Can't Beat the Spread

The hottest offense thrives on speed, stretching the defense across the field and exploiting mismatches all over. It's near unstoppable, and more and more coaches are converting
August 10, 2008

THE YOUNGEST75-year-old in America has come full circle. Some 53 years after he got intothe coaching biz—following stops at high schools and colleges and almost every--FL you can think of (AFL, CFL, USFL, NFL)—Mouse Davis is back in Oregon. Itwas here that he landed his first coaching gig, at Western Oregon, in 1955. Andit was here, as coach at Portland State from 1975 through '80, that hisVikings, fueled by a cutting-edge offense known as the run-and-shoot, set 20Division I-AA offensive records. ¬∂ "I remember talking at a clinic inSouthern California," recalls Davis, who last year returned to PortlandState, this time as offensive coordinator. As he proselytized on hisgroundbreaking system, which had no conventional tight end, only one back andfour wide receivers, "these guys were looking at me like, 'Who is thisstumblebum and what kind of horses--- is he selling?' They were ready to burnme at the stake. Now practically everyone is running it. Hell, it's about todebut at Michigan!"

It's true. Therun-and-shoot, of course, gave rise to the hottest thing going in the collegegame today: the spread offense, a variation of which Rich Rodriguez took withhim to Ann Arbor last December, following his toxic departure from WestVirginia. The Michigan job had come open in no small measure because of theevents of Sept. 1, 2007. That was the day defending I-AA champion AppalachianState—perfectly executing a spread-option offense that coach Jerry Moore hadpicked up from his old pal Rodriguez—knocked off the fifth-ranked Wolverines inthe Big House.

Among the bodyblows RichRod has absorbed since leaving Morgantown was the decision bytop-rated high school quarterback Terrelle Pryor, a dual threat ideally suitedfor the spread, to spurn the Wolverines in favor of Ohio State. That means TheGame, Michigan's annual brawl with the Buckeyes, will soon be a showcase for anoffense that neither Bo Schembechler nor Woody Hayes would've recognized asfootball. When a trend has worked its way to Ann Arbor and Columbus—and StateCollege and Austin and Norman, to name a few—it has officially entered themainstream.

The spread is acatchall label for several species of the wide-open offense, from the zone-readoption executed so masterfully by West Virginia quarterback Pat White, to itssingle-wing-like cousin run with such rugged panache by Florida's Tim Tebow, tothe unapologetically unbalanced Air Raid directed by Graham Harrell at TexasTech (gatefold feature, page 55).

Here's what mostspread offenses have in common: no huddle, shotgun snap, one running back (ifthat), and four or five wide receivers. The primary goal: spread defendersacross the width of the field, making them feel naked and alone as the runningback and receivers run to the open spaces. "Whether you run first or passfirst, the fundamental reason people go sideline to sideline is to force thedefense to defend the whole field," says Florida coach Urban Meyer."That's how you uncover pressures. It's much more difficult to blitz acorner when he's out near the sideline. You can see it coming."

A cold bed ofoffensive innovation not long ago, the SEC is fast becoming Spread EnthusiastsCentral. Meyer brought his system from Utah to Florida in 2005 and won thenational championship a year later. Last season LSU won it all with an offensethat blended elements of the spread-option and the power-I. Now Auburn hashired Tony Franklin (page 78), a kind of coordinator-entrepreneur(coordipreneur?) who has peddled his copyrighted spread offense playbook andDVD set, The Tony Franklin System, the past seven years. It's a testament tothe allure of the spread that some 350 high school programs have shelled outthe $3,495.

Indeed, onereason the spread is multiplying so rapidly at the college level is that it hassaturated the high school ranks. "Seven years ago we never saw it,"Meyer says. "Today, I'd say 80 percent of the high schools we go into arerunning a version [of the spread]. It's absolutely changed the game."

"Twelve yearsago," says Todd Dodge, the second-year coach at North Texas, "highschool ball in Texas was dominated by the run. Now you've got quarterbacks fromthis state running some of the best spread offenses in [collegefootball]."

One of them isChase Daniel, whose senior season at Missouri will be his eighth straight as awideout or quarterback in a spread attack. Daniel starred at Southlake CarrollHigh under Dodge, a contrarian who'd been getting after defenses with awide-open, one-back passing offense since 1990, when he was an assistant coachat Rockwall High, outside Dallas. In 2002, his third season at Southlake, heupped the ante, installing a no-huddle. "It worked out pretty well,"Dodge recalls. "We won 79 of our next 80 games."

Otherquarterbacks from the Lone Star State running spread offenses include ColtMcCoy at Texas, Todd Reesing at Kansas and Texas Tech's Harrell, whose coach,Mike Leach, is, like Franklin, a disciple of Hal Mumme's, a longtime spreadadvocate who's now the New Mexico State coach. Franklin, by the way, was forcedby SEC regulations to relinquish ownership of his company in July. It is nowcalled simply The System Seminars. The truth is that there are as manyvariations of the spread as there are branches of Protestantism. "Oneveer's like another," says Rodriguez. "You see one West Coast offense,the next one will be very similar. You see 10 spreads, 10 different things arebeing featured."

HE IS THEprogenitor, the Kevin Bacon, the fountainhead of the spread. While Davispopularized the run-and-shoot, it was Rodriguez who begat its most influentialoffspring. Sitting at his desk in Schembechler Hall in April, he looked morethan a little careworn (and this was the day before his offense could barelyget out of its own way in the spring game).

If past isprologue, the Wolverines will grind their offensive gears in RichRod's firstseason. After that, stand back. In 1990, as a 27-year-old coach at Glenville(W.Va.) State, Rodriguez decided it might be fun to run a two-minute offensefor the entire game. "I figured, Why not?" he says. "There were 500people in the stands, and half of 'em were my relatives."

To make lifeeasier on his quarterback, who stood all of 5'11", Rodriguez put him in theshotgun and commenced throwing the ball all over the field. That, in turn,"emptied the box, [opening] running seams all over the place."

After winningfour straight West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles,Rodriguez rolled out his nascent spread-option as the offensive coordinator atTulane; so atrocious was the offense at the start, he recalls, "I don'tthink we got a first down in our spring game. One of our coaches let one of thefemale trainers call some defenses, and we still couldn't get a firstdown."

Take heart,Michigan fans! In his second year the Green Wave went 12--0. In 1999 Rodriguezfollowed coach Tommy Bowden to Clemson, where they inherited quarterback WoodyDantzler, a Pat White precursor who rushed for 1,028 yards and threw for 1,871in leading the Tigers to a 9--3 record in 2000.

Rodriguez'scoaching colleagues were taking notice. One of his first visitors to DeathValley was an assistant from the staff of Northwestern coach Randy Walker, whowas a buddy of Rodriguez's. "They took everything verbatim," Rodriguezrecalls. "I thought they'd at least change the signals."

There wasNorthwestern in November 2000, piling up 654 yards of total offense in a 54--51upset of Michigan. "After that," says Rodriguez of his offense, "itwas out there."

Rodriguez washired by West Virginia in late 2000, but he continued to be a generous host.Bowling Green's new coach, none other than Meyer, was concerned that other MACteams had better talent than his squad and was looking for an equalizer.Another visitor to Morgantown was Chip Kelly, the youthful offensivecoordinator at I-AA New Hampshire. "We were a down-and-dirty, I-formation,smash-mouth team," he recalls. Finding his offense short on naturalfullbacks, Kelly had to try something. But swapping out the fullback for athird receiver made him wonder, How would the Wildcats run the ball?"Everything back then was a one-back draw," says Kelly. "So we didsome investigating, and [Rodriguez's] zone-read play gave us someanswers."

The rise of thespread has resulted in a faster and—unless one is a fan of the fullbackisolation play—more entertaining game. The most successful spreads featureridiculously talented, multiple-threat athletes who may well siphon Heismanvotes from their quarterbacks.

At Texas Techthat guy is sophomore Michael Crabtree, who broke every significant freshmanDivision I-A receiving record last season, then won the Biletnikoff Award,given to the nation's top pass catcher. At 6'3", 214 pounds, with a 34-inchvertical, he has the size to bully smaller corners and the hops to outleap allof them.

At West Virginiathe sting of running back Steve Slaton's decision to bolt early for the NFLwill be soothed by sophomore Noel Devine, a 5'8", 173-pound dynamo whosestepfather, Mark Carter, describes his running style this way: "He goesMatrix on 'em!" Devine's dramatic burst, sharp cuts and Houdini-likeescapes were on display last January in the Mountaineers' Fiesta Bowl upset ofOklahoma. Devine carried 13 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns, finishingwith 243 all-purpose yards.

But the nation'smost electrifying playmakers will line up at wide receiver—and occasionally inthe slot or the backfield, and once in a blue moon at quarterback to take adirect snap—at Missouri and Florida. The Tigers' Jeremy Maclin was the onlyplayer in the country last season to score touchdowns four ways: receiving(nine), rushing (four), and returning punts (two) and kickoffs (one). His 2,776all-purpose yards were an NCAA freshman record.

Meyer hasn't hada star running back in his first three seasons at Florida. Then again, withPercy Harvin, who's listed as a wide receiver on the depth chart, the Gatorshaven't needed one. Perpetually in motion and routinely taking handoffs out ofthe wingback spot, the junior rushed for nearly as many yards in two seasons(1,192) as he gained receiving (1,285). Harvin is proof that Meyer doesn't carehow his playmakers get the ball in space, so long as they do.

IN EARLY October2003 Meyer's Utah team upset Oregon and was on its way to a 10--2 record andNo. 21 ranking. Noting the confusion sown throughout his defense by the Utes'spread-option attack, Ducks coach Mike Bellotti told himself, There's somethingto this. In 2005 he brought in Gary Crowton, a spread specialist who'd justbeen forced out as the coach at BYU, as offensive coordinator; the Ducksaveraged 34.5 points and 438.8 yards per game in his first year. When Crowtonwas lured to LSU after the '06 season, Bellotti entrusted the job to a43-year-old from, of all places, New Hampshire—yes, Chip Kelly. Withhesitation, Kelly handed the reins of the offense to dual-threat quarterbackDennis Dixon, who had shared time at quarterback as a sophomore and ajunior.

Oregon's 2007season showcased the spread option's limitless promise and the risk of nothaving a capable backup. Exploiting the sorcery of Dixon, the Ducks averaged510.6 yards and 42.8 points over their first nine games. But on a mid-Novembernight in the desert, Oregon's dream season ended when Dixon blew out his leftknee in the first quarter against unranked Arizona. He was replaced by BradyLeaf, a gritty but plodding drop-back passer unsuited for Kelly's offense. TheDucks lost that game and their next two, free-falling from a probable berth inthe BCS title game (had they won their last three games) to the Sun Bowl, wherefreshman quarterback Justin Roper threw four touchdowns passes in a 56--21 routof South Florida.

In a pro-styleoffense, games can be won with a caretaker quarterback, a guy who hands off andcompletes a dozen or so throws to keep the defense honest. The triggermen ofsuccessful spread attacks—"the bedazzlers," as SuperPrep publisherAllen Wallace describes the likes of Tebow, Daniel, Harrell and White—areharder to replace.

That's the mainreason the spread-option has failed to take root in the NFL (box, page 64):When your quarterback is operating behind minimal pass protection and, attimes, like a running back, it's not a question of if he gets hurt, but when.And as Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, for six years the coach of theSeattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, points out, NFL rosters typicallyboast enough fleet, athletic defensive backs to match up against four- andfive-receiver sets. That's often not the case at the high school and collegelevels, which leads to the mismatches that are the lifeblood of any spread.

So multiple andfluid are the offshoots of the spread—"as different as the wishbone and thepower-I," says Dodge—that defensive coordinators have a tough time stoppingthem week in and week out (page 62). No wonder Dodge says, "The spread ishere to stay."

And don't believeMouse Davis when he says, "Maybe we'll come out this season with two tightends and a full-house backfield. Whaddya think?"

THE SPREAD LIFTED MISSOURI TO ELITE STATUS THANKS TOTHE EXPERIENCED DANIEL (LEFT) AND THE VERSATILE MACLIN, WHO SET THE NCAAFRESHMAN RECORD FOR ALL-PURPOSE YARDS.

IN FLORIDA'S SINGLE-WING VARIATION, TEBOW (LEFT) RANFOR 23 TDS AND THREW FOR 32 MORE; HARVIN, THOUGH LISTED AS A WIDEOUT, HAD MORERUSHING ATTEMPTS THAN RECEPTIONS.

WHITE (LEFT) DIRECTS THE SPREAD OPTION OF BIG EASTCHAMP WEST VIRGINIA FLAWLESSLY, OFTEN PITCHING TO DEVINE, WHO AS A FRESHMAN RANOKLAHOMA RAGGED IN THE FIESTA BOWL.

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Gatefold Feature
Mike Leach breaks down one play used in Texas Tech's offense.

PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY GARY BOGDONMASS CONFUSION Against Florida's spread offense last season, Florida Atlantic defenders didn't know which way to turn as the Gators' receivers ran free in the secondary. PHOTOPETER G. AIKEN/CAL SPORT MEDIA PHOTOJAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMI PHOTOICON SMI (TEBOW) PHOTOJOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (HARVIN) PHOTOJASON PARKHURST/US PRESSWIRE (WHITE) PHOTOKIRBY LEE/US PRESSWIRE (DEVINE) SEVEN PHOTOS
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)