running dry.  There appeared to be numerous ways to win big offensively, from Spurrier’s high octane precision passing attacks of the early ‘90’s Gator teams to the devastating rushing attack of Tom Osborne’s Nebraska team in ‘95, culminating in the ‘Huskers’ 62-24 annihilation of the Gators in the ‘96 Fiesta Bowl.

But offensive philosophy is an unfaithful lover, and she had several more flirtations in the offing.  The 1992 action by the NCAA schools’ presidents and athletic directors to limit Division I-A scholarships to its present number of 85 would gradually create parity.  Even blue blood programs which had adopted systems premised on the Colin Powell doctrine of overwhelming force were increasingly losing games they shouldn’t, to less talented teams with offensive systems that leveled the playing field.

Bill Walsh, the late, great offensive innovator had a deep conviction that coaches have to be flexible in order to be successful over any sustained length of time.  Adapt, or go the way of T. Rex.

As the forces of parity and offensive innovation converged, it advanced the game’s complexity, and spawned the need for some new competitive advantage without any clear precedent in American football history.  Stubborn old school offensive minds came to terms with a new reality – with the athletes you have in today’s defenses, who are bigger, faster, and stronger, you can’t just line up in base and expect to smash mouth them.  You have to create space in the running game, by design.

Begging the reader’s mercy for skipping a chapter or two in modern offensive evolution, what emerged as a game changer was a new concept – nonstop hurry-up.  Not merely the two-minute offense long practiced in late half or game desperation, but the no-huddle rapid attack as the core offensive system.

Curiously, up tempo systems “trickled up” from the high school ranks, borne of coaches’ need to level the talent field with their often out-manned teams.  The hurry-up was gradually adopted by college level innovators, and today, is being widely experimented with in the NFL.  In the late 1990’s, at Shiloh Christian, Gus Malzahn would stake an inventor’s claim in his book, The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy.

It is well documented what Malzahn’s system produced, leading the nation in total offense as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator in 2007-2008, destroying numerous offensive records in 2010 featuring inside runs with Cam Newton, and in 2013, becoming the first SEC team in 30 years to average over 300 yard rushing per game, utilizing the zone read to get Marshall on the edge or Tre Mason inside or off tackle.  Despite deploying his team’s playmaking abilities differently each season, Malzahn adhered to his hurry-up no-huddle philosophy tactically to competitive advantage.  The results were astonishing, despite the Tigers facing superior defensive talent in at least 3-4 games.

But there is a lot more at work in the elegant simplicity of Malzahn’s HUNH system than meets the eye, and much of it has little to do with individual play calls.  At the heart of the effectiveness of the system – which is by no means solely owned by Malzahn – is best understood in the context of the military doctrines of Col. John Boyd’s “OODA Loop” and the military doctrine of maneuver warfare.

Boyd helped to create the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. While there from 1954-1960, he was nicknamed “Forty Second Boyd”, as he had a standing offer to any pilot that he could outmaneuver an opponent on his tail (‘on his six’) and be in position to shoot him down in 40 seconds or he would pay that pilot forty bucks. In six years and over 3,000 hours of combat training, he never lost the bet, and he usually won in 10 seconds.  Only one pilot (a Marine) got a draw; Boyd got him off his tail but couldn’t reverse the position in 40 seconds!

Boyd’s only brief he ever wrote was in 1976 (the standard practice of communications in the USAF were visual briefings, and Boyd gave a slew of them, sometimes two or three days in duration) and called Destruction and Creation. It was out of this brief that his now famous O-O-D-A loop emerged ( O-O-D-A = Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action).

High School football fans in the Birmingham area will recall Hoover quarterback Jarod Bryant, who earned “Mr. Football” honors his senior season (which happened to be Hoover’s 3rd consecutive state 6A title) before heading to the Naval Academy in Annapolis.  Bryant is now a pilot for the U.S. Marines, and in active duty in the Middle East.  I recently discussed the military theory parallels with Malzahn’s application of his HUNH offense, and it caught Bryant’s attention.


Jarod Bryant, Midshipmen Quarterback/ Photo: Tommy Gilligan
Jarod Bryant, Midshipmen Quarterback/ Photo: Tommy Gilligan

“MCDP 1 Warfighting is a doctrinal publication that describes how the Marine Corps fights, and wins,” explains Bryant.  “Chapter Four goes into detail on the conduct of war and more specifically maneuver warfare. What is amazing (and awesome in my mind) is how many of these warfighting concepts can be seen implemented in the game of football, and how some of them have Coach Malzahn’s HUNH concepts written all over them.”

Bryant then draws on his own experience as a quarterback to draw an intriguing parallel between military concepts and the Malzahn HUNH.

“The first two Os of Col. Boyd’s OODA Loop (Observe and Orient),” said Bryant, “is analogous to situational awareness. I can remember being a young quarterback in college and having trouble moving from the observing and orienting stage to the decision and action stage. The game was moving at a pace in which as a young quarterback at the time, I was not able to cope, and I would hesitate.  That is, to put it in Boyd’s words, my OODA loop was not moving fast enough to keep up with the ever changing situation.  A HUNH offense like what Coach Malzahn has implemented at Auburn makes a defense hesitate, and when he’s got it going at NASCAR speed, actually severs communication between the opposing defensive coordinator and his players.  The speed at which they operate and the misdirection built into their system creates a ‘turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope’ – the enemy being a defense in this case.  As the play caller of this offense, Coach Malzahn isn’t simply trying to run a bunch of plays, he is trying to create an environment on the other side of the field that is chaotic, apprehensive, and ultimately, fatigued – especially mentally.”

Bryant goes on to pinpoint specific maneuver warfare doctrine tenets that form the core of how Marines and Navy SEALs excel in warfare, and the parallels with Malzahn’s HUNH philosophy become self-evident.

“The maneuver warfare doctrine is a warfighting philosophy that specifically states the goal of shattering the enemy’s cohesion,” says Bryant, “through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.”

It’s important to understand that for Malzahn to operate at a faster decision cycle, or as Boyd would put it, a tighter OODA loop, snapping the ball before 25 seconds on the play clock is not essential every down.  Malzahn and Lashlee can accomplish the disruptive, paralyzing objective on a defense through multiple tactics, and the mere threat of hurry-up on any play can impede smart defensive substitutions.  In addition, Malzahn continually installs a wide array of visual in-game distractions for the opponent, confusion, and intentionally established tendencies that he will break at strategic moments.

“The doctrine states that the inherent objective in maneuver warfare,” says Bryant, “is the need for speed to seize the initiative, dictate the terms of action, and keep the enemy off balance, thereby increasing his friction. We seek to establish a pace that the enemy cannot maintain so that with each action his reactions are increasingly late—until eventually he is overcome by events.”

Last Saturday night in Oxford, against the top defense in the nation, you saw the Malzahn offense dictating action, creating bad tackling angles, and operating a far faster OODA loop almost all game.  In a 507 yard explosion, the two signature examples of the Malzahn attack at work were the Marcus Davis and Artis-Payne scores.   Davis’s wide ass open TD was set up by four wides formation confusion, combined with the defensive paralysis of prior zone read runs gashing the Rebels, and Davis being the last receiver the Ole Miss defense expected.  Tigers 28-24, and the play erased a 10-point deficit.

The Artis-Payne red zone TD utilized a different twist on speed and deception.  Down by three, with 2nd and goal at the Ole Miss six yard line, Malzahn had Marshall set up the quick huddle.  With the defensive personnel unavoidably balanced, the Tigers broke huddle rapidly, into an unbalanced line and extra offensive lineman to the short side.  On the quick snap, Malzahn entirely outflanked the defense at the point of attack, and defenders were strewn everywhere as Artis-Payne smashed in for the go ahead and final game score, 35-31.  While the ball was not snapped until 16 seconds on the play clock, the quick huddle froze the defense from the 26 second mark.

Hugh Freeze’s own similar offensive tactics had their own measure of success at creating turbulence for Ellis Johnson’s defense, and often embarrassing results.

Coaching veteran and offensive football legend Jack Crowe is well equipped to break down what’s going on when Malzahn’s HUNH has all the pistons firing.

“The speed of the game creates advantage,” observes Crowe.  “The faster you play, the more there is a disconcerting element for the defense.  Just like an offense, any defense is moving in cycles play to play.  When your speed overcomes their speed, then their cycles flatten out and become very known to an offensive coordinator, and even to a quarterback who is prepared and skilled to see and exploit a defense.  In terms of the warfare parallels to what Gus Malzahn is doing, it often has to do with how comprehensive a force is attacking how diverse an opposing force.  What Gus does at numerous key points in a drive, or in the game, is create the inability for a defensive coordinator (or middle linebacker) to get troops in place properly before the bullets start flying.”

And with the elite talent Malzahn has assembled on offense, he is loading the chamber every play with serious ballistics.  Add to the top guns he can deploy offensively a system that has defensive coordinators pleading for 10-second rules, and what you have is an electric game for football fans, who have no desire for a return to the sleepy 10-7 games of 1920.

As a veteran Birmingham high school coach observed, “Fatigue is no joke, but I think the most important thing, as a defensive guy, is that a warp-speed no-huddle often forces most defenses into a pretty vanilla look, which is the real advantage. Then you can really pick apart what they’re doing to defend you and cause some serious hell.”


Doug Dean (Eagle5 on the InterWebz) is a close observer of Auburn and SEC sports. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanEagle5. Write him at doug.dean@deaneagle5.com .  Watch for Part II in this series on Malzahn’s HUNH, and its military conceptual foundations, in the days ahead.

Related: The smartest 3,000 words on the Gus Malzahn offense you’ll ever read.

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