MARSHALL, Texas — In the summer of 2012, Sul Ross State football coach Wayne Schroeder wanted to shake things up for a sluggish offense that averaged 207.5 yards per game the previous season. So he handed over the keys to a 22-year-old offensive graduate assistant who doesn't believe in the power of caffeine.
"I don't drink coffee," Scotty Walden says. "I wake up jacked."
The results were immediate and dramatic. The reenergized Lobos offense would go on to lead the NCAA with 581.9 yards per game and 48.8 points per game. Walden, now 24, has since moved on and is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at East Texas Baptist University, a small Division III program in the East Texas town of Marshall.
More and more, college football programs are turning to younger coaches to provide a boost. Texas Tech hired former Red Raiders quarterback Kliff Kingsbury in 2012 and, in August, gave the 35-year-old a three-year extension that will take him through 2020.
Kingsbury is the poster child of today's young coach. He quickly rose up the ladder under head coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston and Texas A&M, starting as a quality control assistant before taking over his alma mater five years later. Though at a lower division, the path followed by Walden is similar in nature.
Both are driven, intense competitors. They coach with extreme confidence, but any similarities in temperament likely start and end there. Kingsbury comes across as more cool and collected.
"He's laid back with [his quarterbacks]," Walden says.
Walden, on the other hand, is wired and more hands-on with players. This year, he has to be. Three of his four quarterbacks are first-year players in the program. Still, everything he does is fast. He talks fast. He coaches fast. He draws plays fast. His team plays fast.
His rise up the coaching ranks has been just as quick.
Walden is well-traveled for someone only two years removed from college. A native of Cleburne, Texas, Walden began his collegiate career at Dordt College, a NAIA school in Iowa. Homesickness brought him to Hardin Simmons in Abilene before he transferred one final time to Sul Ross, located in the remote West Texas town of Alpine.
Upon getting the offensive coordinator job at Sul Ross, Walden did two things: He went to the university library and listed off 100 plays that he could remember from his playing days. He applied everything he'd learned from high school and college to his first play sheet. He wouldn't use it all, or even most of it, but he needed something on paper to get started.
"Going to three colleges was a blessing in disguise at the time," he said. "I took bits and pieces from each one."
Then, he reached out to any and every coach he could think of. He contacted Kingsbury and the coaching staffs at Baylor and Houston. Walden just wanted a brain to pick.
The first person to respond? None other than Kingsbury himself. Walden still has the email saved.
"I appreciate the email," the message read. "We start camps today and then vacation after that, but I will be around for a couple days here and there in July, so maybe we could fit something in there."
After two years of missed connections, Kingsbury and Walden finally met this past spring during a football camp. The two talked not so much about X's and O's but about the fabric of coaching: the organizing, game-planning and communication with quarterbacks.
Getting to know a player's personality is crucial for any coach. At the Division III level, where there are no athletic scholarships to give, personal relationships could mean the difference between someone who plays for all four seasons and someone who walks away after one.
When Walden began his career as a coach, he learned quickly that honesty was the best policy, "whether that means you have to tell a kid he might not play any snaps in a game."
At Sul Ross, Walden had to immediately establish roles and boundaries with guys he had played beside not one year before.
"I told them 'I'm not your friend, I'm not the guy you played with last year. I'm your coach,'" Walden said. "And they bought in."
Life at East Texas is different. Walden joined the staff following the 2012 season with some credibility. His relationship with his players is less about discipline and more about understanding.
"I've learned that every team is different," Walden said. "Kids at Sul Ross reacted well to being a disciplinarian. A kid here may not respond to me jumping on him."
Taking Off the Handcuffs
Age is nothing but a number. Walden, though young, has never had his hand held. Schroeder didn't micromanage Walden when he gave him full control of the Lobos offense. Similarly, East Texas Baptist coach Josh Eargle gave Walden full autonomy over the Tigers offense.
"When Coach Eargle brought me on, he said 'The O is yours. I need a head coach on that side of the ball,'" Walden explained.
"There's a lot to that," Kingsbury agreed. "I was fortunate enough to be with a coach [Sumlin] who was offensive-minded and empowering in letting me be who I wanted to be, to let me draw up plays without reins."
There is nothing if not complete trust among East Texas Baptist's coaching staff. The offensive assistants rarely, if ever, meet together. That's something Walden installed—or, rather, uninstalled—when he arrived in 2013.
"They all have a lot of responsibilities, and now they have the time to do them," Walden explained. "I can be more efficient now because I can get everything I need to get done and prepare for practice and meetings."
There's a unique balance that Walden and the Tigers coaching staff strike. They're firm believers in keeping true to an identity, which for East Texas Baptist revolves around tempo. However, there's an open-door policy for any and all ideas. The culture of East Texas Baptist's football program, Walden said, is based on being creative and innovative with plays and matchups. At the non-scholarship level, playing in a fun offense is just as much a recruiting tool as anything else.
"[As a coach] you differentiate yourself by always evolving and keeping up with different offenses and being on the cutting edge," Kingsbury said.
Walden calls his offense "unconventional." Try to get him to put a label on it, and he hesitates. It's not truly the air raid, nor is it simply a spread. The important thing is to go fast. Speed, he adds, gives an additional advantage to the offense, as it requires the defense to always be reacting, rarely attacking.
However the offense is labeled, it works. Through eight games this season, the Tigers rank No. 1 in Division III in passing offense (370.9 yards per game) and fifth in scoring offense (48.1 points per game).
Walden sits in his office, his second home, focusing on his computer screen. It's one of the few times he sits still at all, but he's putting together film for an upcoming game against Millsaps College.
Outside, it's a gorgeous 87 degrees with little humidity—a blessing for this time of year in East Texas—but you'd never know because the blinds are closed. The only wall decorations are a pair of posters: one for the WWE and the other for AMC's television show, The Walking Dead.
Elsewhere, the office is adorned with half-empty water bottles, scattered papers, a lunchbox and some ETBU baseball caps on top of a filing cabinet. There are two whiteboards filled top to bottom with terminology, formations and various other scribblings for position meetings. They look like something out of the movie A Beautiful Mind.
It's nearing 4 p.m., time for the quarterbacks meeting. One by one, they trickle in. Walden asks them how their days are going and if they went to class. He gives them a hard time.
Walden is six years older than the youngest, freshman Tarek Beaugard, and three years older than the oldest, backup Taylor Therwhanger.
When playing tape on Millsaps, Walden rewinds it and then plays it again on a projection screen.
"Here's the defensive end on the outside of the tackle," he explains. "He's a 5-tech, but he's going to come inside on this play. He's good, and he's probably going to win there, so how do we negate that?"
Silence. Walden rewinds and plays it again. It's a real-life Jon Gruden's QB Camp.
"It's one word I'm looking for. Starts with a 'T', ends with an 'O.'"
A quarterback pipes up. "Timeout?"
Another pause, this one awkward. Walden groans as the meeting bursts into laughter.
"Aw, man. Timeout? What? No," he barks. "Tem-po!"
"Timeout isn't really a word in our vocabulary," Walden says later. "With tempo offenses, you learn to live with [if things go wrong] and move on to the next play."
Walden recalls the moment later after practice with offensive line coach Lee Grimes. Even in his lingering state of disbelief, he laments without taking the Lord's name in vain. "Gosh dangit," he says.
Bringing It Every Day
Mistakes don't piss off Walden; poor demeanor does.
"I have to bring it every day," he said. "If these guys are dragging into practice, I gotta be the spark to wake them up. With a young group like I have, I have to be tight on 'em."
It's a group that could have folded quickly. The Tigers season got off to a disastrous start with a 98-20 loss to Texas A&M Commerce. Ninety-eight.
Walden sighed. "It's a kick in the face."
The next day, though, the coaching staff and players were back at it. Walden doesn't oversteer. Be who you are, he explains, and get back to the little things.
The routine doesn't vary after a loss or a win. That typically starts at 5 a.m., when it's still dark. Walden works out in the team weight room before the players arrive. Then, he watches film. Coaches meetings are at 8 a.m. and are followed by more film. This day's walkthrough starts at 6:40 p.m. as the sun sets.
But Walden's day isn't done. Not even close.
There have been stories about coaches like Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs sleeping in their office. Walden, newly married to his high school sweetheart, Callie, would probably do the same if he was single. From the time they began dating to the moment they were married, a seven-year span, Walden and Callie never lived in the same town.
"It comes down to having a genuine love for the game, to be around kids everyday and pour everything you have into them," he says. "Coaching is not a profession that you can go into half-heartedly, otherwise, you'll fail."
Eventually, Walden will leave East Texas Baptist, along with the coaches and players with whom he's bonded. He's too good not to be noticed. Eargle called Walden "the best offensive coordinator" in the country.
It'll be a bittersweet moment for Walden. His goal, like so many other lower-level coaches, is to try his hand at Division I.
"It would be a dream come true," he said.
Even the Division II level would be a change since it introduces scholarship athletes. The motivation tactics can be different, Walden explained, but overall the offensive strategy translates.
Whether that happens in five years or 10, he's unsure. But Walden's not thinking about that. He's not even thinking about going home. He's thinking about the next game.
"Naw, I have to stay and look at some more film for us," he says. Callie will have to wait a little bit longer to see her husband.
"We were 3-of-13 on third down last week. I have to come up with a better plan."
It's nearing 8 p.m. Walden has been at his second home, among the half-empty water bottles and the lunchbox and the posters and whiteboards, for 15 hours. And he's still jacked.
East Texas would go on to break single-game school records for points (68) & total offense (715 yards) against Millsaps College.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All stats courtesy of NCAA.org.