Study up: John Jenkins’ Houston run and shoot

Before Mike Leach or Dana Holgorsen, there was John Jenkins of run-and-shoot fame as maybe the original air-it-out southwest mad scientist (other than Dutch Meyer of TCU, of course). Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, what Houston was doing on offense was heresy, particularly the way they did it: by slaughtering foes with outrageous scores and stats whenever possible. Indeed, Jenkins was putting up “video game statistics” — 700 yard passing games, 80 or 90 points — before football video games could even keep those kinds of statistics. And then of course, aside from his outrageous offense, there was simply the outrageous man. From a famous SI profile at the time:

“Hey, Hoss, the main reason people play football is for fun, and this offense is fun,” [former Houston Cougars coach John] Jenkins says. “All it is, is throwing and catching. Our guys are out there all summer practicing throwing and catching. Can you imagine players in the wishbone wanting to go out and practice in 100-degree heat? What do they say, ‘Hey, Hoss, let’s go out and block each other. You hurt me, then I’ll bust you!’ ”

. . . Last December, when Houston ended its 10-1 season by devastating Arizona State 62-45 in the Tokyo Dome, Cougar quarterback David Klingler set an NCAA single-game record by passing for 716 yards. Only he didn’t know he was nearing the record until somebody on the sideline mentioned it. “It was Jenkins,” Klingler said later. “He kept trying to find out what [yardage] I had.” In the postseason Blue-Gray game, Jenkins installed the run-and-shoot for the Gray team and then used a megaphone to shout out the plays. “That wasn’t right,” said an opposing coach. “In games like that you should run offenses…that both teams will understand.”

It is the numbers—especially the outrageously lopsided scores that his offense has engendered — that have bathed Jenkins in so much scalding acid. Scores like 60-0, 82-28, 66-15, 69-0, 65-7, 66-10 and 64-0 have become commonplace in the Houston record book since 1987, when Jenkins became the offensive coordinator under coach Jack Pardee….

Jenkins does not claim to have invented the offense, by the way, only to have expanded it…. “Everything’s similar, but different,” Jenkins says. “We’re more advanced, more complex. Tinkering with this deal, messing with it in my head, the possibilities through the avenues in the air are so unlimited it’s scary.”

Jenkins actually converses in this hip-poetic, mad-scientist fashion, and he really does believe he has come upon the secret of the football universe—”like NASA discovering some new solar system,” he says. “Other teams are crawling, we’re flying.”

Paranoid — isn’t every coach? — about revealing the intimate details of his offense, Jenkins lectures at clinics only on fundamentals, prohibits other college coaches from watching his practices and keeps a shredder over his office wastebasket, the better to keep the eyes of spies from the 350-page workbooks he issues to Houston’s skill-position players every week. “Do IBM and Xerox share their policies so some competitor can come in later and kick their butts?” says Jenkins.

Tony Fitzpatrick, a Houston assistant coach who played for the Gamblers when both Davis and Jenkins were assistant coaches there, says, “Jenks is so far ahead of everybody else, it’s a joke. Mouse comes in here now, looks at our films and even he doesn’t understand them. Spreading the field? Mouse had [the Gamblers'] slot guys split arm’s length from the tackles. Jenks would have them start their routes over by the Gatorade carts if he could.”

As the video clips above and below show, what Jenkins was doing in 1992 looks a lot like what teams are doing only now, almost twenty years later.

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Thoughts on Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS title game

Four thoughts on last night’s game:

  • Nick Fairley gets the game ball. As I predicted, the differences in the game were Cam Newton’s ability to do things no one else can do — convert short yardage plays, scramble for big plays on third down, and generally as reader/decoy to open things up for McCalebb and Michael Dyer — and Auburn’s superior defensive line, particularly Nick Fairley. Fairley was incredible throughout. Maybe most importantly, he didn’t tire out like we all expected. Much of this was because Oregon failed to get in their tempo for much of the night, as they couldn’t get consistent first downs and thus couldn’t sustain that tempo, but Fairley deserves a lot of credit for just being able to be on the field and keep his energy at a high level. Not easy for such a larger human. Yet the images that stick out to my mind are those where he completely destroyed Oregon’s attempts to read him on the midline option by blitzkrieging both quarterback and runningback and arriving at the option mesh point before the read could be made. I spoke with some coaches after the game who figured what Chip Kelly obviously did: if we can’t block him, let’s read him, except Fairley, when unblocked, took out everyone. A great performance. (And when Oregon got tired of that and tried to block him and read someone else, he split the double-teams. He’ll be a top five NFL draft pick, if not one or two.)
  • War Daddy

  • Stick to the plan. Oregon and Chip Kelly, however, did themselves no favors by coming out of the gates with a lot of funky stuff they’d never shown this season. I get that you want to do something different for Auburn — and that you’re Chip Kelly, a very bright guy — but that team averaged 49 points a game on the outside zone with a read from spread sets, and the Ducks came out with a bunch of three back sets with a triple option look off the inside zone. Now, Auburn’s defensive coordinator Ted Roof came out with a lot of fire zones and zone blitzes from the field or wide side to take away the stretch plays, but I’m still shocked that those runs weren’t a bigger part of Kelly’s gameplan.  It didn’t help that Darron Thomas, Oregon’s quarterback, struggled with his reads (though for good reason — see above).
  • Malzahn and Cam. Gus Malzahn (oh, I’m sorry, I meant “Guz”) called an effective game, and Cam Newton made some special plays. It wasn’t a Vince Young-esque domination, but Cam did things no one else can do. He also made three very costly mistakes: the shorthopped goalline pass to a wide open receiver on fourth down, the late fumble, and, to my mind, the worst, the overthrow when Gus had called a great double-move and his receiver was wide open. Only the last one really stung because it would have blown the game open in the third quarter while the Tigers led 16-11, but the kid played great. And from the second half on, Malzahn relied on the inside zone with a bubble screen to the opposite side — where Dyer got most of his yards and Cam Newton a lot of simple throws — and of course called that post-dig/wheel route combination for several big plays, including the touchdown. Sometimes you don’t have to be fancy to call a good game; you just have to call the right plays for the situation.
  • Defensive special? A lot of the commentariat claimed this was a defensive game — and most of my points above indicated faults I found with both offenses. But these two teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards of offense — 968 in fact — and featured multiple turnovers and goal line stands. I thought it was pretty entertaining, as it’s more fun to watch good coaches deal with good players and issues than it is to watch one of those steamroller-where-is-the-defense games. Those who tuned out because “there wasn’t enough scoring” can’t be faulted, but you can still appreciate what the teams are trying to do, and thus why a performance like Fairley’s was so unreal (i.e., yes he went unblocked, but that was intentional and it’s what he then did that was so impressive). It was a fascinating — though slightly sloppy and erratic — title game.

Deconstructing: Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses as spread revolution

My breakdown of Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses in anticipation of tonight’s BCS title game is up over at Yahoo!. Check it out.

Also, hat tips and thanks to Brophy and the Offensive Breakdown site for some great info (especially to Brophy for the image on the power scheme). Check out great info from both sites on Malzahn’s offense here and here.

Oregon offense installation videos

Brophy has a full collection of Oregon installation videos, i.e. video cutups showing the plays for teaching purposes. Check them all out here.Very useful stuff.

And, to pile on unnecessarily (though it’s fun), contrast this statement by Gregg Easterbrook:

[In Oregon's offense, p]ass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback’s mind from melting under the pace. Oregon runs hitch screens, then occasionally fakes a hitch screen and sends a receiver on the fake side deep. That’s it — that’s the blur offense passing tree.

With this video:

More on the zone read (or midline read) of the defensive tackle

The classic zone read, where the runningback runs the zone play to one side while the quarterback reads the backside defensive end, is a great play. But if you use it enough, two problems emerge.

Practice makes perfect

First, just because you’re reading the defensive end doesn’t mean you’ve made your blocks on everyone else — a stud defensive tackle you can’t block can still blow up the play. Second, the defense can simply play games on the backside; the zone read is no longer new. A common response is the “scrape exchange,” where the defensive end crashes down for the runningback, thus forcing the quarterback to pull the ball, only to run right into a “scraping” linebacker waiting on him.

An increasingly frequent solution to both of these problems is to read defenders other than the defensive end. One, you can read, instead of trying to block, the most dangerous defensive lineman on the other team. Two, this makes the “scrape exchange,” at least where it involves the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker, irrelevant, as you just block both of them.

DT

Oregon and Florida were the first teams I saw use this, but last week’s game between Purdue and Northwestern — Purdue being quite desperate and with a new mobile quarterback — went to this technique to try to manufacture some offense. As reported in the Journal & Courier:

[The Purdue quarterback, Robert Henry,] keyed on Northwestern’s interior linemen on the zone read plays, either keeping the ball or handing off to Dierking or Antavian Edison. Five consecutive running plays produced 34 yards and brought the Boilermakers to Northwestern’s 21-yard line. . . .

“We did some research, calling a bunch of buddies of mine that have made their living doing the different reads of the interior linemen,” Nord said. “I’ve always been involved in the drop back passing game, the misdirection and the play-action. I never did a lot of veer, option stuff.

“We have a guy that can execute it very well. He’s reading down linemen and doing what they’re not doing. If they’re biting on the ball carrier, he’s pulling it. If they’re biting on him, he’s giving it.”

. . . . The Boilermakers faced fourth-and-1 from the Wildcat 7 and called timeout.

“We wanted to make sure we had a chance to either hand it off or have Rob Henry keep it so we called a play where if the hole is there, we hand it off and if it wasn’t, Rob Henry would keep it,” coach Danny Hope said. “It gave us two options to score and win the game.” The hole was definitely there.

“I couldn’t have written up a better script,” said Dierking, who had five carries for 22 yards on the last drive. “I saw the hole open up so I jerked it from him.” . . .

“We knew they were going to run the quarterback; how they were going to run him we had to adjust to,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They changed up their scheme a little bit, and were reading our tackles as opposed to our defensive ends. There were times when we fit it very well, and there were times when we didn’t.”

When I wrote about this play yesterday I had only seen some of the game and spotted the tactic; the above article (courtesy of reader Brad), confirms my analysis. Video of the fourth down play is below:

This tactic has been adopted by other teams as well, including Nebraska. The question is whether it will provide a sustained advantage or if only work to catch defenses off guard for a little while — time will tell. Certainly teams like Oregon have made a living on the play. And the rules for how you might teach the play are quite simple too: On the frontside, your defenders keep their normal zone rules. Your center and backside guard leave unblocked the first man heads up or backside of the center, while the backside guard and tackle block the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker. Thus the zone read where the defensive tackle, instead of the defensive end, is the read.

But wait, say option coaches. Why call this the zone read, instead of what it is: the midline option from gun? They have a point. You end up blocking the same people and using the same read. That said, I think both get you to the same place, however, and the primary difference is whether you began with zone running and the zone read, or you began as a traditional option guy. See how similar the midline from gun is to what I’ve been discussing, as shown in the video below:

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Deconstructing: The search for the perfect spread QB

I have a new bit up on Yahoo! (belatedly, after I sent the wrong draft… I owe the good Doctor mightily) comparing how Gus Malzahn uses Cam Newton to how Rich Rodriguez is using Denard Robinson. Hint: Newton’s favorite play is the inverted veer or dash package, while Denard’s is the outside zone.

Check it out. (Make sure the version you read begins with “Sometimes, in college football….” The first version that went up was based on an earlier draft, and was incomplete (my fault).)

Good Q&A about the spread with Baylor HC Art Briles

Art Briles, cool customer

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Q&A with Baylor head coach Art Briles, from FoxSports Southwest. (H/t Spreadoffense.com.)

Your spread offense really served as a catalyst in the state of Texas. After they saw the success you were having in the 1990s, dozens of schools changed their offenses and patterned them after yours. Where did you come up with your version of the spread? Did you have any influences when you designed your offense?

I appreciate you saying that, because honestly we were some of the first people to start throwing it around and spreading it out. I just kind of came about it through trial and error. I had my first head coaching job back in 1984 in Hamlin, Texas. That first year, we made it to the quarter-finals and got beat on penetration. So the next year, I understood that if we didn’t spread the field and give our guys space to create plays in, somebody with better talent was going to shut us down and beat us. We started it in 1985, spreading in the ball around. We were in the shotgun, throwing it and running the zone read. It just kind of evolved through the years. We fluctuated with our personnel and with our philosophy, and with the defenses we were facing. I think it’s fun; I like how everything has evolved in the game of football. I’m excited about what the future holds, because it’s been a fun journey watching the way everything has transpired on both sides of the ball.

How much has your particular brand of the spread changed since you started running it?

Quite a bit. To some extent, we’re a little more screen-oriented now than we were then. We had more of a vertical passing game then, because we got more single [coverage] matchups than you get now. I’ve always liked a real mobile quarterback. We’ve always had our best teams that way. Even having Kevin Kolb at Houston. He’s fixing to be a star quarterback for the Eagles. You know, Kevin’s a mobile guy. He’s one of only three quarterbacks in college football history to throw for 400 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game. He had that capability; we just didn’t pull it out of them that much because he’s such a precise passer and we had other weapons around him. I like a guy who’s mobile. I like a guy who can move around and make things happen, and create plays for other people. Fortunately, we have a guy like that in Robert at Baylor.

The spread really took off in the college game early in the 2000s. Offenses enjoyed a lot of success for several seasons, but last year, it seemed like defenses found a way to at least slow down the spread. Do you think the spread is here to stay in college football, or will it be like the wishbone or West Coast offenses that were en vogue for a while before fading away?

I definitely think it will continue to change, but I also think it’s here to stay. I think the game has become a lot faster from the standpoint of putting people in space and letting them make plays. I don’t think that we’ll consistently see people lining up with a full house backfield, handing the ball to a guy who’s running downfield. I think that part of the game is definitely valuable. You can have some advantages doing that today, because people don’t recruit defensively to stop teams that pound the ball at you. But I don’t think the spread offenses are going anywhere for a while.

You left Stephenville to become running backs coach at Texas Tech. That was the same year Mike Leach arrived in Lubbock. What was it like working with Mike? How similar is your offensive philosophy to his?

We were on the ground floor of the Texas Tech process. Spike [Dykes] had done a great job there for many years. I think at that time, they had been to a bowl nine of the past ten years. That situation has continued there since then. The thing about Leach and his philosophy – like with Hal Mumme at Kentucky, Al Wesland at Valdosta – is it’s set, it’s patternized, and you do what you do. The thing I was impressed about was they had what they had, they believed in it, and it was successful for them.

Did the spread really evolve from the single-wing?

Brian Cook thinks so, but I’m not so sure. The idea that the spread, or, even just Gus Malzahn’s offense in particular, “is a modern-day version of the single wing” is overdone. (To be fair, the Judy Battista’s NY Times piece focuses on the wildcat, which I do think has a great deal in common with the single-wing.)

But Cook’s point is broader and, I think, flawed. He gives several reasons why Malzahn’s O in particular is like the single-wing, saying the single-wing

  • incorporates many possible different ball carriers that head in different directions.
  • uses misdirection as the primary way to acquire big plays. It’s not “keeping the defense honest” so you can run your bread and butter without the opponent cheating, it’s an attempt make the defense confused on every play.
  • often features a primary ball handler who spins wildly to set up playfakes heading in opposite directions.
  • depends on sowing confusion and can be vulnerable to teams that are well-drilled at stopping it.

These reasons assuredly apply to Malzahn’s offense, but do they apply to the single-wing? Not really, or at least they aren’t its foundation. The single wing was primarily (though not always, of course) about using overwhelming force to one side of a formation. So the spread’s major similarity to the single-wing is mostly relegated to the shotgun and the fact that the quarterback is not an irrelevant handoff man, but instead has an active role in the run game. (H/t for the image FootballBabble.)

single

And the rest of Brian’s points don’t seem to apply. The single-wing was not a big play offense (have you seen the scores from back then?), instead relying on steady gains from its power runs. Indeed, most plays resembled rugby scrums, which made sense given football’s original roots. Some single-wing teams used a lot of ballcarriers — and I guess everything uses “a lot of ballcarriers” if the comparison is a Woody/Bo I-formation offense where one guy gets 35 carries a game — but it wasn’t a major feature. Playfaking was important but no more so than in other offenses, and certainly not as much as it is to offenses like the Wing-T. (And I don’t know about  the single-wing being known for fakes involving “spinning wildly,” though various forms of the “spin” offense were invented decades later). And, although defensive discipline is helpful against any offense, the cornerstone of the single wing was the “student body right” type play behind the unbalanced line and blocking backs to the “single wing” side. There’s no misdirection to be snuffed out by a disciplined defense there; it’s called bowl your opponent over to get four yards. Below is video of an older school single-wing; I think it’s evident that it’s a little more straightforward than Brian’s four points would imply.

The upshot is that yes, the single-wing was a shotgun formation, yes it used some misdirection (all offenses do), and yes it’s old, but that doesn’t make it the sole inspiration for today’s spread or even Malzahn’s offense. Modern fans, including Brian, have understandably mapped their understanding of the offenses they see on a weekly basis onto the past and see a direct correlation, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Certainly, the coaches who developed today’s modern offenses, like Rodriguez and Malzahn, did not spend their time meticulously studying the single-wing tapes of yesteryear. Instead, if there are similarities it’s because those coaches stumbled onto the same ideas through trial and error.

So where did the spread come from? The basic answer is simple, though to catalogue all the influences would go on for days: the spread is a synthesis of most of the great ideas that came before it. It owes some principles to the single-wing, but it also owes its debts to the double-wing, a few Wing-T principles, the veer option squads, the run and shoot, and modern pro-style passing attacks. This makes sense, given that defenses, once they have countered something, do not forget, though at the same time an offense’s effectiveness is often contingent on how experienced the opponent’s coaches and players are to facing it. The “spread,” which is an overbroad term anyway, puts a new twist on a lot of what came before it.

But to say it is confined to being the “modern day version” of any one of those past offenses ignores too much football history to be a plausible interpretation. Like much football commentary, the analysis isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete.

Visual evidence of the evolution of the spread offense

Compare Woody Dantzler running the Clemson Tigers offense under coordinator Rich Rodriguez:

…with the new school spread from Oregon, coached by Chip Kelly:

It’s not quite fair to draw major conclusions off comparing just these two teams, coached by different guys, but I see some themes that emerge:

  1. A wider variety of sets. Clemson uses only a couple of formations — mostly two-by-two with four receivers — while Oregon uses three receivers and a lot of sets with H-backs and tight-ends. Indeed, if there’s one change I can point to about the newest spread offenses is that they are less spread. Guys like Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn use tight-ends as often as pro-style teams, though they integrate them into their offenses in slightly different fashion.
  2. A wider variety of reads. Much of the development in the spread run game has been to counteract advanced defense reactions to the zone-read, like the “scrape exchange.” A lot of Clemson’s runs aren’t reads at all, and rely on the surprise element of having the quarterback run at all, whereas Oregon employs significantly more deception and movement in the backfield, and the reads go well beyond the old “read the defensive end” of the zone read. Instead, they include reads of the defensive tackle and the outside linebacker for bubble screens built into the play.
  3. Increased polish of footwork and fakes. Chip Kelly does an excellent job of coaching his quarterbacks and runningbacks to carry out their fakes and to emphasize them, whereas with Clemson everything was so new the threat alone was often enough. (Rodriguez’s teams, especially at West Virginia, got very good at this as well.)
  4. Increased emphasis on “power” schemes. In the spread’s nascent days, almost all the runs were based off the inside and outside zones, with a few simple reads. And Rodriguez’s teams still emphasize the zone, much like some pro teams do. But other teams, including Oregon, have meshed spread principles like QB reads and an integration of slot receivers and a focus on angles and leverage in blocking with traditional “power” schemes, like the “Power O” and “Counter Trey.”

Those are the major themes I notice. Feel free to add your own in the comments. One thing I will add though is that the Clemson clip contains my favorite play out of those shown in the videos above — the “play-action” pass from no-back where the quarterback dips down as if it was a QB Draw and instead fires a pass downfield. Call it the predecessor to the “jump pass.