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What exactly is a spread offense?

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A deeper look at the spread, the Air Raid, and the NCAA Offense in modern college football.

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Gino Torretta - Miami Hurricanes

Think back to 1989. Jimmy Johnson was on his way to the woeful (but not for long) Dallas Cowboys of the NFL and Sam Jankovich had to replace his national championship winning head football coach. Did Jankovich turn back to the pros like he had inherited with Howard Schnellenberger? Or to a big-name college hire? No, he went after another rising star in the college ranks. This time it was Dennis Erickson, who in 1988 was the head coach at Washington State. Wazzu was a school Jankovich knew well as the former athletic director of the Cougars.

Erickson had a record of 12-10-1 at Wazzu and had only finished 6-6 at Wyoming at his previous stop. Not exactly lighting the world on fire, but Wazzu was 9-3 in ‘88. Erickson was becoming well known for his pass-heavy one-back offense and brought this scheme down south to the Miami Hurricanes. The Hurricanes weren’t exactly a run-first scheme in the 80’s under Schnellenberger or Johnson, but they were about to nearly abandon the run for the pass under Erickson. In an era of 1,000 yard running backs Miami didn’t have one from 1978-1994 until Danyell Ferguson eclipsed the mark in 1995.

The scheme that Coach Erickson was running in Pullman and Coral Gables was cutting edge, in a way. BYU had already been running a spread attack under LaVell Edwards, and the Run & Shoot was already a semi-popular scheme both in college football and the NFL. Also, don’t forget the Buffalo Bills were in the K-Gun running no huddle spread formations with former Miami quarterback Jim Kelly behind center.

Erickson’s scheme was peculiar because of the lack of shotgun used, and the straight back drop from the quarterback, rather than the typical cross-step drop we’re used to seeing. The straight drop is a great tool for seeing full-field concepts rather than cutting off half of the field with the passer’s back turned. The slot wide receiver was called the tailback, but it wasn’t like the tailback in the Dallas Cowboys I-formation offense or the 49ers West Coast.

JOE PATNERO Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Air Raid became an underground cult following when Hal Mumme was hired at Valdosta State, and an indy darling when he was hired top coach the SEC’s Kentucky Wildcats. His work with Tim Couch doubled the QB’s completion percentage, yards per attempt, and made him the 4th overall pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. Mumme’s Air Raid in Lexington utilized two running backs, a tight end, and two receivers or “21 personnel.”

By the time the Air Raid was borrowed by Mike Leach and brought to places like the Oklahoma Sooners and then Texas Tech Red Raiders- the second back was all but forgotten. Of course Hal has lived as a cult hero, which culminated in the book, The Perfect Pass, while Mike Leach has turned around both TTU and the Washington State Cougars.


The Air Raid

The Air Raid is not a playbook, it’s a coaching philosophy. Air Raid coaches that stick true to the system, ie. Mike Leach and Hal Mumme, run their typical stuff like mesh, 6, cross, and shallow. They’ve added stick as an Air Raid staple, too. Early in the running scheme Leach and Mumme used traditional high school run schemes like draw, trap, and iso. Now the Air Raid is known for still running draw, of course, but also zone schemes.

Dennis Erickson ran a lot of zone schemes, too. Lighter, quicker linemen like the Denver Broncos used to their Super Bowl glory in the 90’s, are good in pass protection and can at least stalemate their man, which is the desire in the zone.

Today; Dana Holgorsen, Lincoln Riley and Graham Harrell used use a variety of run schemes and run-pass options depending on their personnel. The post-Air Raid Air Raiders don’t rely so heavily on the old playbook and have even dropped mesh, one of the Air Raid’s signature plays. Do they love to throw the ball? Of course, but they’re not going to only run. Just watch an OU game with Riley’s offense. Riley has adopted buck sweep, counter-trey and trap schemes known as much in the Wing-T as “6” is known in the Air Raid.

Jalen Hurts, the Sooners Heisman nominated quarterback, has ran for 1,200+ yards and 18 touchdowns this season (while passing for over 3,000 yards, too). He’s done this on pass-run options like swing-draw and stick-draw, as well as RPO’s, read options and designed quarterback runs like sweep, power, and counter.


What about the spread?

So what is the spread offense? Is it the idea of Erickson that you’re in 11 personnel and slinging the rock for 3,000 yards? Is it West Virginia’s offense under Rich Rodriguez which featured a shotgun spread-to-run- triple option? How about Urban Meyer’s 11 personnel schemes that utilized a slot receiver in an almost wingback type of approach when Percy Harvin was in Gainesville? Or Willie Fritz running the triple option out of the shotgun?

It’s all of these things.

The spread typically is defined by 10 (one back, no tight ends) personnel or 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) formation groups. Is Oklahoma then a spread offense in 2019? Maybe not. They run a lot of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) to get that run game going with Hurts at QB. But they do spend their time in the shotgun, use Air Raid passing concepts, throw receiver screens and utilize RPO’s so maybe they are?

Any system that’s not the flexbone (think Navy, Army, Air Force), the 90’s pro style (think Dan Enos, LSU pre-Joe Brady or Alabama pre-Lane Kiffin) or west coast (think 49ers under Bill Walsh).


SEC Championship - Georgia v LSU Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The “NCAA Offense”

No, I don’t mean the plays that you ran in EA Sports NCAA Football series, although maybe I do. What I mean is like there has been a “pro style offense” which means almost nothing in today’s world, there is also an NCAA offense in the college world.

Today that’s a predominantly 11 personnel scheme (in the NFL, too). Most NCAA offense teams run the same plays on the ground with those being inside zone, some form of outside zone (or stretch, or wide zone), and many add in power to that scheme. The NCAA offense uses run-pass options because they’re the fad that’s here to stay in football. They all typically use bubble RPO’s where the QB reads the flat defender; but many also use pop passes and h-seams that read the inside linebacker, and even 3rd level post RPO’s which read the safety!

The NCAA Offense uses screens to the receivers, and even double screens (one of my favorite plays). Pass-Run Options like swing and stick draw might be a little more varied but Air Raid schemes like mesh and 6 are ran all over the country. Oh, and most offenses run stick as a true passing concept in 2019. Are teams that run-pass in a balanced 50-50 model, but use Air Raid passing concepts, screens, RPO’s and zone reads spread teams or just NCAA Offenses?

I think in the modern era a team that runs 11 personnel, mixes in Air Raid concepts with some west coast and traditional pro schemes, occasionally runs the quarterback, uses a screen game, and tags in RPO’s isn’t a “spread” it’s just modernization.


Adapt or Die

Think about LSU. The talent was always there from Odell Beckham Jr to DJ Chark and Jarvis Landry the Tigers were never short on skill talent on the outside. The issue was having an offensive philosophy to get the ball in space. That’s what the Air Raid philosophy is. It’s about maximizing 53 13 yards horizontally and all 100 yards vertically in order to get your best playmakers in space. The Air Raid doesn’t practice a lot of live tackling, but then again neither does the majority of FBS college football or the FCS’s best defense Dartmouth.

Is Joe Burrow the most athletic quarterback in college football? No. Does he have the strongest arm? No. But what he does well is move his feet and eyes, and throw with accuracy. He makes great decisions with the ball and you can see how their offense has easy progressions.

If you’ve ever read my work, you’ll know that I love Dub Maddox’s R4 system. The books are amazing and Adapt or Die is probably my favorite (click here to purchase). R4 stands for rhythm, read, rush, release. Nearly every concept needs to have a rhythm route, or someone that the QB can hit if open on the end of their initial drop. A read route, which is throw off the hitch in the QB’s drop (so a 3 step drop, and then hitch his feet up to read a defender). The rush means either a check down or if there’s pressure the ball that can be thrown quickly (think of running backs on swings or arrows) and release is the QB running.

Where did Miami’s offense fail in 2019? Dan Enos failed to adapt and thus his scheme died. Miami finished 130th in the nation in 3rd down conversions. The ‘Canes points per play finished 82nd in the nation while LSU finished 2nd and Navy finished 6th. And it’s not like LSU isn’t killing it on the ground, too. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the Tigers starting back, has ran for nearly 1300 yards and scored 16 times on the ground.


Meanwhile, back in Miami...

Boy, Football Scoop was dead on. Manny Diaz’s first offensive coordinator hire was a big one and it’s already set his tenure back a season and if the ‘Canes offense continues on this “path” it could set Diaz’s head coaching career back to Randy Shannon levels (and Shannon was at least a national champion coordinator and former NFL assistant). We have made enough jokes about 3rd and 17 play-action pass calls, etc, but in reality having a horrid third down conversion rate and abysmal points per play kept Miami from winning eight games in 2019.

The Hurricanes went from being progressive under Schnellenberger. The ‘Canes were different by running a pro style offense in the early 80’s when the rest of the country was in the wishbone grinding out 3 yard runs. Miami went progressive again with Erickson and his ace back offense. While the country was slowly adapting to an I-formation world, Erickson was in 11 personnel slinging it for 3,000+ yards a season.

Florida v Miami Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Then came the “we’ll out talent you” years of the Larry Coker offense. That fed into NFL guys like Rob Chudzinski who failed to get the most out of Brock Berlin, a spread shotgun quarterback, in 2003. Dan Werner actually did a much better job of utilizing Brocks strengths and masking his weaknesses. Berlin improved his yards per attempt and touchdown to interception ratio in 2004.

However, poor recruiting and staff turnover sunk the Coker era. Since Werner and Chud; Miami head coaches have hired guys like Patrick Nix, Mark Whipple, Thomas Brown, James Coley and Dan Enos- all very NFL oriented pro style coordinators, who have gone through varying levels of success and failure at Miami. One thing that Miami has never done is buy completely into a spread style approach.

A spread offense would have been perfect for Jacory Harris, who was used to the shotgun offense and multi-receiver sets at Miami Northwestern. Had Miami gone out of house and hired say Mike Leach or anyone that was spread and offensive minded, Miami could’ve had a true talent in Harris, maybe signed Teddy Bridgewater, and had the inkling to bring in Lamar Jackson. Instead Miami has stayed pro style and squandered Harris while seeing ups and downs from Stephen Morris, Brad Kaaya, and now the mess behind center in Coral Gables.

Kansas v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

What about in 2020?

While the rest of the country slings the ball all over the field and utilizes mobile quarterbacks to their advantage- Miami continues to languish in predictable play calling in the most predictable situations. South Florida is known for speed and while the high schools are poorly coached and they too have been slow to adopt spread principles, the really good ones are wide open on offense.

The biggest narrative to track is that the offensive coordinator decision, if one is even made, will have to be Manny’s choice because when guys are pushed on a head coach it turns into a complete mess. A spread coordinator like a Dillingham wouldn’t work at a program that wants to jam the box with tight ends. It would turn into a cultural and schematic nightmare. I want Phil Longo’s offense at UNC, I’m stuck with Dan Enos offense from Arkansas.

If you recall I wanted to hire Kenny Dillingham, Sean Gleeson, Kevin Johns or someone of that ilk. Those coaches coordinated the 38th, 22nd and 8th ranked offenses per the SP+. Dillingham was working with a true freshman Bo Nix at Auburn (Gus Malzahn called the plays), Gleeson turned out an 1800 yard running back, and Johns helped Mike Norvell to a conference title and the Florida State head coach position. Miami on the other hand finished 73rd in SP+ under Mr. Enos.

With a bad offensive line and alleged speed to burn from a championship caliber blue chip ratio- what is stopping Miami from using all of the field and spreading the football around? Nothing but their own incompetence.

Potential OC’s?

If Manny Diaz does choose to “go in a different direction” from Dan Enos I’m not sure who he would tap as his new play caller. Kevin Johns (read more about him here) hasn’t been rumored for the Memphis head coaching position or that he’s going with Mike Norvell to FSU. He is a viable option and has coached under Kliff Kingsbury and Kevin Wilson- so he has NCAA Offense, 11 personnel, and Air Raid experience.

Many have suggested Rhett Lashlee. Lashlee has been an OC for years at different stops such as Samford, Arkansas State, Auburn, UConn and SMU. Lashlee was a Gus Malzahn disciple but that seems to have come to an end. SMU’s offense finished 27th in the country per the SP+. He likes to spread the football around and coached Shane Buechele up from a 6.2 yards per attempt to an 8.2 in a single season.

There’s also Kalen DeBoer at Indiana (14th SP+), and Jeff Lebby at UCF (formerly of Baylor; 13th SP+) from FBS. From lower levels you have Tyler Roehl from North Dakota State, Austin King from Dayton and Todd Hoffner the head coach at Minnesota State (D2).

Prediction: Dan Enos is the OC in 2020.