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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Q&As with spread gurus and those entrusted with stopping them

ESPN is doing some kind of spread week, and they have posted a bunch of Q&As with coaches from around the country chiming in on the spread, what they do, and how to stop it. There's some chaff but also some good stuff, so I thought I'd provide the excerpted highlights (with links):

How similar is what you do to what Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriquez do?

PJ: I think it's very similar. . . .

Why do you think then, that most college football fans, when they think of your offense, probably don't automatically think of what Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriquez do?

PJ: Because one is under the gun and the other is under the center.

That's it?

PJ: Yeah, and most fans, quite honestly, couldn't tell you what plays they ran out of the gun. It's like anything else -- if you're successful and you have big plays, then it's great. If you're not moving the ball and you're not scoring then it's no good. If you look at last year with what Rich did at Michigan, it's the same offense they ran at West Virginia, but it was a learning process, different personnel and they didn't have near the success. In fact they had very little success. But nobody was questioning whether it would work or not. As soon as we have one game where we don't score 30 points, boy it's like, I told you this wouldn't work, everybody figured it out. That's what drives you nuts.

How about with receivers? Does the spread require different things out of them than if you were lining up in a pro-style set?

SD: Yeah, definitely. The quarterback and receivers have to spend a lot of time getting on the same page. If you run the ball, guys are going to try to sneak more guys in the box. When they do that, you need to find a way to get the ball on the perimeter, whether it's throwing the [bubble screens] or whatever, to try to get the ball away from the guys packing the box. When you're doing that, it looks like an easy throw, but it's something that requires quite a bit of timing and work between quarterbacks and wide receivers. If you're going to spread it out and do that, your quarterback and receivers have to spend a lot of time developing a feel for each other. . . .

One way guys recruit against spread teams is they tell recruits that if they play in a spread offense they are not going to get the respect from the NFL in the draft. What do you say to that?

SD: It's weird. Remember [the University of] Miami was one of the first teams running the one-back and running a spread offense with three receivers on the field? They were doing it with guys like Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde and all of those guys were getting drafted. Back then, Miami was using it as a real advantage -- hey, we're spreading the field and throwing the ball. That's how you get into the NFL. What's happened is the spread has changed and there are a lot of different kinds of spreads. You've got what Penn State was doing last year which is more traditional type stuff. And then you've got the stuff that is way out there, the run-and-shoot stuff, what Tech's done. I think anytime a quarterback can drop back and throw the football, that's important. All that does is make him better, whether he does it under center or out of the shotgun. I don't see how a quarterback can be faulted when he takes a snap, avoids a rush, shuffles in the pocket, goes through reads, finds a receiver, throws an accurate ball and does all the things you have to do to drop back and throw. I don't see how he becomes a better quarterback by being under center and handing it to a running back. There's been a little bit of a knock, but I think that's just because of the personnel. If you're Texas Tech, you don't have to recruit 6-foot-6 quarterbacks who can stand in the pocket and throw the ball. And those are the guys the NFL is always going to like. Now, some of those guys don't work out and guys like Tom Brady do, who's not very big and doesn't have a particularly strong arm. They're just good players. Whether it's college or pro, the important thing for a quarterback is just finding a good fit.
How hard is it for a receiver to learn a spread offense with so many different options going on?

HH: I think it's a lot simpler because what you're trying to do is you're trying to create one-on-ones. And I know that you're trying to do that in about every offense, create one-on-ones. But in the spread, because you have people spread out so much, it's a numbers game ... So, in most spread offenses, the beauty of it is that it creates a lot of one-on-one opportunities for wide receivers. That's all a guy really asks for.

What type of player are you looking for at the skill positions?
Dan Mullen: The first thing we look for is a guy who's multi-talented, a guy that can play a crossover position or hybrid position. You want a receiver who can also line up at tailback or a tailback who can flex into the slot or move up to the fullback position. Guys who have multiple skills make it hard for defenses to match up on you. . . .

When you have several of these hybrid players, why does it make it so difficult for the defense?

Dan Mullen: One thing we're hoping to get to here at Mississippi State is where you don't have to change personnel groupings very often. Everybody has the same skill set, which makes it harder for the defense to pick up on what you're doing. You don't have to substitute to run different things.

How much has the talent you guys have accumulated over recent years provided you the opportunity to make your offense different from one season to the next?

David Yost: Coach [Gary] Pinkel is a very direct guy and he thinks things through and doesn't fly by the seat of the pants. And that's the beauty of this offense.

When we had [former Missouri quarterback] Brad [Smith] we ran him more. Then we got Chase Daniel in here who could run the football, but also could also lead us to more passing because of his talents. That helped us transform our offense into more of a passing philosophy.

At one time when we had [tight ends] Chase [Coffman] and Martin Rucker, we were running a lot of two-tight end offenses. Then we had a set of receivers, but not necessarily ones that would be as suited to running the spread. Then, we started recruiting guys like Jeremy Maclin and stopping using as much two-tight end sets.

Now, after losing Coffman and Maclin, we'll be a little thinner at wide receiver this season. Because of that, we're kind of adjusting what we're doing. We'll be using three wideouts and our tailback more as a rusher and a receiver.

We feel our offense gives us a chance to get our best 11 players on the field. And we can do things differently depending on the personnel we have on hand.

Defending the spread

How do you prepare for it and what's your philosophy in going against it?

Al Groh: . . . .One of the things we have observed is that defensive teams have to be willing to take some risks in order to take the initiative back. When you're so spread out, and one of the features of the spread, and the spread offense is just a formation. Having been in conversations with people, the two things I noticed is, last year Missouri finished fourth in the country in passing and Oregon finished fourth in running. Both are called spread offenses. The word spread is no longer associated with specific plays. It's simply a formation that spreads the defense from sideline to sideline and in doing so creates some natural spaces in the defense. It's harder to go from far away to attack the offense and you leave yourself vulnerable to certain things. By the same token, what we're observing is defense are afraid to take any risks. They just stand there and they're a standing target.

What we do like about being in the 3-4 defense is the flexibility it provides because defense, so much these days, that fourth linebacker as opposed to a fourth defensive lineman in the 4-3, gives us significantly more options. What defensive coaching is now, no matter what the system, you have to find some ways to adapt to what the other team is doing. We think this gives us the ability to adapt and react. You'd like to be on the attack defensively and set the tone, but to a degree the offensive will always control that. You have to be able to adjust and adapt.

How different is what Georgia Tech does? It's the spread option. How does that make it a little more difficult to prepare for, or does it?

AG: They are in their own way, yes, they fall under that umbrella because while the plays are different, it's out of sync with what teams face on a repetitive basis. That's the only time that most teams see that offense every year. There's no accumulated familiarity by the coaches or players going against it. That's a big part of the difficulty of playing against that or any offense that isn't common to what the defenses generally see. There's different plays, but it accomplishes similar things.

You guys beat them last year. As a coach, you get it. But how do you get your players prepared for it in what, five days, when they never see it?

AG: You're exactly right. One of the things we thought that was very important in the presentation of it was to demystify it for the players. In some cases, players can get frustrated. For example, this Wildcat formation that's gaining some notoriety. Really, in a lot of ways, it's a reduced down spread. It's spread out, but a lot of times it's with a player back there getting the direct snap who's a real good runner, but is not a passer. Actually, in talking with the Patriots last year, and all of a sudden it got sprung on them by Miami. In doing so, the unfamiliarity of it really threw them off during the course of the game and they could never quite get it back and in talking with the coaches there, they had issues during the game with getting the players settled down because there was still a mystique to what they were up against. From that point on, they had a detailed plan, and the next time they played against it from other teams as well as the second time they played Miami, they fared much better. You've got to demystify these unique offenses for the defensive players.

How much has it helped you as a defensive coach to understand it and scheme for it because [new offensive coordinator] Gregg [Brandon] is on your staff now and that's the way he's thinking?

AG: Very much so. It's helped us to establish a significant period of experimentation. We put some things out there and run them, and we really haven't tried to defend our team so much as let's just run our stuff and see what we like and what we don't like. It has certainly been helpful to us in that degree. . . .

Do you think there's any benefit to preparing the guys for the NFL to run one particular offensive scheme or another?

AG: Not really. I think that if the players are well-trained fundamentally, those are the things that carry over from league to league. The fundamental skills of how to execute their job, how to defeat the player across from them. It's highly unlikely that most players are going to go - with only 32 teams in the NFL - it's highly unlikely they're going to go to a system that's exactly like the one they came from. They're going to have to make some adjustments system-wise. The big thing is they have the fundamental background that can translate to any system. If you can block guys in one system, you can block them in another. If you can beat blocks in the 3-4, you can beat blocks in the 4-3. If you get blocked in the 3-4, you're going to get blocked in the 4-3.

Makes sense. Why do you think more ACC teams haven't caught onto this?

AG: It gets trendy within leagues. What you have to go against, whether it's offense or defense, you have to prepare for those things. You kind of become influenced and spend more time looking at those things and become influenced by those things. And of course a lot of it has to do with the philosophical backgrounds and beliefs that coaches bring with them. And really your background, too. At a point, sometimes what you know how to teach best, what you know how to utilize during the course of a game is the best for a particular team as opposed to something that is intriguing, but when certain things happen during a game maybe you just don't have the wherewithal to make those in-game decisions because you don't have enough familiarity with the system. Therefore, a team would be better off with something they're really fluent in.

Do you think your players will be more comfortable playing Georgia Tech the second time around?

AG: They should have a certain element of confidence. Their circumstances should be a lot more positive than if we would have given up 40 points. Then you have to come back the next year and convince the players we can really do this. 'Well wait a second, last year we were completely bamboozled by it and we haven't played against it since.' Yeah, I think we don't have to overcome that type of situation to start with, but no matter what, they run those plays every day. Their opponents, and this is the value of being a little bit out of the norm, whether it's with your offense or defense, their opponents only practice against those plays for a week.

I remember in high school preparing for wishbone teams: It was pure assignment football. Is it like that preparing for a spread-option vs. a typical pro-style, multiple offense?

BG: Yeah, it definitely is. In the old days, you had three backs in the backfield and everybody was doing option defensive assignments and concerns. It's the same kind of deal. The quarterback can carry the ball. He can hand off. He can motion a guy around to be the pitch guy. It really is the same idea. You've really got to make sure you stop all those elements. And then they throw in the no-huddle with it, which most of them have, and that can slow you down a little bit more. So we talk about that with our guys -- it's assignment football. You can't be quite as reckless, unless it's third-and-long and then you can get into your normal blitz stuff.

More than a few defensive coordinators have said that when you have a running quarterback, it stresses a defense and makes it difficult to match up. Is the spread not effective when the quarterback is not a good runner?

BG: I don't think it is as effective. I think when you've got a guy like [Jeremiah] Masoli at Oregon -- or a Dennis Dixon -- man, that makes it even harder. If a quarterback is not a great runner, you don't have to worry about him keeping it. And even if he does keep it, he's not going to gain a lot of yards. You can kind of load up in the one aspect, whether it's defending the ball inside or the pitch guy coming around, you don't have to worry about the quarterback. But if the guy can run, it adds a whole different dimension to it and makes it more difficult. . . .

How about blocking assignments: is that an adjustment also?

BG: Yeah, because so much of it is lateral. You really don't see the downhill, power running game that you see with most two-back teams -- power with pulling [linemen], lead plays, that kind of thing. So much of it is lateral, with guys moving in one direction and the back has the ability to really cut back and wind it back. You've really got to be conscious of not running so far out with the offensive line -- the term we use is "getting washed." Sometimes you see a back cutting all the way back and part of that is a defensive line over-pursuing and getting washed past the holes and the gaps up front so a back can stick it back. It's tough stuff and it is different. A good offensive line, like Oregon, that is big and strong and moves well, can really work guys past that initial point of attack and a good back can just break it back against the pursuit of the defense.
First of all, what is the challenge like when you're going up against a spread offense?

Phil Bennett: I played for a guy at Texas A&M, Emory Bellard, who invented the wishbone. With option football, everybody says it's an equalizer. I think if you have that quarterback, then the spread can be an equalizer.

I think it equalizes the field. I know as a defensive coach, it can take the aggressiveness out of you, because you have to be so concerned with assignments, just like the option. I was nervous last year when we played South Florida and Matt Grothe, and then obviously West Virginia. Our ends are big get-off, speed guys, and it really makes your ends go into a different mode. I don't think with the spread, in the run game, that you ever just really have to mash a guy. If you've got a body on body, then it becomes assignment football. But then you work on it so much that it can take a little bit of aggressiveness out of you.

How do you go about avoiding that?

PB: One of the things I try to do is, I try to treat it like the option in the run game. I want obviously a guy on the outside end and an inside-out guy on the quarterback. In the passing game, the thing I think is the toughest is the play-pass, because you're geared up to stop the run. I watched West Virginia against North Carolina, and they were so geared up to stop the run that Pat (White) threw for 330 yards, and it was off of play-pass.

I go back to our disaster game last year against Rutgers, where I had our guys so steered in on the run the week before against Navy. That's the thing the spread does to you. Your front guys have to still be aggressive, and the secondary still has to play pass. I was very pleased in our last home game against West Virginia, because our secondary, instead of getting so caught up in the run (played the pass). And we let our front go. And that's the thing I think you've got to do.

And of course the other thing is down and distance. Just like against the wishbone, if you get a down and distance on a spread team where the play-pass is taken away, then you've got a great advantage. The other thing people don't talk about in college is hash marks. You look at every spread team and watch them, and they have tremendous tendencies when they're in the middle of the field and then tremendous tendencies when they're on the boundary. . . .

Do you think that, in general, defenses are catching up to the spread?

PB: You know, as soon as you say that, somebody will tear you up. Now, with the original spread teams, people are starting to say, hey we've seen this. I think we played (against) regular personnel, out of 880 snaps last year, I think we played 90 snaps. And the rest was one back and either one tight, three wides or even four wides. Everybody is so multiple and they're doing variations of the spread. Iowa came out against us, and they had two tights, two flankers, and lo and behold guess what they did? They flexed them out and ran the spread out of it.

I think the more you can focus on something, week after week, people will get better answers. The other thing is, there's a premium on skill players on offense. The thing the spread does is, it creates matchups. And if you got a 4.4 (40-yard dash) wide receiver against a 4.8 linebacker, that's a great matchup. You've got to be able to swarm the ball, and you can't have too many of those matchups.

There are so many versions of the spread offense. What do you think when you hear that somebody is running the spread?

Ellis Johnson: Everybody just refers to it in general as the spread, but it all starts with the quarterback and whether he's a good runner. If they run the quarterback, it's a whole different animal.

What makes it a different animal?

Ellis Johnson: If the quarterback doesn't run much and it's never more than the quarterback and the running back in the backfield at the same time, it doesn't present as many problems unless they've just got so many great athletes that you can't match up. But you've got problems with any offense that has that many great athletes. The quarterback being able to run presents that extra challenge back there that almost makes it seem like you're trying to defend a 12th man.

How have your triple-option roots at The Citadel helped you in defending the spread?

Ellis Johnson: One of the things that helps me when I'm drawing it up on the chalkboard is that everybody was running the option and the veer back in the 70s when I was coming up through coaching. I understand the loaded option with the extra blocker back there. A lot of younger coaches don't understand it, and obviously a lot of players don't. It's very difficult to get taught and understood how these things work.

How does your strategy change when you're going against a spread offense?Ellis Johnson: The thing we try to do is mix up our fronts as much as possible and keep the perimeter reasonably simple. If you blitz too much, it can be disruptive. But it's not going to be sound against option assignments. And reading linemen becomes extremely important. When they get in the shotgun and the quarterback's back there beside the running back, as the ball is traveling back to the quarterback, you really don't get any flow in the backfield, so you need to be heavily keying on the linemen.

How has the spread offense changed the way you put together your game plans?

Mike Hankwitz: It has changed things because in the past, you wanted to feel like you could be more proactive and try to dictate. You could stack up against the run and force teams to throw, or you could stack your coverage and dare 'em to run. The spread does literally what it says: It spreads the field, forces you to spread your defense out more and especially with the quarterbacks that can run and throw. There's all different types of blocking schemes in the spread, aside from just the zone read.

So how do you counteract all of that?

MH: We try to see what the strength of their attack is. Is it the running game? How good is the quarterback in the run game? Is he a better runner than passer? If he is, then we'll commit more to the run and try to make him beat us throwing the ball. Or if they're a better passing team, then we will play more coverages and try to make them beating us running the ball. The third element when they spread you out is the unscripted, the improvised plays with the quarterback scramble. You're spread out and you're trying to rush the passer and play coverage and all of a sudden, the quarterback that can take off and scramble, it's not easy to plan for that all the time.

How much more time do you devote to the quarterback run now versus 15 years ago?

MH: Teams ran the triple option, and you had to be sound in your schemes and then you had to have the players who had discipline to take their assignment and not let somebody run free. The passing attack off that was minimal, but now, with the spread, you have that option aspect where you have to defend the different components of the run game: the read zone with the running back, the quarterback keeping it off the read zone and then bringing a running back in the backfield and bringing him out on a pitch. The bubble is another variation of it. [The receiver] becomes the pitch man. And then you have the jail-break screens, you have draws, running back draws, quarterback draws. It's more difficult to defend all that stuff.

You mention how dictating on defense was easier before. Has the spread allowed offenses to dictate more often?

MH: It makes it a lot harder on a defense to dictate or take away certain things, just because they've spread the field and they are doing more things. The offenses are trying to keep the defense from dictating to them. And then the other big part of the spread is the audible aspect of it, the coaches changing the plays. They're going no-huddle, they have more clock to work with and then they'll go up and show a formation and go through a cadence and try to get the defense to tip its hand. Then, they'll go back and change the play and try to get in a better play from what they've seen. You used to get some of that against passing teams. They would keep you from trying to substitute, but that was still relatively one-dimensional. You had some good one-back teams that could run and pass, but you didn't have to worry about the quarterback and the option.

When you arrived in Lubbock in 2000, Leach was the only coach in the conference running the spread. Now, seven of the teams run the offense as a base set. Did you ever expect it to be this widespread?

RM: I've definitely seen things evolve. The yards per game and points all have increased. I think it's because we've seen a development in the training of quarterbacks and offensive players through seven-on-seven camps and the like -- particularly here in Texas. Now, everybody is trying to get their wide receivers and running backs into space. And we're trying to do what we can to stop them.

Because of the way scoring has mushroomed in the Big 12, are you changing the way you judge the success of your defense?

RM: You've seen things evolve. Obviously, yards per game and points have increased. It's not three yards and a cloud of dust like it was when I was playing. We all realize these quarterbacks are pretty good and these offenses can move the ball. What we have to do is be patient and innovative with how we try to counteract their schemes. Points will increase, but maybe now we need to look at stats like third-down conversions and turnovers to determine how effective a defense has really been.

How much of a philosophical change has it been after the mushrooming of these spread offenses since you started your coaching career?

RM: When I started back at East Carolina with Pat Dye, I grew up facing the wishbone all spring and all fall. That was the offense that everybody was using and that caused problems. You saw more of a power game. Then, you saw people start using the West Coast offense to try to throw the football.

I miss those days, but I know the spread defense is here to stay for a while because of the development of the athletes to fit those offenses. I know everybody in our state (high school players) is out throwing the football, so the passing quarterback is out there. The receivers are out there, too. The guys that used to play basketball are all becoming wide receivers. I think the spread will be here for awhile, so both sides will have to keep developing.


Yrro said...

Just as a curiosity - every article I seem to read is about how the spread changes things compared to a pro style offense and the advantages it has over one. But we all know that there are trade-offs to every system. What does the spread do worse than a traditional offense? What are you giving up? The only one I can think of is that it seems to be pretty hard to run it with a stationary quarterback, but there has to be something else.

HudiBlitz said...

@ Yrro - There are at least two disadvantages.

First, QB injuries. For example, Northwestern dropped its game at Indiana last year partially because CJ Bacher had to leave the game. Bacher was more of a “keep ‘em honest” type runner, but it was still an important facet of the NU offense. He had to run occasionally to keep defenses focused solely on the WRs and RB. More famously, Oregon had a national championship contender in 2007 until Dennis Dixon got hurt.

Second, as defenses start to focus on the spread, other styles of offense should become less familiar to defenses and therefore more effective. The thought is that defenses will become smaller, quicker, and more spread-focused, making them more effective against the spread but more vulnerable to bigger offenses, especially talented bigger offenses such as USC’s pro-style offense of today or a power-running team like a Lou Holtz-coached Notre Dame team.

I’m sure there are other disadvantages too. This is all still playing out; it will be interesting to see how things change. On an interesting historical note, the “triple threat” halfbacks of yesteryear who starred in the single wing offense would have been good spread QBs.

DoubleB said...

Like most things in football, the disadvantage of the spread is personnel based. In a spread to run system like West Virginia, Florida, Texas w/Young, Oregon, etc. you need to have an exceptional player at QB. He's not only your best passer (theoretically), but also an exceptional runner as well (maybe the best on the team). How many guys out there fit that description on their own team? Tebow, Pryor, Kaepernick of Nevada, Masoli of Oregon. I'm sure I'm missing guys, but there aren't that many special kids like that out there.

In a pro system those attributes are divided between two guys (a true running back and a true passing QB). It's easier to find a very good RB and a very good throwing QB than to find those characteristics in one person.

The spread and QB gun-run systems of the last decade take advantage of special talents at the QB position. Do you really want to run Oregon's offense with Mark Sanchez or Matthew Stafford? Nothing against those guys, but that doesn't feed into what they do best.

Anonymous said...

The spread has its strengths and weaknesses. Over the years, Tech has seen its advantage being the only team running the spread diminish as other teams in the Big 12 have adopted it. The strength of the spread is that the defense has to defend the whole field. The weakness of the spread is that once the defense understands the goals of the offense, they can dictate what they will let you do. Thats what happened to Texas Tech against Oklahoma last year. Stoops is a master of the spread. he taught his defense Techs objectives with the spread. Then they went out and dictated to Tech and its very talented offense what they would allow them to do. It wasn't pretty. If a defense has the athletes to compete and the coaches to teach, then the field becomes level again. Texas Tech played Virginia in a bowl game two years ago. Tech won, but it was a defensive battle and low scoring. Three years ago Tech played Alabama and lost a defensive battle in a tight game.

So the spread is another offense and is the current popular one, but what will we see next...DoubleT