September 24, 2009
Xs and Os on Saturday's Miami-Virginia Tech showdown from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
Something stirs in Miami. There's talk of a sleeping giant being back, and the return of the U's swagger. All that is probably premature. But there is no question that, in their first two games, the Hurricanes have put on a show, as they downed rival Florida State in dramatic down-to-the-final-play fashion, and delivered a vengeful barrage to a Georgia Tech squad that had dominated them a year before.
The biggest change from '08 to '09 has clearly been with the offense, and more specifically the passing offense. The 'Canes have gone from averaging less than 200 yards passing per game in 2008, good for 77th nationally, to eighth in the country on the strength of emerging quarterback Jacory Harris' 328 yards per game. But anyone who's watched Miami play isn't just struck only by the yards: It's the way they get them. This isn't some Texas Tech team that dinks and dunks it down the field; Harris is out there throwing strikes downfield, behind the secondary, on a consistent basis. And the stats bear this out. In '08, the Canes ranked 86th in yards per pass attempt; this year, they are ranked first, with an average gain of more 11 yards every time Harris drops back to pass.
Much of the credit for this turnaround has been deservedly heaped on new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, a man who, much like the original Mr. Whipple, has blasted into the limelight at lightening speed. (During the Georgia Tech game, the announcers mentioned more than once that Whipple might very well be gone after this season to take a high-profile head coaching job elsewhere.) Indeed, after two games the wisdom of the Whipple hire has the smell of inevitability: Why of course this NFL-bred guru could come in and work his magic with the amateurs. But Whipple's career path has hardly pointed inexorably to this moment: He won a I-AA national championship as head coach at UMass in 1998, but left in 2003; he later surfaced as quarterback's coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Bill Cowher reportedly "loved" him, but Mike Tomlin was not as impressed, and he fired Whipple shortly after taking over, citing Ben Roethlisberger's "regression." Whipple was hired by Andy Reid in Philadelphia to the strangely vague title of "offensive assistant coach" (presumably Whipple was insurance if Reid's offensive coordinator left). So rather than being inevitable, maybe Shannon's hire was inspired.
Shooting to kill. But there is no doubting Whipple's brains, and whatever his pedigree, he knows how to put players in position to score. And what he's done for Jacory Harris -- a player with whom he's quickly developed a very good relationship -- has been impressive. And though Harris, who went undefeated at Northwestern high school running a spread offense, is a focused, cool-as-ice kid (on the field, at least), he's still a young signal caller, and Whipple has tried very hard to give him favorable situations.
The most obvious -- and potent -- example of this has been the Canes' first down passing attack: A staggering 60 percent of Harris' passing yards have come on first down (for some comparison, 38 percent of Texas Tech's yards have come on first down). And on almost all of these -- almost all of which are downfield shots -- Whipple has put Harris in either a short roll-out (a "waggle") or used play-action. Their go-to play so far hasn't been anything complicated, as it involves one guy going deep with another on a fifteen yard square-in. In fact, the play is so common it is often referred to as "the NCAA route," because "everyone in the NCAA runs it."
The read for the quarterback is simple: If the safety takes away the deep route, the square-in should be open behind and between the linebackers. If there's any wrinkle here on Miami's part, it's that while most teams have the receiver run just a simple post route -- straight upfield for 10-12 yards, then break for the middle of the field, or goalposts -- Whipple seems to have that player run something like a very deep crossing route, to the opposite side of the field. So far that has worked, as it's both opened up the dig and resulted in a touchdown pass against Georgia Tech to LaRon Byrd. Note below that against FSU, Whipple put both wide receivers to the same side, and he can also change up what the underneath "check-down" type routes are.
Whipple ball. One thing Whipple has had success with so far this season is something you often see among ex-NFL guys, like a Bobby Petrino or a Charlie Weis: Extensive use of double-move routes, routes where the receiver begins by faking a block before releasing, or the like. It is the kind of micro-level detail that the NFL game is all about that can, within reason, be even more effective in college because the defensive players -- and sometimes defensive coaches -- are less able to handle it. Here are a couple of examples of what I've already heard some Miami faithful referring to as "Whipple routes." (In the NFL they call them "jerk routes" because the goal is to make the defender look like a jerk.)
The first is a simple stutter-post, where the outside receiver fakes like he's running an out for a moment -- the key to selling it is in the eyes and turning the head -- and then bursts upfield, hopefully past the defensive back. Against FSU Whipple called this route on a simple roll-out pass he had already run with Jacory Harris several times.
The next one is actually in some ways a variant off of this one. Note that in the play above Whipple had the H-back -- the off-set tight end to the side to which Harris makes his half-roll -- blocks down to help seal the edge for his quarterback. In the next play Whipple used a similar action and had the H-back block down again, but this time only for a moment, as he then slid out on a crossing route to the opposite side. One well-placed ball from Jacory Harris later, and the Canes had another big play.
Watch both plays below, and again, watch that offset tight-end in both plays, and realize one reason why he got so open in the second play.
The beauty of this is the freedom it has afforded Jacory Harris. Harris is clearly a gamer, but he's still a sophomore and Whipple hasn't asked him to drop back and make the complicated reads usually associated with the "pro-style" moniker. We're not talking about super complicated stuff here. Yet some of that was also a function of the defenses Miami played in the first two weeks: FSU runs a lot of man-to-man coverage, whereby the quarterback's job is to keep the ball away from the safety and deliver it to whoever has their man beat. (And the line did a great job keeping Harris from having to throw a lot of quick "hot" routes.) Georgia Tech dropped a lot of guys into coverage but they were just generally bad on defense, as Paul Johnson recently (and colorfully) explained.
But it gets trickier from here. In two weeks, Harris and Co. will have to deal with the byzantine contours of Bob Stoops' multifaceted Oklahoma defense. First, though, Harris and Whipple will have to find answers for Bud Foster's storied Virginia Tech defense, always formidable whether or not it's looked less than legendary so far this season.
That makes this week's matchup interesting, and it's an important test for Jacory Harris. True, Virginia Tech is giving up over 200 yards rushing a game so far, and VT's safeties were exposed in man-to-man coverage against Alabama, and (with the exception of Julio Jones) UM probably has better athletes overall in the passing than 'Bama. But this is an important game for the Hokie defense -- they know they're not getting any help from the offense -- so I expect Foster to throw a lot of looks at Miami's young, brash signal-caller.
Defensive guru Chris Vasseur mentioned to me that he expected Virginia Tech to play a lot of Tampa Two and "quarter-quarter-halves," a coverage with "quarters" coverage to one side of the field and cover two to the other. That, along with a steady diet of zone-blitzes from different looks, should give Harris more to chew on than he's had to over the first two weeks. While Whipple doubtlessly has seen every coverage conceivable, the trick as a coach is to get your quarterback to see what you do. There are ways to combat all of Virginia Tech's tactics: If the Hokies zone-blitz, Miami can max-protect or throw swing passes to the running backs against defensive linemen dropping into coverage; against cover two, Harris will have to hit the tight ends and running backs over the middle; and against quarters some of the outside routes open up, as does the possibility for big play-action passes down the field behind a safety who gets caught up in run support. The bottom line, though, is that Harris is going to see a wider variety of looks, and likely tougher ones, than he has so far this year against either FSU or GT.
The way Miami is playing, and maybe more importantly the way Virginia Tech's offense is playing, I think the 'Canes should take this one even with fewer big plays than they've connected on against the 'Noles and Jackets. But Harris has a few more tests before we can all annoint him savior of the U. And if he struggles at all with a well-schemed but struggling Virginia Tech defense, then you have to think Bob Stoops will be taking notes for Oct. 3.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football and also contributes to the New York Times' Fifth Down blog. You can reach him at chris at smartfootball.com, or follow him on Twitter.