The nation's best offense was led by college football's youngest coordinator
In 2011, Sul Ross State sported a spectacularly mediocre offense. The 2-8 Lobos threw for 207.5 yards per game and rushed for 137 yards per game, good for 132nd place in Division III. A year later, Sul Ross gained more yards per game than any offense in the entire NCAA. So, what changed? For one, their quarterback graduated. Then he became their offensive coordinator.
We haven't polled every football-playing college and university in the NCAA and NAIA, so we can't prove Scotty Walden was the youngest offensive coordinator in college football last season. But at 22 years old, he couldn't have been far off.
Hailing from Cleburne, Texas, Walden earned a scholarship to NAIA Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, out of high school. A bout of home-sickness brought him to Hardin-Simmons in nearby Abilene, Texas, but Walden's place on the depth chart forced him to consider other options following his junior season in 2010. Facing his final shot in college football, Walden landed at Sul Ross, nestled away in the Big Bend town of Alpine, Texas (population: 5,095), with an eye on the future. He agreed to enroll at Sul Ross with the hopes that he'd be considered for a graduate assistant spot should one become available following the season.
Walden started at quarterback that fall, throwing for 1,977 yards, rushing for 169 more and adding 16 total touchdowns. After the season ended, head coach Wayne Schroeder provided a student assistant coaching position overseeing the team's offseason program. When spring ball started, Walden helped offensive coordinator John Tyree with the quarterbacks. By the end of spring he was Sul Ross State's unofficial passing game coordinator, writing practice scripts and calling plays for the spring game. When graduation came, Walden was mulling whether to stay in Alpine as a graduate assistant or to work under his high school coach, Phil Young.
"I tried to really convince him, 'Hey man, you need to stick this college thing out,' because he was just looking at graduating and going on and coaching high school ball or middle school ball," said then-Lobos defensive line coach Robert Churchman.
Then, in June 2012, he got a text.
"About the first of June, Coach Schroeder texted me randomly and said, 'I want this offense to be yours. I want you to run the offense.' We sat down and had a meeting about it and he basically turned the offensive coordinator position over to me," Walden said. "This was an opportunity I could not turn down at my age. I was labeled as a graduate assistant and getting paid like a GA, but I was the OC still."
Five months shy of his 23rd birthday, Walden was an NCAA offensive coordinator. He didn't immediately walk from the graduation podium to the coaches' offices, though it may have felt that way. No, he had to wait a month before receiving control of his own offense.
His new-found role of authority figure to his former peers and peer to his former authority figures never created tension in the locker room or the staff room. In fact, Walden's fellow coaches were the ones that nominated him for the job.
"We talked with coach, 'We need to keep this kid, you don't have an offensive coordinator on the staff.' The head coach wasn't the kind of guy that was going to go out and find somebody, he was always waiting for somebody to knock on the door," Churchman said. "So it just sort of worked out that Scotty was there. We just sort of knew that Scotty was made for the job, he was born for it."
Walden spent the summer in a self-taught crash course of Offensive Coordinator 101. He drew from what he learned at Cleburne and from his travels as a journeyman college quarterback. He spent his days working out his system on the whiteboard and scouring the Internet for ideas. Walden solicited advice from all of the biggest names of the spread offense, netting him a trip to Texas State to learn offensive line concepts under Dennis Darnell and an email response from Kliff Kingsbury that's still saved in his inbox.
By the time fall camp arrived, Walden was ready to settle into his new role once he first laid down the law with his former teammates. "I said, 'Guys, I'm the guy that played with you last year. Let's all be real here. I'm just as old as you guys, but if this is going to work, you're going to have to realize that I'm not your friend. I'm your coach. Off the field we're cool, but we've got to draw a line in the sand and know I'm going to push you,'" Walden said.
As a first-generation disciple of the great spread offense prophets of Leach, Briles, Holgorsen and Kingsbury, Walden's brainchild was a composite of the Big 12's best offenses.
"Being from Cleburne, Texas, and at his age, he was always a (Texas) Tech fan because of the offense. They kind of ran that same thing when he was a quarterback in high school. But I really think he really likes the way things Art Briles runs things offensively. He really, really likes what Dana (Holgorsen) does at West Virginia," Churchman said.
Walden was confident and prepared yet understandably nervous. "Not only had I never coached in a football game as just a coach, I'd never called plays," he remembered. "There were times before that first game against Western New Mexico last year where I was like, 'Man, is this stuff going to work?' I prayed about it a lot before that first game." The Lobos' new offense was a hit from day one, notching 473 yards and 44 points in the season-opener, a solid debut in what proved to be a smash hit of a season.
In 10 games under Walden, Sul Ross ran 795 plays for 5,819 yards (7.32 yards per play), creating an average of 581.9 yards per game - the best in the entire NCAA. The Lobos scored 68 touchdowns, ran for 248.9 yards per game and threw for 333 yards per game. Running back Dominique Carson led Division III in scoring and ranked seventh in rushing while quarterback A.J. Springer placed second nationally in total offense and sixth in passing efficiency. Five players caught at least 30 passes, helping the Lobos rank second in first downs and fourth in red zone offense.
The 5-5 Lobos never scored fewer than 24 points in a game, and topped the 40-point barrier seven times and scored 70 or more points twice. Sul Ross registered 640 yards or more in half of their outings, besting 700 yards three times. All this at a school located 65 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart.
Walden saved his magnum opus for his former school Hardin-Simmons, when the Lobos totaled 800 yards of offense (455 passing, 345 rushing) on 112 plays.
"No matter what kind of look you got from the defense, he had multiple formations and the same plays out of those multiple formation that gave them such a different look. You really couldn't prepare for it," Churchman added. "His play-calling was just superb. As many snaps as we got in the game, he's two or three plays ahead before we were running the play that's on the field."
Despite the success, the Sul Ross administration shook up the football program following the 2012 season, leaving Walden in search of a new home. Word of his success traveled, and Walden landed on Joshua Eargle's staff at East Texas Baptist, located in 650 miles across the state in the deep East Texas town of Marshal. "Coach Eargle called me out of the blue. I'd never met him in my life but he said he'd seen my stats and see what I do," Walden said. "We talked a little bit and he said, 'There's no doubt in my mind that you're the one I want.'"
"When we had conversations about the game of football and our own personal philosophies, we realized how similar we were to one another in how we approach the game," Eargle said. "He has a knowledge of the system he runs that is extensive and proven to be successful in our conference."
"He's been given free reign with the offense. Coach Eargle handed it off and said, 'Do what you do,'" said Churchman, who will join Walden on the Tigers' staff next month.
With the 2012 season now fading in the rear-view mirror, Walden is like a hot new band hoping for a successful follow-up to his chart-topping debut. "This business is all about, what have you done for me lately? I could have the No. 1 offense in the nation last year, but that was last year," said Walden. "It's all about this year now. I'm fully focused on making the East Texas Baptist Tiger offense the best offense it can be."