One of the most dynamic offensive players in college football has zero touchdowns, zero catches, zero rushes and zero yards.
He's a walk-on who says he got scholarship offers from "Louisiana College and Arkansas … I can't remember the name of it."
He's the heartbeat of one of the most explosive teams in the country. And he spent his Thursday at a job fair hoping to make connections in the construction industry.
It's easy to laugh at the idea of Stephen Warner, offensive lineman, being a college football superstar, but his Louisiana Tech offense is the only one in the nation to score 50 or more points in each of its first three games. It's 17-for-17 in red zone scoring (with 16 touchdowns) and it has scored eight touchdowns in less than a minute.
And its MVP, Warner, is a center. But not just any center.
Warner calls the plays.
You read that right. Warner, a senior, doesn't just snap the ball and block. He gets the plays from the sideline, reads the defense, calls the blocking assignments and then barks the snap count. He might have the most unique job in college football.
"I'm not aware of any other offenses that are doing it right now," says Tech offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. And that seems clear from defenses' inability to react to it. Last week against Illinois, Tech scored 52 points and gained 403 yards, a season low for the 3-0 team. (And Tech hasn't played any FCS schools, either.)
Tech even has a play designed for when (not if) defenses get confused. Warner draws a pass rusher offside with a moderated cadence, and then when somebody jumps, he switches to a "Freeze" play where all the Tech receivers take off for the end zone. Free play, and sometimes free points. It worked like a charm against Illinois, though the play was called back because of a penalty. No matter; if you jump offside against Warner and Tech, be prepared to run down the field while the culprit of this sleight-of-voice trick watches in pride.
It's certainly not a geographical rivalry coming up Saturday when the No. 25 Baylor Bears (3-0) travel to Morgantown, W.Va., to take on the No. 9 West Virginia Mountaineers (3-0). As a matter of fact, it's not a rivalry at all. Baylor and West Virginia have never met.
Nevertheless, this is an important early season game in the Big 12, which this season features newcomers West Virginia and TCU. (Texas A&M and Missouri each bolted the Big 12 for the SEC this year.)
The meeting with Baylor will be West Virginia's first foray into Big 12 play. It comes a year after first-year head coach Dana Holgorsen led the Mountaineers to the Big East title and an appearance in the Orange Bowl.
Baylor won't be the only first-time opponent for West Virginia in its new home; the Mountaineers have never played conference foe Iowa State, either. West Virginia doesn't have much history with anyone in the Big 12. It's only meeting with Kansas was in 1941. The Mountaineers have played Kansas State twice (1930 and 1931). They played Oklahoma in 1958, 1978 and 1982 as well as in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. They've met Oklahoma State three times: 1928, 1929 and the 1987 Sun Bowl. Their only meeting with TCU was in the 1984 Bluebonnet Bowl. They've played Texas once, in 1956, and their only meeting with Texas Tech came in the 1938 Sun Bowl.
The 2012 season will be a journey for West Virginia as it acquaints itself with conference "rivals" from half a continent away.
– Phil Watson
The concept of having the center run the offense makes a lot of sense. At least it did to Franklin, who came up with it when he was a coach of the Lexington Horsemen of the National Indoor Football League. The team's home "field" was in Rupp Arena, which gets pretty loud even for football games. "On the road you had to do silent cadence," Franklin says. "So it was a good time to try it. The center we had loved it."
The fans did too, as the Horsemen went to the playoffs with a 53.1 points-per-game scoring average. Franklin was hired as coordinator at Auburn and got a grand total of seven games, including a bowl game in the 2007 season, to work his spread offense magic for Tommy Tuberville before being fired in October of 2008 when the Tigers were 4-2. Franklin landed at Middle Tennessee State, which promptly went 9-3. Louisiana Tech hired him in 2010, and the team won its first WAC title in 2011. Now here are the Bulldogs on the verge of being ranked, even though there's still skepticism on whether Franklin's offense can work in a major conference.
Even though it's convenient for the calls to come from the guy with the football, not even Warner thought much of the center-as-signal-caller idea at first. "I didn't know how it was going to work," Warner says diplomatically. "I'm trying to do so many different other things. We had to sit together and get used to it in practice."
But Warner was happy to try. He went to Ruston High School, which is literally across the street from where he now practices. He thought he could be a good Division I player, but as he jokes, "every kid in high school thinks they're a really good player. Looking back now, I wasn't that good." Warner was happy to walk on at Tech and try to earn a spot. He ended up being a three-year starter. He hasn't missed a game since he was a sophomore. Now Warner is sitting pretty as the crucial big ugly in a juggernaut offense that nobody can figure out.
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Here's how it works for Louisiana Tech: Warner receives a jumble of signals from the sideline. "Some are alive," Franklin says, "and some are dead." Then Tech approaches the line with no huddle and Warner calls the plays. He says he's hoarse by the end of every game. The process is so intricate that the right guard looks back to see when quarterback Colby Cameron is ready, because Warner has too much to do already.
It also frees up some brain space for Cameron, now the second-most-important guy in the offense. (That's a joke. Sorta.) "With our deal," Franklin says, "The quarterback doesn't have to verbalize anything. He can focus on coverages and changing routes."
Warner was asked if he clowns Cameron for lazily sitting back and enjoying the show. The center remains all about business and refuses to take the bait.
"As long as we keep him clean," he says. "If he's sitting back there, that's a good day for us."
[Video: West Virginia's biggest weakness]
That's a gentle reminder that Warner has one other job in this unique offense: protecting the quarterback.
He happens to pretty good at that, too.
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