Plays (I think) I saw West Virginia run against UConn

In the spirit of Paul Johnson, below are the scans of what I saw Dana Holgorsen’s offense do against UConn. Keep in mind that, despite the gaudy stats, UConn’s defensive line largely controlled if not dominated West Virginia’s front, so that may have affected the tactics.

Take the doodles with a grain of salt, however, as they are merely based on a review of the television broadcast.

Video and more doodles after the jump.

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The “Diamond” formation and other multi-back “pistol” sets

I like to often say that football is a simple game, and in that vein coaches, when designing offensive plays, have really only two choices: To change where the players begin (the formation), and where they’ll end up (the play design). Formations are often more important than plays, but also should be easier to get right: The guy should stand where he was told to stand. But they’re still fun to play with, and the past couple of seasons have seen some interesting wrinkles.

Probably the most famous new formation came about from the world’s smallest adjustment: Moving a runningback over a couple of feet. But no one calls it that; instead, they call it the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps). Of course, announcers like to say a team is using the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps) whenever the runningback lines up in the pistol, but really only a handful of teams use the set in anything that can be called an “offense” in the sense of a fully robust system, Nevada, of course, being among them with a mixture of downhill I-formation plays from the shotgun with options like the speed option and the veer play.

But I’ve been kind of down on the “Pistol” as something broad or novel, because most teams that have used it are still one-back teams and all they’ve done is move the runningback around a little, which is something good teams like Oregon or others were doing anyway, just not from the pistol. The real advantage of the pistol (the formation, not the offense), however, comes when you add a second back to the backfield. In the image below, West Virginia actually goes with three backs (more on that in a bit), but the point is simply that you can align a fullback (or two fullbacks) to add a strength to the formation.

A bit of overcrowding?

Now, West Virginia didn’t have much luck with the three back set, but the idea is a good one:

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The original one-back spread offense

Before the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Airraid or the Urban Meyer spread-to-run, there was the old, original “one-back” offense. The man who is considered the father of the one-back and did the most to popularize it is Dennis Erickson, who doesn’t even run it anymore at Arizona State, having given the reins of his offense over to Noel Mazzone, who runs a kind of hybrid with the Airraid offense filtered through a former NFL assistant’s viewpoint. But the one-back has a storied legacy in football, both in that it paved the way for the 2000s, the decade of the spread, but also as an incredible offense in its own right. Erickson has explained the origins of the offense:

The one-back worked for me

“The ingenuity [Jack Elway] had offensively has spread throughout the country and has certainly had an influence on my strategy and my coaching,” Erickson said. “Obviously, he (Elway) was a pioneer of all that stuff, and used it before a lot of others.”Erickson said the first to use the spread offense was Jack Neumeier at Granada Hills, where John Elway played his high school football. Jack Elway then used it at Cal State Northridge and brought it to San Jose State.

Neumeier was a high school coach who wanted to open up his offense back in the 1970s and began splitting out extra receivers to do so. Both Jack and John Elway, then a young high schooler, wanted John to play somewhere that would showcase his talents as a quarterback in an age when everyone wanted to out-muscle everyone and so John enrolled at Granada. Granada’s offense got rolling as it was based on three excellent concepts:

  1. One-back formations with extra split receivers to open up passing and running holes in the defense.
  2. Option routes where receivers had the freedom to alter their route depending on the coverage.
  3. Having John freaking Elway as your high school quarterback.
Although undoubtedly already convinced of the wisdom of #3, Jack Elway saw the wisdom of #1 and #2 and realized that maybe the most advanced offensive mind in the game that he knew in 1976-78 was a high school coach in Granada. So Jack began spreading guys out and using what became the “one-back.”
Dennis Erickson served as Jack Elway’s offensive coordinator for three years at San Jose State, before later becoming a head coach at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State and later Miami. During that time he coached with a number of other one-back gurus, including future head coaches John L. Smith, Mike Price and Joe Tiller (not to mention future NFL head coach/offensive coordinator Scott Linehan). It was during this time that Erickson solidifed the one-back’s offensive package, based on several important principles:
  1. One-back formations, with the base being three wide-receivers, one tight-end and one runningback. (Other coaches would put different spins on it, whether with four receivers or two tight-ends.)
  2. A running game consisting of inside and outside zone, Power-O and the counter trey.
  3. A heavy emphasis on the three-step drop passing game.
  4. “Option routes” as the base of the five-step drop passing game.
  5. A systematic or “constraint play” approach to playcalling.

Probably the best exemplar of the one-back in its prime was the 1997 Washington State squad led by then coach Mike Price and quarterback Ryan Leaf. History was not particularly kind to either man (though nicer to Price as after his Alabama debacle he’s been the coach at UTEP since 2004), but for that season the results speak for themselves: PAC-10 champ, 42 points per game and over 500 yards of offense per game. And let me say it again: They did this at Washington State.

That season Price employed a lot of formations but he used the “double slot” the most: two receivers to either side of the quarterback along with one running back. Many now will recognize this as the basic spread formation (though Leaf was usually under center rather than in the shotgun), but back then it was somewhat of a novelty. Price used it because of its then relative rarity, but also for practical reasons: Washington State’s fourth wide receiver was better than its tight-end.

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Why every team should install its offense in three days (and other political theories on coaching offense)

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia’s new offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, has frequently said that his entire record breaking offense can be installed “in three days.” And, now that his three days of spring practice are up, he said on day four his team will simply “start over,” and will run through this install period three or four times during the spring. Wait, what? Hasn’t Holgorsen been a part of record breaking offenses for more than a decade, including the last three (at Houston and then Oklahoma State) as head orchestrator? Doesn’t saying you can install your entire top tier Division-I men’s college football offense in three lousy days seem a little bit like, I don’t know, bullshit?

Entire offense, three days -- power through

It does, but only because “complexity” is too often accepted as an end in and of itself and because we undervalue gains from specialization. As Holgorsen says, “no one” in his offense will play more than one position; he doesn’t even want someone to play both “inside and outside receiver.” The idea is a simple one: with limited practice time and, to be honest, limited skills, kids need to focus on a few things and to get better at them — the jack of all trades is incredibly overrated. While Urban Meyer’s Florida offense thrived for a time with Tebow and his omnipositional teammate, Percy Harvin, I’d argue that this reliance on a “Percy Position” — a guy that can play most every skill position on offense — eventually does more harm than good. I’m all for getting the ball to playmakers in different ways, but I am not — and neither is Holgorsen — a fan of doing it to the detriment of repetitions and becoming a master at your given position. It’s nature versus nurture on the football practice field, and I side with nurture.

Put another way, if your offense is well designed you don’t need to move a guy around to get him the ball. As one of Holgorsen’s assistants at West Virginia explains:

“Wes Welker at Texas Tech caught over 100 balls two years in a row and he played ‘H,” Dawson said. Michael Crabtree caught over 100 (at Texas Tech) and he play ‘Z.’ I had two receivers back to back that caught over 100 and that played ‘X.’ Then I had a guy catch 119 that played ‘Y.’

“It just depends on where that guy lines up,” Dawson continued. “The ball finds the play makers. Regardless of where you line them up. The ball finds the play makers. That is just the way it works out.”

If you’re looking for the guiding principle here, it is not one specific to football. Instead, it is (at least) as old as the opening of the Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
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Smart Notes – Packaging offensive concepts, Holgorsen, Airraid lineage, links – 12/20/2010

Very cool:

(h/t edsbs and Barking Carnival.) The only thing cooler than that play is Holgorsen’s Johnny Cash man-in-black look. More seriously, one reason that Holgorsen has had success in expanding on or putting “his own spin” on Leach’s Airraid is that he has focused on packaging concepts. In addition to packaging the “stick” passing concept with a draw play as described above, I’ve seen several other instances. One that I remember from his time at Houston — though I don’t have video of it on hand — was a “packaged” screen/downfield pass concept. Sometimes teams package a screen play with a tight-end drag or cross, where if the linebackers flow to the screen the tight-end could be open, but Holgorsen’s version attacked the safety on a wide receiver screen, as shown below:

The idea was that everyone else was blocked, but if the safety attacked the screen — not an unbelievable idea that he would, considering how many screens Houston used — the quarterback could loft it to the slot receiver who faked a block and then ran straight downfield. This is different than a true fake screen, where the quarterback does not have the option to throw the screen play if it is there. As with all of Dana’s plays, this one was well designed, but required quick decisions from the quarterback.

2. Troy stylings. The hero of Troy’s bowl win over Ohio? Will Goggans, whose beard was captured in what must simultaneously be called a photo, a statement and a power ballad by the artist known as Will Goggans. Going forward, the most intriguing player on Troy’s roster is redshirt freshman quarterback Corey Robinson.

Before Robinson’s senior season at Lone Oak high school in Paducah, Kentucky, his high school coaches called up Tony Franklin and installed “the System,” and, well, this happened:

During his final season at Lone Oak High School in Paducah, Ky., Robinson threw for 5,872 yards and a national-record 91 touchdowns. He was intercepted just four times in 520 attempts on the way to being named his state’s Mr. Football.

Robinson has a bright future, as in his freshman season (in terms of eligibility), he threw for 3,707 yards and 28 touchdowns. His journey to Troy was not straightforward, and Franklin helped him not only by installing his brand of the Airraid:

Heavy recruiting attention didn’t follow for Robinson, who is now listed at 6 feet tall and 214 pounds.

He received some attention from Sun Belt Conference schools and said “Ole Miss was talking to me a little bit here and there.” Troy knew about Robinson because then-offensive coordinator Tony Franklin was a good friend of Lone Oak High head coach Jack Haskins, whose son Billy Jack is a former University of Kentucky quarterback. Lone Oak ran an offense similar to Troy’s and Robinson felt comfortable in choosing the Trojans.

It wasn’t a quick journey to the field as a college player for Robinson. He spent the 2008 season as greyshirt and a part-time student at Troy.

Seems to be working out now.

3. Merger of equals. The excellent The Browser is merging with the excellent Five Books. The expected result will be self-defining.

4. Words Fail Them, Companies adapt to the video age.

5. The Unreal Genius of Football Manager. Paean to the immersive Football manager 101 (about the other kind of football).

6. Posnanski on Jose Conseco, or not really. From the piece:

There is a line in the story that I have thought about many times. Toward the end, Parker talked about how much he had learned from the pain and the hope and the fear of what would happen … but Gary did not use most of what Richie Parker said. Here is Gary’s explanation: “And he said a lot more, but it would be improper to let him do it here, for it might mislead the reader into thinking this was a story about Richie Parker.”

I have often wondered if Gary did the right thing using that line. Part of me thinks that it should have gone unsaid — that comes from the “if you have to explain a joke, it didn’t work” school of thinking. But another part of me remembers the jolt of recognition that clicked in me when I read the line the first time. I don’t think the story would have had quite the same power for me if he had left it out.

All of which is just my excuse to say this: Despite how it may look, the following story is not about really Jose Canseco.

7. The end of the coin toss? Maybe, says Slate.