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The Cincinnati Bearcats' New-Look Offense Will Depend On The Offensive Line

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a coach, with a deficit of experience calling plays, will rely on those he hires to help shape his offense's final form.

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Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Part of the fun of having a new coaching staff, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, is figuring out what the end product will be. That is certainly the case with the Bearcats this time, because Eddie Gran is a brand new coordinator. I think that his offense will have a firm basis in what he has been around as a coach. For the most part, his basis comes from his time spent on the Miami staff with Dennis Erickson and the seven years at Ole Miss and Auburn under Noel Mazzone. Erickson learned the original one back offense from a high school coach in the valley named Jack Neumeier in the mid seventies.

Mazzone is of a different generation. Mazzone was a quarterback at New Mexico in the mid to late 70s. In retrospect if you wanted to see what the future of football looked like there was no better place in the world to be than the Western Athletic Conference. On the one hand Jack Elway and Dennis Erickson were spreading the one back gospel, first apart at Cal State Northridge and Fresno State respectively, but later together at San Jose State. At the same time the seedlings of what became the Air Raid were being sown in Provo, Utah. At the time the WAC had the reputation of being, well, wacky. In reality they were just ahead of the curve.

The degree of influence that Mazzone or Erickson had, or will have on what transpires with the Bearcats is extremely debatable. I find it relevant, but based off twitter replies I am sort of alone on that count. As spring practice has drawn on it has become apparent that this offense will be different, it won't be radically different than what Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian did.

One quote in particular from Tuberville in yesterday's report of practice caught my eye.

"Our offensive line made a ton of mistakes, but we're probably running four or five times more protections than they've ever run in their life."

That is almost certainly hyperbolic, but the essence of the point is true. With Jones and Bajakian the Bearcats ran two run concepts, the inside zone and its counter, the outside zone. On occasion the Bearcats would mix it up and throw a counter concept out there*. The inside/outside zone was the bread and butter, the counter was the change of pace. Three running concepts, and a few slide protections in the passing game that kept it simple for the offensive line, which was good considering the inherently complex task of trying to block eight people in perpetual motion.

* I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the counter almost never worked as intended. Because it was the only time that a guard pulled in that offense it was easy to read, diagnose and defeat, provided you could tackle Isaiah Pead. it wasn't until the Belk Bowl that a better way to run the play was used.

While the base of the running game will be what it has been since Mark Dantonio moved to East Lansing, the inside/outside zone, there will be liberal use of other blocking concepts. That is what makes the hire of Darren Hiller as the offensive line coach so interesting.

Hiller labored in the college football backwater that is Jonesborough, Arkansas for nearly a decade. Make that, former backwater. Of late Arkansas State is the place to go for a year if you want to move up the ladder. In back to back years, Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn took the Redwolves to identical 10-3 records before cashing in with lucrative SEC West division head coaching jobs. Hiller was there for Freeze, but he moved to Nevada for the 2012 season.

It is that one year sojourn in Reno which is fascinating. Last year was the Chris Ault swan song. The final year of his third stint as the head coach at Nevada. Ault is famous for creating the Pistol offense. The roots of that aren't important for this story, but there are plenty of resources about that. Hiller arrived with the Pistol in what amounts to its full form.

What matters is the reason why Ault took to this tactic.

The entire premise of Ault’s pistol attack is to combine the best of the shotgun spread offenses, like Chip Kelly’s attack at Oregon [source], with the traditional, north-south power attack Ault had coached for more than 20 years. The Pistol alignment is merely the means by which to do it; the "Pistol Offense" is this blend of old and new.

It is precisely that blend that Eddie Gran is after. It is the same blend that Florida State had for most of the last two seasons. FSU's base personnel this season, and last as well, is the same grouping that Dennis Erickson trotted out for the majority of his time at Miami. Three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back. At the same time, the Noles were capible of throwing out two tight end, two RB sets and playing football. A few plays later it might be a designed outside zone run for E.J. Manual in the shotgun. The next drive might see a toss sweep to the running back. That constant variance is now the norm in Football at all levels.

But that is what Florida State did, it isn't necessarily what the Bearcats will be doing. One thing about Ault that I have always been fascinated with is been the way that each addition to the offense built on the established base. The offense is installed in similar fashion.

When Ault installs his offense every spring and fall, he begins with the same basic, downhill, inside zone running play that every NFL team uses. (Zone blocking is a method for determining who the offensive line will block one-on-one, who will be double-team, and which linemen will block linebackers). Inside zone is essentially a straight ahead play, and "zone" simply means each lineman has rules that may vary in regard to who he blocks. Initially, at least, there are no reads for the quarterback to make—he just makes a hand-off. [source]. Typically, when Ault calls the inside zone with no quarterback read, he calls "Slice," a term which tells the fullback or tight-end to seal the backside defensive end, a block that will, hopefully, create a cutback lane for the ball carrier. That is basic football, from the Pistol formation – but not the offense itself.

Then it gets interesting. After "Slice," Ault installs "Bluff" – another scheme NFL teams are now using. Bluff is Ault’s take on the zone read. Ault has his quarterback and running back turn away from where the base run play is going, so the quarterback can read the defensive end to the backside, who is not blocked, to determine whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself. The running back also begins away from the side the play is going. His job is to open his arms, and take the hand-off only if the quarterback decides to give it to him, and then bend his path to the play side.

The other element Ault adds is the "arc" block. The fullback or tight-end loops around the defensive end that the quarterback is reading – making it look the same as Slice – but instead of sealing him off, the blocker bypasses him to take on the first defender in the alley, typically an outside linebacker. Not only is this effective deception, it is also designed to defeat most common defensive responses to the zone read [source].

Which brings me back to Gran, Hiller and what I think they are trying to build on offense here at UC. My hunch is that Gran wants to incorperate some of the schemes that have come to be thought of as College only, the inverted veer, zone read, QB zones with the more tried and true classics. The inside/outside zone, power O etc. If I can go back to the Tuberville quote at the top of the page. There are almost certainly more run block schemes under Hiller than there were under previous offensive line coach Don Mahoney. But that doesn't mean that the Bearcats will be running "four or five" times more plays than they were before. But they will almost certainly be adding a legitimate power play to the collection, a counter blocking scheme to mirror that makes sense. Maybe Gran will get crazy and add the horn play to the collection. But all of those concepts can be run out of any formation. So yeah Austen Bujnoch, Eric LeFeld, Parker Ehringer and Co might be learning some new schemes, but learning the new things isn't the issue. Taking all those different concepts and folding them into a cohesive offense will be.

Hiller is a good man for the job. His background is in zone blocking, but spending that year in Reno couldn't help but expand his horizons. That could be a faulty assumption, but if Greg Roman can pick up enough knowledge from a few days with Ault to effectively legitimize the usefulness of the Pistol to the NFL at large Hiller had to learn something?

I have no idea if what he learned will result in Brendon Kay and Co. pistol whipping the Big East all the way to a BCS bid. But it will surely manifest itself in someway. How exactly remains to be seen. But if you are Eddie Gran you don't go out of your way to hire Hiller, a coach with no ties to anyone else on his staff, unless you plan to use what he has picked up.