August 13, 2009
Xs and Os from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football. As part of the Doc's Big Ten Week.
It barely needs to be said, but it is amazing how many ways Ron Zook is the poor man's Urban Meyer. Both were hired at Florida to bring in spread offenses, and one succeeded where the other, well, did not. What is more interesting to me is how much this fall's edition of Illinois looks like the poor man's preseason 2008 Florida Gators, at least on offense: Both come into the season with high expectations fueled by dynamic run-pass threats at quarterback who the prior year led their respective teams in rushing en route to finishing on top of their respective conferences in total offense. And in both cases the next level of success hinged on a critical question -- will the quarterback get any help from the rest of the running game? For Tebow and Florida, the answer was obviously yes: Tebow's role was reduced as three other Gators finished with more than 600 yards in the top-gaining ground game in the SEC. For Juice Williams and Illinois, the jury is decidedly out.
I don't mean to overstate the comparison, considering Illinois had a losing record last year, but Williams, although still maddeningly inconsistent, has developed into a nice player -- in 2008 he led the Big Ten in total offense, compiling over 3,000 yards passing and 700 rushing. Yet the team regressed, in large part because of turnovers, but also because of the disappearance of the rest of the run game after the early departure of Rashard Mendenhall, the most explosive player in the conference during the '07 Rose Bowl run. As a result, the Fighting Illini became increasingly dependent on Juice-as-runner, as he not only led them in rushing, but the the percentage of the team's rushing attempts that were his increased from 27.7 percent in 2007 to over 38 percent in 2008. ("Attempts" is slightly misleading in college because it includes sacks, but comparing year-to-year is still useful.) Further reflecting the overdependence on Juice to shoulder the load was the drop in his yards per carry average from 5.76 yards per carry in 2006 and 4.58 in 2007, to a pedestrian 4.11 per carry in 2008.
Was it the scheme? Illinois runs what is, by today's standards at least, a very straightforward spread offense. They spread it out with three or four receivers on most plays, occasionally use a tight-end, and the run plays focus mainly on the zone-read, some pitches or bubble screens off the zone-read look to make it into a triple-option play, and some called or designed quarterback runs on lead or counter plays. This was enormously effective in '07 with Mendenhall as both ballcarrier and decoy:
In 2008, the playbook didn't change, but the focus did. Gone was Mendenhall and his 1,681 yards and in were Daniel Dufrene, who led the Illini's running backs with 663 yards, and later freshman Jason Ford, who gained 174 of his 294 yards against hapless Indiana. As a result, Zook and now-departed offensive coordinator Mike Locksley dialed up more called quarterback runs, meaning that Juice wasn't actually reading the play and instead would make a token fake or no fake at all before carrying it himself. Defenses began to catch on, but you can't really fault this approach, because Juice was still probably the best runner available.
Thus the parallels with Tebow's glorious Heisman-winning sophomore season. As good as Tebow was, for the team to get better in 2008 he needed more help, and that meant he could not be options one, two and three in the run game. To Urban Meyer's credit, he did it. And the way he did it was instructive, as it gave Tebow support yet still didn't hang the Gators' fortunes on one featured ballcarrier. Can the Zooker be so flexible?
Go-to-guy or runningback by committee? Meyer has been criticized throughout his time at Florida for failing to develop a go-to runner, a 1,000 yard "workhorse" type back. Maybe that will hurt him with recruiting one day, but I've always found the (I believe NFL-marketing influenced) perpetual desire for one of these "superback" types misplaced. If you have a guy that good, then great, get him the ball. But Florida ranked seventh in the nation in rushing last season, and Tebow still led them with a mere 673 yards. The improvement from 2007 to 2008 came partly from Percy Harvin's continued contributions, but also from the emergence of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, who both gained over 600 yards. Meyer found ways to get a lot of different guys involved in the run game, from a lot of different positions.
Unless one of their backs unexpectedly explodes a la Mendenhall, this should be the model for Illinois. One of the central points to running the spread offense is that you can get a great run game without a go-to guy by using a variety of them from a variety of positions; the offense is the antithesis of the old pro-I formation approach where your success hinges on that one powerful I-back. The goal for Illinois then should be for the team to improve in the run game, not for one guy to have a breakout season. Indeed, the success of one guy might even be misleading: Arkansas last year had a 1,000 yard rusher, yet ranked 98th in the nation and tenth in the SEC in rushing; closer to home for the Illini, Michigan State had one of the leading rushers in the nation, Javon Ringer, and finished ninth in the Big Ten on the ground. And the running back spot too can be rotated in and out: Ford showed flashes last year, and Dufrene will have every opportunity to prove that he can continue the line of Illinois backs on their way to the NFL. Spicing up the mix will be a few freshman, including four-star recruit Bud Golden.
Enter Mike Schultz. Helping Zook make this subtle transition will be longtime TCU offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, newly hired to take over for Locksley, who left to become head coach at New Mexico. Schultz knows a little bit about coaching both go-to backs and doing it by committee, as he was LaDainian Tomlinson's position coach and offensive coordinator at TCU. Yet in the last two seasons -- including last year's 11-2 TCU squad -- he has coached a heavily run-dependent spread attack that hasn't seen any one player run for even 600 yards. (And no 1,000 rusher since Robert Merrill in 2003). The offense Schultz directed at TCU was very similar to what Illinois currently does, with one minor exception, one that increases the parallels with Florida: He knows how to involve not just running backs, but also wide receivers into the equation as runners -- in 2008, the receivers for the Horned Frogs combined for over 600 yards of the rushing total.
For the Illini, this could be the way forward. Other than Williams, the receivers are the undoubted strength of the offense, including the magnificent Arrelious Benn and Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, whose recruiting hype begs favorable comparisons to Harvin, both in talent and possibly in a similar runner/receiver role. This is not to say that a big, downfield threat Benn necessarily needs to become the next Percy Harvin, but Schultz knows how to get the ball to the receivers in space on option pitches, reverses and counters within the framework of the same spread that Juice has run the last three years.
So the question the Illini need to ask is not "Who will be the next Rashard Mendenhall?" but instead, "How many guys does it take to accomplish the same thing?" If they find the answer, as Florida did in 2008, they'll probably be happy with the results on the final standings.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football. You can reach him spreadattack at yahoo, etc.