Tucked 15 miles north of Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, and less than an hour's drive from the Oklahoma and Missouri borders, Springdale has gone middle class, with shiny new schools, libraries and parks built in the past 10 years.

Everything has flourished, except high school football.

Starved of a state high school championship since 1989, the town looked to Mustain and this class of seniors to bring home a banner. As early as seven years ago, word had sneaked around town that a handful of kids, all the same age, could provide the foundation for a standout Springdale team.

Mustain, though, wasn't the young player most figured would have a future in football.

"He was never the best player of those kids," says Ken Matthews, who coached Mustain and against him in youth ball. "The one thing about him was he could make throws that none of the other kids could."

By the time he reached Springdale High in 2003, Mustain had played five football seasons with or against Damian Williams, who had been the fastest sixth-grader some folks ever have seen. Andrew Norman had emerged as another wide receiver after starting to play with the boys in seventh grade, and Bartley Webb, always the biggest of the bunch, carried the build and work ethic of an offensive lineman.

At the high school waited Coach Gus Malzahn, whose no-huddle, hurry-up offensive schemes garnered such acclaim that he published books and produced videos.

The boys practiced the scheme for a year, sometimes on the 50-yard, indoor practice field at the school's field house. In the summer of 2004, helped by the arrival of receiver Ben Cleveland from Colorado, Malzahn and the group dominated regional 7-on-7 tournaments.

"It just works," Mustain says of Malzahn's system. "All our guys had talent, and we put the time in. The offense takes advantage of what the defense's weakness is."

It also takes advantage of Mustain's strong arm. When Cleveland first arrived, Mustain's passes would dislocate his knuckles. That velocity and the accuracy he showed in the summer tournaments prompted Nutt and Arkansas to offer a scholarship that summer -- before he had made a varsity start.

On the varsity as a junior in 2004, Mustain led Springdale on an undefeated run to the state semifinals, where it lost 30-21 to Little Rock Central. Mustain left that game in the first half with a broken right forearm, an injury that required surgery and forced doctors to place two titanium plates in his arm.

But word was out: These Springdale Bulldogs could play. In another year, they'd be as good as any team ever.

Pressure was on

Before the 2005 season started, all five players made oral commitments to Division I schools. Williams and Cleveland chose Florida, Webb opted for Notre Dame and Mustain and Norman picked Arkansas.

The mid-August announcement from Mustain and Norman came in part under orders from Malzahn, who asked his players to settle their college situations before the season began or hold off until after the state title game.

In a November phone interview, Malzahn said pressure may have influenced Mustain and Norman to make a decision but didn't dictate which school they chose. He didn't want questions over a college choice to distract the team's chase for a championship.

"It was important," he said. "We needed to have a single focus for us to have success. Everything had to be about the team."

Still, Mustain's fame outshone the rest of the group combined. Well-meaning fans interrupted Springdale's favorite son at restaurants, honked from passing cars and yearned for his autograph. He carried the star status on the 13 trips he made before his oral commitment; strangers recognized him in Texas, Alabama and California.

Back home, his popularity multiplied each week. Record crowds flocked to see him on the road, and the fans who stood a half-dozen deep and peeked through the hedges outside Bulldogs Stadium, mainly came to see Mustain.

He and his talented teammates didn't disappoint. Of the 13 games the Bulldogs played in Arkansas this season, the state's "sportsmanship rule" -- which calls for a running clock once the game's margin reaches 35 points -- was used in 12 of them.