The Rodriguez Spread Offense at Full Throttle

Markusr2007Correspondent IJune 4, 2009

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 25: Head coach Rich Rodriguez of the Michigan Wolverines talks with Steven Threet #10 while playing the Michigan State Spartans on October 25, 2008 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

When Rich Rodriguez was hired as the head coach at Michigan, many college football experts and fans made the bee line assumption that to achieve real success, the Wolverines must find a Pat White clone at quarterback.

For Rich Rodriguez, it was going to be Pat White at quarterback or bust.

Michigan’s 2008 season record of 3-9 supported this view pretty well, because the Michigan offense played horribly, finishing 9th in the Big Ten and 109th in the nation in total offense.

It has been said that without a decisive, fleet-footed quarterback under center as a legitimate run threat, Rodriguez is incapable of bringing the full force of his elaborate playbook to bear on UM opponents.

This is true to some degree. But is it the whole story?

We know that Rodriguez first began his spread offense experiments as head coach at Glenville State in West Virginia, and then carried those unconventional ideas and philosophies with him to Tulane, Clemson, and then to the West Virginia Mountaineers.

Rodriguez’s strategies were not always an immediate success. And this gives one pause to ask the question:

Under what circumstances does Rodriguez’s spread-option offense really start hitting on all cylinders?

When certain key ingredients were present and well-mixed into the offensive game plan, Rodriguez showed a tremendous yield of both offensive firepower (yards gained, points scored) and victories.

All of Rich Rodriguez’s most powerful offensive units featured three key components.

I.) Quarterbacks With Wheels

II.) Tailback Tandems from Hell

III.) Slot Machines (and Quarterbacks That Crank The Handle)

Quarterbacks With Wheels

During Rich Rodriguez’s most successful coaching stints at Glenville State, Tulane, Clemson and West Virginia, his teams were frequently blessed with quarterbacks that were fast, shifty and rather durable runners.

Some of the more recent examples of quarterback running prowess under Rodriguez included:

Those are pretty impressive yards per carry for a quarterback, not to mention all of the rushing touchdowns - enough to embarrass a dedicated tailback, or at least make him jealous.

Interestingly, Rodriguez’s spread option offense, when operating at full throttle, typically involves the quarterback rushing 10 to 13 times per game, and scoring a good number of touchdowns on the ground.

Rodriguez’s 2001 and 2008 Offenses: Quarterbacks without Wheels

As previously posted on this blog, there are some startling parallels between West Virginia’s 2001 season and Michigan’s 2008 season under Rodriguez. Both were “first seasons” under his crazy playbook and conditioning program.

Both were project years involving the dismantling of Multiple I and Pro-Set attacks and the new construction of a no huddle spread option attack. Let’s look at the quarterback rushing numbers during these inaugural seasons respectively.

Mountaineer quarterback Brad Lewis was a Don Nehlen recruit and a veteran quarterback for the team. Lewis played 10 games for West Virginia in 2001. Rasheed Marshall played in only five games. Third-string quarterback Derek Jones played in four.

As a runner, the numbers show that Lewis was a non-factor in West Virginia’s spread option attack. Rodriguez was wise to leverage Avon Cobourne, the Mountaineer tailback, and try to make better use of Lewis’s passing ability. Sound familiar?

Now compare and contrast West Virginia’s 2001 quarterback rushing effort to that of Michigan’s quarterbacks in 2008:

Steven Threet played in 10 games, Nick Sheridan played 8 and Justin Feagin in just 3 games.

The total yards, touchdowns scored, and yards-per-carry results for the quarterbacks in this first year were amazingly similar.

The introduction of a radically new offensive system, combined with the presence of a very young and inexperienced offensive line (e.g. West Virginia’s OL returned one starter, an offensive guard, named Brad Nell for 2001, while Michigan’s OL returned one starter in 2008, Steve Schilling) yielded predictably poor results.

OK, so the fact that Brad Lewis and Steven Threet were not prototypical “rushing QBs” has been officially beaten to death with a club. Yet this lack of a legitimate quarterback run threat was a serious problem for Rodriguez and staff from day one.

Opposing defenses could essentially ignore the quarterback altogether, disregard option fakes, and focus their defensive efforts on the other ball carriers.

Not only that, but opposing defensive secondaries could cover Rodriguez’s slot receivers and wide receivers with full confidence that the quarterback would be unlikely to keep the ball on a draw or option play with any meaningful success.

Having an elusive ball carrier under center changes the field of play, and adds an important risk factor that opposing defenses simply must account for on every down.

While it is important for Rodriguez’s quarterbacks to have some legitimate “wheels,” the other important factor is decisiveness. Brad Lewis and backup Scott McBrien were very good quarterbacks (McBrien later became a QB hero at Maryland).

But both struggled to read, process and react to the pre and post-snap reads that were required. At Michigan, Threet and Sheridan struggled in similar ways. Even when they made the correct reads, they often did not execute the play fast enough.

The lone glimmer of hope in Rodriguez’s first year at West Virginia was Rasheed Marshall. Marshall was quite good in 2001 and showed less hesitation running the offense and making reads.

His 15 carries per game, and 4.4 yard rushing average demonstrates a more fearless approach. Marshall was something Rodriguez could at least build upon as Cobourne and the young offensive line gradually got better together.

Michigan’s Christmas Past And Quarterbacks with Wheels

In the mid 1970s, former Wolverine head coach Bo Schembechler forced defenses to account for the quarterback run threat in a similar manner. Since 1969 all of Schembechler’s quarterbacks needed to be able to run the football.

But the installation of the option I offense at Michigan in 1972 made rushing quarterbacks a staple of UM’s Saturday onslaughts.

Quarterbacks Dennis Franklin 1972-1974 and Rick Leach 1975-1978 were famously effective runners.

Note below the startling similarities in rushing attempts, yards gained, and yards per carry between Franklin and Leach of Michigan and those of Tulane's Shaun King and West Virginia’s Rasheed Marshall:

If you’re a defensive coordinator looking at these stats (and film), you’re troubled. Somebody has to “get these guys." You’re definitely going to create a plan to shut down or at least slow down all of this rushing quarterback non-sense.

Quarterbacks who can run provide an essential ingredient to the spread option offense. Lack of speed, mobility or decisiveness at quarterback is problematic for any offense, but especially for option offenses where multiple reads must be made before and after the snap, and where athleticism and durability is required to make plays.

II. Tailback Tandems from Hell
It’s fairly easy to see that Rich Rodriguez has had a historical penchant for rushing the football. Some of this is personnel-related. History has also shown that Rodriguez’s spread offense really bolts on a turbocharger once his offense features not one, but at least two, high-profile running backs alongside that banshee of a quarterback described above.

Rodriguez’s most powerful football teams almost always featured a tandem of compact, mercurial hellions that delivered the mail. And sometimes there would be more than two. Typically there will be a 900+ yard tailback, plus a second high-performance running back (350+ yards) who receives a significant number of carries, catches a notable quantity of passes, scores a worrying number of touchdowns.

Let’s take a quick look at what happened during the 1998 season at Tulane, when Tommy Bowden’s Green Wave football team shocked the world by finishing 12-0 and ranked 7th nationally while running Rodriguez’s playbook:

The Green Wave offense was balanced and powerful. The spectacularly-named Jamaican Dartez was a terror in his own right. Toney Converse served as a dangerous second back that racked up a lot of yards and was a legitimate scoring threat. Tulane’s ability to run the ball effectively no doubt helped QB Shaun King amass 3,500 yards passing in 1998. Opponents had to account for 3 very dangerous ball carriers on almost every play.

Now let’s look at Rodriguez’s handiwork as offensive coordinator at Clemson in 2000 as the Tigers finished 9-3 under the same head coach Tommy Bowden:

Travis Zachery was the lead back all year for the Tigers and racked up tons of yardage and scores. Dantzler had a spectacular year rushing the football and scoring from the QB position. Running back Bernard Rambert served as a dangerous third option, who could be ignored at the defense’s peril.

Now let’s consider West Virginia in 2002, when the Mountaineers finished 9-4:

In 2002, the Mountaineers were coming off a painful season of turnovers from interceptions. Rodriguez and staff focused on what they knew they were good at: rushing the football. West Virginia absolutely shredded opponents with Cobourne and Wilson in the backfield. Opponent defenses knew they were coming. It was not a question. Facing a tandem of tailbacks, plus a dangerously mobile QB with wheels, and a more experienced offensive line (4 starters back in 2002), Mountaineer opponents were frequently gasping for breath.

How about West Virginia in 2005?:

Tailback Steve Slaton was the highlight reel at tailback, with Pat White as the next top carrier. But check out fullback Owen Schmitt and his yards per carry: 10 yards per carry!

Here’s West Virginia in 2006:

More turf-shredding goodness, except now the Flintlock gun-toting Mountaineers have two 1,000+ yard rushers, both of them scoring TDs in the double-digits on the season. White was the quarterback, but he was such an elusive runner that he became that second tailback in the tandem. Schmitt rushed for fewer yards at fullback, but scored more touchdowns.

And finally a look at the 2007 rushers of West Virginia:

West Virginia was a better team in 2007 than 2006 because its rushing and scoring options increased with the addition of Noel Devine at tailback. With a veteran offensive line and more firepower in the backfield, the Mountaineer attack became very difficult (close to impossible) to appropriately defend. Slaton was the lead back, but his numbers went down as Devine earned more carries. Schmitt continued to make a substantial contributions from the power back spot. The rushing numbers and rushing touchdowns of this group, particularly those of Slaton and White, were so sensational in 2007, that opposing Big East defensive coordinators from that era are still having night terrors.

III. Slot Machines and the Quarterbacks That Crank The Handle

Rodriguez’s offense not only consists of an elusive quarterback who runs like a banshee, and a powerful running game supported by a tandem of productive tailbacks, it also includes an army of slot backs that spread out along the line of scrimmage like receivers.

I like to call these skilled players “Slot Machines”.

In casinos, one plays the slots to win money. In college football, one plays the slots to slice and dice at the edges of opposing defenses with the same surgical precision of your neighborhood butcher.

All that Rodriguez’s quarterbacks have to do is pull the handle, i.e. dish the ball off to these slot backs via quick hitch passes, bubble screens, mixed in with some downfield flies, dumps, posts. The slots participate in counter runs, traps and even option run plays.

With these slot positions players, amazing things start to happen. The edges of the defense start to harden, exposing a tired, confused and softened middle for the perfect strike.

Perhaps the most interesting assumption concerning Rich Rodriguez’s offensive approach, is that he always wants an “option style quarterback” to run the ball all afternoon, and that passing comes second. Passing to Rodriguez is supposedly an after-thought.

Yet there is a mountain of evidence suggesting that Rodriguez not only wants athletic quarterbacks that can run, but fast decision-makers with strong arms and good throwing accuracy. Many die-hard Michigan fans today lament the fact that the Wolverine offense under Rodriguez will no longer yield a drop-back, pro-style passer in the form of a Tom Brady, John Navarre or Chad Henne. No longer will Michigan offenses yield high yards-per-catch numbers, 2,500+ yards passing on the season, and 20+ passing touchdowns per year.

This is not true.

The truth is that Rodriguez loves passing quarterbacks. I mean he really, REALLY loves passing quarterbacks. Again let’s see Tulane in 1997-1998:

Tulane not only ran the ball exceptionally well, but they torched Conference USA competition through the airways all season long. These stats brightly reflect Conference USA’s defensive weakness to a certain degree, but they also scream out to us something like……“PASS!!!!”.

In 1998 King rang up 3,495 yards passing and 38 TDs through the air. And why not? The guy had a jaw-dropping 67% throwing accuracy, and a sickening TD-to-INT ratio. King’s own trusty “Slot Machines” were exactly that…. machines! Tulane had two 1,000+ yard receivers in PJ Franklin and Jujuan Dawson. Two!

Let’s view Clemson’s passing stats under Rodriguez:

Whoa. What happened?

Passing attempts, yardage and passing TDs were more than halved at Clemson under Rodriguez in 2000. But this Dantzler kid was something else. He ran for over 1,000 yards that year. Clemson had one main receiver target named Rod Gardner in 2000, but no opponent could completely disregard the others Tiger slot receivers, as they all demonstrated the ability to get open, gain significant yards per catch (15 yards per catch average!), and score touchdowns.

Now consider West Virginia in 2007 and the leading passer and leading receivers of that year:

Darius Reynaud was Pat White’s favorite scoring target, but judging from the numbers above, opponents would not have ignored Dorrell Jalloh, Tito Gonzales and running back Steve Slaton.

From these three selected examples, we can barely make out a pattern footprint of Rodriguez’s passing philosophy in the spread offense:

Depending on the caliber of quarterback he has, and depending upon what defenses will give up, Rodriguez is perfectly content chucking the ball 30 times a game (Shaun King). He’s also comfortable throwing 15 times and then summarily shredding opponents to dust with a blistering ground attack. Or both.

In the case of Dantzler and White, defenses were right to be worried about their running ability. But they should have been worried too about ever passing attempt they made because their 10th throw pretty much meant 6 points.

The yards per catch numbers paint a compelling picture of what these slot machines are all about, and how heavily Rodriguez’s offense depends on an athletic quarterback (point guard) to get the ball to them to create mismatches in the open field.

Out of curiosity for those pro-style offense enthusiasts, let’s briefly compare both Mr. King’s and Mr. White’s stats with those of Michigan’s record-breaking pro-style quarterback, Chad Henne, during his two most stellar seasons when he had outstanding receivers for targets: Braylon Edwards in 2004 and Mario Manningham in 2006:



I find it interesting that regardless of which offensive formation or philosophy one chooses to employ, the average yards yielded per pass completion is pretty much the same:

Completion percentage too is surprisingly similar.
Does it really matter whether you lineup in the spread and throw predominantly bubble screens and quick hitches versus lining up in the Pittsburgh Steeler’s pro set, chucking z-out fly patterns and deep posts? Not really:

In terms of scoring through the air, Michigan’s pro set offense under Carr-Debord was only slightly more likely than Rodriguez’s spread offenses to score a touchdown through the air:

Looking ahead: Michigan’s 2009 Offense At Full Throttle?

Michigan now has two quarterbacks with wheels for 2009, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, but both are completely inexperienced at the college level. One must assume a relatively high number of read errors, fumbles, interceptions and silly sacks that are part and parcel of starting freshman signal callers.

Michigan fans would be wise to come to terms with this reality as 2009 will definitely include some horror scenes from last year.

At the same time, there is greater potential for big plays via improved QB run threat, passing accuracy and improvisation that was simply not available a year ago with two pro-style quarterbacks at the helm, Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan. Forcier and Robinson bring enough speed and elusiveness to do some damage to opponents and otherwise drive opposing defensive coordinators crazy.

As for “tandem backs from hell,” Michigan might very well have them for 2009.
Michigan has considerable talent and depth with senior Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw returning, as well as fullback Mark Moundros.

A slew of talented freshmen tailbacks enter the fray, including Vincent Smith, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Teric Jones.

To top it off, the Wolverine offensive line is experienced and rather deep for the first time in over a decade. If anything, Michigan should regain some measure of respectability in the Big Ten for its ground attack.

As far as “Slot machines” are concerned, Michigan Stadium’s FieldTurf will be sprinkled with them. Greg Mathews, Junior Hemingway, Martavious Odoms, Darryl Stonum and Terrance Robinson will get significant touches this fall. Michigan also recruited molecular quark particles named Jeremy Gallon, Je’Ron Stokes and Cam Gordon.

Rich Rodriguez and Calvin Magee appear to be assembling the right ingredients for success. But they must find a way to properly mix them together. In time the Wolverine offense should start to hit on all cylinders and generate maximum firepower.


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