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Monday, December 29, 2008

Rhythm Nation: Auburn Hires Gus Malzahn

Auburn, AL. Well-respected, staunch, defensive minded head coach hires "innovative" "spread guru" as offensive coordinator. Good news?

Crap. Here we go again.

Or maybe not?

There are a few differences here between what Franklin and Tuberville tried to do (or said they were trying to do). The biggest, I'd say, is that Malzahn's spread is not exactly like other spreads, whether pass-first ones like the Airraid or run-heavy spreads like Urban Meyer's or Rich Rodriguez's. That's because the schemes are simple - very, very simple - and the core of the offense is not even about schemes: it's about tempo.

Mike Leach runs a type of spread no-huddle, but his offense moseys to the line with the confidence and deliberate swagger of an old cowboy (or pirate?). They line-up and get a handle on what the defense is doing, call a play, and go. Franklin used the no-huddle (at least until he got to Auburn!), and even had a form of it called "NASCAR" which was intended to be an up-tempo light-speed level no-huddle, with the ball snapped quickly after the previous play.

But nobody does what Malzahn does. If some no-huddle teams, like Franklin's, are light-speed, then Malzahn's spends the entire game in something akin to "ludicrous speed."

The key to his offense is to get the play in with via hand signal, wristband (rarely), or a board on the sideline, and have the ball snapped within four to five seconds of it being set. He even has a speed designed to snap the ball as soon as the whistle blows. It requires endurance and discipline.

And his practices go at this same ludicrous pace. There is almost no lolly-gagging around and each play in practice must be snapped within twenty-five seconds of the last one for maximum reps. (As an added point of interest, because his offense often inspires bizarre and novel reactions from defenses - i.e. things they hadn't done before playing him - he has his teams practice against almost all fronts and coverages every single week just to be ready for whatever they throw at him.)

Is Chizik Trying to Copy Oklahoma?

So, you can see why this might be appealing to Auburn, even with a defensive minded head coach. As Dr Saturday recently pointed out, "only Oklahoma's 1,036 total plays bested the Hurricane's 1,007 this year, though TU led the nation in yards per play." I think this is no coincidence.

Oklahoma too has a fairly basic system as far as schemes go. They don't do anything that a lot of teams don't. Their passing game is kind of a derivative of what they did under Mike Leach and Mark Mangino, but they have gotten away from the pure faith of the Airraid and now use a lot of rather traditional (meaning, common) concepts. Labeling them spread, pro, multiple, or whatever is a bit futile. (When asked what offense Oklahoma runs, Bob Stoops said simply: "The Oklahoma offense."). They use both the "I" and other traditional sets, though are probably still more "spread" than anything else. But before people jump down my throat, I note that I think Wittgenstein was accurate when he said most arguments boil down to people's different uses of labels and language, in this case what spread or pro means to one person versus another.

Kevin Wilson, OU's offensive coordinator, is not known as a passing guru, and few would confuse him with one. But he knows one thing extraordinarily well: the no-huddle up-tempo offense. He ran it at Northwestern with Randy Walker, and that's how OU killed people this year. They have all these great athletes, they have solid schemes, and they go so fast they mow you down. I have to think Chizik envisions this kind of result.

Chizik spent the last few years getting his lunch stolen on a weekly basis in the Big 12, and he got destroyed by nouveau spread teams like Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Missouri, though he kept it close versus OU. I have to imagine that Chizik, like Stoops when he arrived at OU, wants to take some of those tough offenses he faced with him. And what better model to follow than Stoops? Both he and Pete Carroll have had national success as defensive coaches-to-head coaches by installing aggressive offenses.

Will it work?

The other side of Malzahn's attack, apart from the no-huddle aspect (I can't emphasize enough how unique it is to base your offensive philosophy around a tempo rather than simply schemes), is that Malzahn wants to formation you to death. The infamous "wildcat" or "wildhog" offense was developed while Malzahn was at Arkansas, though definitely with input from Houston Nutt and then-QB coach David Lee (now with the Miami Dolphins). See below for an ESPN video about the Wildcat with a brief interview with Malzahn.

But Malzahn is less spread and formation to run than he is infatuated with angles and geometry: he passes to set up the run, he uses a lot of shotgun, multiple receivers, and he does a lot of innovative things with wing-backs, tight-ends, fullbacks, and with guys in motion to get any advantage he can.

In this way his offense has advantages over what Franklin was doing at Auburn. If done correctly, the tempo and formations really are what eats the defense up. The schemes themselves are simple. Franklin had trouble getting his offense going because he did not have a solid trigger-man who could make his reads and likely lacked the coaching support to get one ready. Malzahn - at least for a time - should be able to mask some of those deficiencies while his players get up to speed through his tempo and formationing, and then from there just give them simple assignments. Now they will still have to learn all the signals and motions and the like, but this is (usually) easier because that just requires a kid to learn what he has to do rather than constantly react to the defense.

Thus Malzahn's offense is kind of the anti-run-and-shoot, which uses only a few formations but many reads after the snap.

The downside of the offense tends to be turnovers and defense. In Malzahn's first year at Tulsa, they led the nation in yards per game and were in the bottom eight or so in total defense. This year, Tulsa was second in the country in total yards (to Houston) and scoring (to Oklahoma) but ranked in the 80s in total defense. Now, you can make the fair point that if not for the Malzahn-experience, their defense would be just as bad but the offense would be on par as well; neither the conference, talent, nor team would make you expect Tulsa to have a good defense.

But the other problem can be turnovers. They don't necessarily turn it over more, but with more possessions and more plays you do create the risk of more turnovers, which tend to kill a team. This is the key point for Chizik: will he be able to tolerate that? Or will he eventually turn around and do a Buddy Ryan after a bad sack or fumble. (Ryan, then defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers, slugged then offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride during a game after Gilbride's run-and-shoot incurred a bad play. Keep in mind that the Oilers won eleven games that season and the offense was one of the best in the league; Ryan simply did not "respect" Gilbride's run-and-shoot offense (he still uses some run-and-shoot principles with the Giants); Ryan liked to call it the "chuck and duck.")

So, you always have to fear the familiar story: defensive coaches often just do not like the high-risk-high-return offenses, and sometimes mere variance can be confused with incompetence or an actual problem (as it was with Gilbride's 'shoot and Ryan). But it's also true that offensive guys can be a bit narrow minded at times, losing sight of the bigger picture in an effort to score points and rack up yards. Remember the lessons of Hal Mumme.

Malzahn's Schemes

Not too much to say here. In many ways Malzahn's run game resembles Urban Meyer's: Malzahn's is based on four-run plays - the inside zone, the outside zone, the counter, and power - with reverses, fakes, QB runs, and jet sweeps and play-action all built off those four plays. He also throws in some quick traps and draws for good measure. Again, nothing revolutionary. He will play with formations, shifts, and motions. He likes wing-backs. He will line up with the quarterback in the shotgun and put both runners next to him as a sort of offset I-formation. He will use receivers in the running game. And his quarterbacks don't run like Tebow but he runs some option and they are always a threat on the reads and counters.

The passing game is equally simple. Unlike the Airraid, which is based off of a lot of horizontal type routes (crossing routes, quick flats and the like), most of Malzahn's routes are "vertical" stems. Think of a passing tree: the receiver bursts off the line upfield to get the defensive guys moving, and from there can go deep, break inside, outside, curl or hitch up, or do a variety of things. He likes deep square-in routes, seam routes, and of course, he runs plenty of smash.

The rumor is that Malzahn got his passing game from Evangel Christian, which is similarly based on simple vertical stems to the routes and quick break-offs by the receivers.

But, in the end, it is the tempo that defines Malzahn's ludicrous-speed-Space-Balls offense. Time will tell both if he gets to run it (Franklin never got to install his up-tempo NASCAR, and Arkansas did not focus on up-tempo no-huddle while Malzahn was there under Houston Nutt), and, if he does install it, if it works.

Random highlight vid pulled from youtube (if anyone has any good online video of a Malzahn O (particularly Tulsa) please let me know; I'd love to post it):

Note: I am much indebted to the always great Coach Huey football coaching site as I did extra research on this article, as with Malzahn's various resources and of course his no-huddle book.


Anonymous said...

It seems, almost, as if the best way to install a coach's true version of the spread, that there almost has to be a regime change. (For example, a complete coaching staff change-over.) Malzahn struggled with this when he went to Arkansas as did Franklin when he went to Auburn last year. However, when Malzahn went to Tulsa, he got to install his full version because it was a complete regime change.

Unknown said...

I think wheher or not this will work will depend on how much control has in filling out the rest of the Offensive staff

at USC and Oklahoma the rest of the staff was filled by guys who agreed with what the OC was doing, at Arkansas and last year at Auburn the ret of the staff was filled with guys who had run the previous offenses and they undercut the new OC

Anonymous said...

Phil you've said it all to well about Auburn. I'm not certain if Auburn's offensive coaching staff were mentally capable to grasp Franklin's system from day 1 plus the they have been a very weak link for the Auburn offense for a very long time.

Metz49 said...

I would like to suggest that Coach Hugh Wyatt of Double Wing fame is the inventing of the "Wildcat".
This link will take you to his site.

Will said...

Chris, great post as usual. Just one comment: you say that the downside of this offense is that it exposes the defense, especially with turnovers. I'm not disagreeing but I think this falls into the category of a "testable hypothesis." Could it be that the greater number of turnovers and yards given up by this and other up-tempo teams is due only to the greater number of plays they are running? You could find out by figuring TU's ratio of turnovers per play or per posession as opposed to per game or per minute. By the same token, you could see how many points (and yards) their defense gives up per play (or posession), in order to compare them objectively with a defensive team whose offense uses a normal tempo.

If a hurry-up team turns it over (and stops the opposition) with the same frequency per posession as a normal team, maybe the greater number of points and turnovers allowed per game is irrelevant. Comments anyone?

Metz49, I've thought the same thing ever since I started to hear of this direct-snap wildcat stuff at the major college level, but after looking at it a little more I think it's fairly different from Coach Wyatt's balanced-line wildcat with the two side-by-side short snap QBs. Coach Wyatt deserves credit as an innovator, but does anyone know whether he had a hand in what they did at Arkansas? His website indicates that his offense may have inspired them to use the name and the direct snap, but the wildcat now used by so many teams in college and the pros looks more like watered-down single wing to me. Just my $0.02.


Topher said...

Metz, Thanks for giving Coach Wyatt (a personal friend of mine) a shoutout. Whatever Arkansas ran was certainly developed by Malzahn, but the name "wildcat" and its association with a multiple-misdirection shotgun offense was almost certainly coined by Wyatt in the late 90's.

Other than that, nice article, Smart Football.


Topher said...

Will (sorry to double-post and look like a troll) -

Wyatt's Wildcat was an extension of his double wing offense. It was an approach to take advantage of a two-tailback backfield and to lessen the impact on the center snap (despite their reputation as conventional, under-cented snaps are harder than shotgun snaps).

That LaCenter (WA) offense doesn't look too much like Arkansas or Miami, but the similarity in concept, while vague today, is too close for Wyatt not to think his name was ripped off and someone else got credit for "inventing" it (this all while Wyatt freely admits that "his" offense draws on decades-old concepts.)

On another note, with the huge staffs today, one can't underestimate Todd's point that it's difficult to get a current staff on board with a new philosophy. If an OC is hired and all the assistants are already there, I imagine it takes a real strong figure at HC to sell everyone on the new guy's system.

Anonymous said...

Is this offense a combination of the airraid and the myer offense?

Anonymous said...

You might not want to "go there" as your excellent blog is about x's and o's and not the social/cultural aspects of the game, but I'd be curious to know your thoughts about Charles Barkley's comment about racism in Auburn's hiring.

Malzahn's doesn't have the best track record of the coach's interviewed. Sure there are intangibles to consider, but football -- and other sports -- have to start drawing the line at including color in that category.

xrob said...

With the hiring of Tracy Rocker Auburn now has the most African American Assistants on staff in the SEC...and they still have two staff positions to fill.