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HARRY KING | Arkansas State gets a ‘data junkie’ for a coach

Tossed a softball question, Arkansas State University’s football coach for-a-day responded with an unexpectedly thoughtful response.

During a radio interview, Pat Bradley asked asked whether he would go for fourth-and-1 at the 50 on Saturday.

Already in coach mode, Nick Bhardwaj wanted to know the circumstances — the score, the quarter, and the time remaining. If it’s a go, he might call a zone read, even a bubble screen, Bhardwaj said.

The high bidder on the coaching job, he is serious about the role he purchased for $11,700 and surprisingly well informed about ASU. After listening to Bhardwaj’s 15-minute radio interview, I almost passed on calling the 25-year-old, San Francisco-based CEO of a company that develops video games for smart-phones and tables.

Bhardwaj answered his cell on the second ring and quickly made it clear that he had done his homework. He knew Miami and Tennessee are on ASU’s schedule this fall, that the Red Wolves had won three Sun Belt Conference championships despite a coaching carousel and that new coach Blake Anderson’s relationship with hurry-up offense proponent Larry Fedora goes back to Southern Mississippi before they were together at North Carolina.

But, his research went deeper.

Aware of the skills of ASU running back Michael Gordon (754 yards and 6.7 yards per try as a freshman), he wondered out loud about getting the ball to Gordon on wheel routes against single coverage. He even watched tape of ASU’s 2013 spring game.

Media contacting Bhardwaj about the gimmicky gig in Jonesboro “expected me to be a 50-year-old retired guy who doesn’t follow play selection.” My preconceived notion was that he would also be an ASU alum.

Wrong on all counts.

He loves the evolution of the non-traditional offenses, the option and a quarterback leading the team in rushing. Originally intent on being a lawyer, he dropped out of San Jose State after he did some work in the legal profession and found it boring.

Bhardwaj is not loyal to a particular college team — mostly he watches games of import in various conferences, rivalry contests or teams with a unique offense — but he is well versed on Stanford football starting with the Jim Harbaugh era. He has read the spread offense presentation former Oregon coach Chip Kelly made at a coaches conference in 2009 and he tuned to Northern Illinois football for the first time last year because he found quarterback Jordan Lynch intriguing.

A self-described “data junkie,” he is fascinated by coaches and general managers who make great use of data, citing Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey, the Memphis Grizzlies’ GM Chris Wallace and others.

Even though the ASU spring game is Saturday and Bhardwaj’s introductory news conference is Friday, he was to fly to Memphis on Wednesday so he could be on the job today.

He’s not sure how much of the playbook Anderson is willing to share, but he’s eager to get started.

“Play calling is nothing short of an art and science,” he said. Bhardwaj claims he can read pass coverages from afar and is anxious to get the view from the sideline to “figure out if I could read in real time.”

Ideally, he said, information gleaned from the first couple of drives will help him call plays later in the game. “If they are willing to let me do that, I would love to learn on my own,” he said.

The spring game is not a lark, he said. Instead, it is important for coaches evaluating players and a showcase for Anderson’s offensive philosophy.

“There is no reason to be wasting it,” he said. He intends to make that point during a pregame speech, part of the package he purchased.

“One thing I hope to get across to the staff and the players, ‘This is serious,’” he said. “I am not a guy playing video games willing to chuck it deep every play.”

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