Creativity, determination lead Buster Faulkner to Georgia Tech

Valdosta State quarterback Buster Faulkner is pictured in the school's archway during the 2002 season. Twenty years later, he was hired as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. (Todd Stone/AP file photo)

Credit: AP file photo

Credit: AP file photo

Valdosta State quarterback Buster Faulkner is pictured in the school's archway during the 2002 season. Twenty years later, he was hired as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. (Todd Stone/AP file photo)

Late at night in the Valdosta State football office, long after their fellow coaches had left for the day, Buster Faulkner and Joe Cauthen liked to match wits. Drawing up offensive and defensive formations and plays, Faulkner (first the Blazers’ quarterbacks coach and later offensive coordinator) and Cauthen (defensive coordinator) challenged each other to come up with answers for the other’s blitzes or passing route combinations.

“We called it ‘chalk it out,’” Cauthen said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Whoever’s got the chalk last is the one that’s going to win.”

They were two young coaches aspiring for careers in the business.

“We kind of helped each other learn ball,” Cauthen said. “He loved to study the game. I think that’s what makes him such a good coach. You don’t ever really know everything, but you can always learn something different. I think that’s what makes him really good.”

Cauthen is now defensive coordinator at Stephen F. Austin. He continues to be close friends with Faulkner, who has moved up the ladder to occupy one of the premier coaching jobs in his home state – offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech.

Valdosta State was the first of three schools where they were on the same staff. That doesn’t even include their one season together at Texas A&M-Commerce, where they first met in 2004, when Cauthen was defensive coordinator and Faulkner was playing his final season of college football after three seasons at Valdosta State.

“First of all, I would say that he’s a great human being,” Cauthen said. “Great father, great husband, and outside of that, he’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around.

“He’s highly competitive, loves winning,” Cauthen continued. “And he’s going to work. I don’t know that there’s anybody that outworks him. There might be somebody that works as much, but they’re not going to outwork him.”

The two began their work partnership in 2007 at Valdosta State. Newly promoted to head coach, Blazers coach David Dean needed a defensive coordinator. Faulkner, already hired as quarterbacks coach, recommended Cauthen to Dean.

“We won the national championship (in 2007),” Cauthen said. “We sat in the press box side by side.”

Aside from their play-diagramming challenges, Cauthen said he and Faulkner passed hours delving into the roster, brainstorming ways to better employ different players, whether it was switching positions or moving them from offense to defense or vice versa. With football teams at the Division II level reliant on partial (instead of full) scholarships, another challenge that they dug into was how to best utilize the total allotment to attract the players they were recruiting.

“Can we move a wideout to tight end, a guard to tackle?” Cauthen said, paraphrasing Faulkner. “What can we do to better ourselves? He loves talking about that. That’s one of his favorite things to do, is talk about your roster.”

Faulkner left Valdosta State after the 2008 season for Central Arkansas, but Cauthen and Faulkner arrived separately in 2011 at Middle Tennessee State. Faulkner was hired as quarterbacks coach and became offensive coordinator midway through the first year, a position he held through 2015.

“He’s not going to pigeonhole himself into, ‘This is what we’re doing to be’ if we don’t have the personnel to be that,” Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill told the AJC. “He’s a really, really good football coach.”

Former Blue Raiders wide receiver Richie James exemplified Faulkner’s creativity as a coordinator. In 2015, Faulkner’s final season at MTSU, he tried to maximize James, who as a redshirt freshman caught 108 passes for 1,346 yards and eight touchdowns to set school and Conference USA records for receptions and receiving yards for a freshman. He also ran the ball 12 times for 146 yards and a touchdown. James has been in the NFL since 2018.

“He would move Richie around a lot and find different ways to get him the ball, whether it be a speed sweep or a drag route or a dig route or a go ball, a bubble,” Cauthen said. “He would find lots of different ways to put the ball in his hands.”

Tech fans may remember another Blue Raider whom Faulkner deployed effectively. In 2012, the Jackets played MTSU at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Blue Raiders routed Tech 49-28 behind running back Benny Cunningham’s 217 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

“We came down to Georgia Tech and Buster told me before the game, he said, ‘Joe, we’re going to be able to run the ball, man,’” Cauthen said. “‘I’m going to run it, we’re going to keep running it, we’re going to keep running it.’ I said, ‘Go ahead. Go get it, big boy.’”

(Former coach Paul Johnson has said that Stockstill told him after the game that MTSU coaches had decoded Tech’s defensive signals. Interviewed for this story, Stockstill said that it was the first that he had heard of it. “I think that’s just people talking,” he said. Reached recently, Johnson confirmed his version of the story, saying he remembered the postgame conversation “like it was yesterday.”)

Cauthen and Faulkner’s career paths joined again at Arkansas State, Cauthen arriving in 2014 and Faulkner two years later, both as coordinators over their respective units. At Arkansas State, Faulkner helped the Red Wolves win a share of the Sun Belt title in 2016. In his final two years, 2017 and 2018, Arkansas State was in the top 20 in FBS in total offense and quarterback Justice Hansen was named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 and overall Player of the Year in 2018. In three seasons, Arkansas State had 15 all-conference selections on offense spread across quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver and offensive line.

“I think probably his biggest asset is he does a good job football-wise of utilizing his personnel vs. the opponent,” Cauthen said. “He’s going to take what he’s got, and he’s going to find out how to best use his guys. I think he’s a really good play-caller, highly organized. He’s going to give the defense something that they haven’t seen.”

Cauthen believed that Faulkner’s three years at Georgia (2020-22) serving offensive coordinator Todd Monken as offensive quality-control assistant and helping the Bulldogs win back-to-back national titles has only sharpened his game-planning acumen.

Competing in the SEC, Cauthen said, “that’s really what that league is. It’s so close to the NFL. It’s about matchups.”

Throughout their time together, Faulkner liked to tout to Cauthen and others the quality of high school football in his home state, Cauthen said. Faulkner himself had once been a high school player in Georgia, quarterbacking Parkview High to its first state championship in 1997.

“He loves Georgia high school football, loves Georgia high school coaches,” Cauthen said. “He thinks they’re the best in the country. He is going to be extremely happy to be there at Georgia Tech, I can assure you that.”

Social media posts of Faulkner making recruiting visits to the state’s high schools and coaches in December and January would suggest as much.

“I just think he’s going to do really, really well at Georgia Tech,” Cauthen said. “I don’t know coach (Brent) Key, but he hired a good one. The fans need to rest assured that they’re going to get the best from Buster every Saturday.”