Up until this point taking a stab at what the Bearcats offense will look like has been, ultimately, a shot in the dark. Eddie Gran has never called plays before, and is making the irregular jump from running backs coach, a position he has had for almost two decades, at four different schools. The last time that Gran was something other than a running backs coach was when he was the Wide Receivers coach for the Bengals, the Idaho State Bengals, in 1994. Gran has spent his life in the running game. Aside from a brief sojourn at Auburn with the always cutting edge Al Borges it has been nothing but the one back spread.
The hiring of Darrin Hiller was the crucial piece to the plan for the running game. Most of the offensive staff was in place before Hiller was added. UC first took a run at former Tennessee Offensive Line coach Sam Pittman. Pittman eventually settled at Arkansas, from whence Alabama tried to poach him, and he is still at Arkansas today. Hiller might end up being a better fit for what I think Gran is trying to do, mixing the traditional staples (inside/outside zone, Power O, Counter Trey) with some new school approaches. Remember Hiller spent his last two years coaching fro Hugh Freeze and Chris Ault. Ault in particular has a really unique approach to the running game.
All of that is a guess. In my opinion it is based on sound evidence, and research, but it is a guess none the less. Mainly because I can't show you, the reader, how Gran and Hiller would set about building a running game from scratch, because those two haven't been tasked with that before. I have my ideas, but the evidence is sorta flimsy.
Being a first time offensive coordinator involves taking over a series of complex new roles. You go from scouting an opposing teams run defense to scouting the entire defense. From looking for ways to game plan around what a team does against the run, to what they do against everything you have in the arsenal. That change alone is quite enough to be getting along with. So Gran made the decision to, import the Tennessee Volunteers passing game from the last three seasons. To do so he hired Darrin Hinshaw to be the passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach and Blake Rolan to coach the Wide Receivers. Both men have spent the prior three years working for Jim Chaney with the Vols.
"If you weren't in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne, you stole it from somebody."
One of the most interesting things about Football strategy is how ideas spread and proliferate. Much time is spent in the media talking about coaching trees. That is illustrative yes, but to a degree much less than people think. Far more relevant are the ideas the coaches come up with, and by ideas I mean repackaging existing concepts in new and exciting ways. But more than that, its how each coach takes the same basic ideas and tweaks them, sometimes slightly, sometimes massively to fit the personnel on hand and his own preconceived notion of what Football is. The DNA is often the same, the appearance is what changes.
In the first post in this series I tied Eddie Gran into the larger tapestry of what has come to be known as one back football. The god father of that particular packaging of ideas was Jack Neumeier who read Tiger Ellison's book, took his ideas, and molded them to fit his situation. Neumeier gained a following in California football circles and began teaching his offense to a cadre of youngish west coast based coaches. The group was , Dennis Erickson and Joe Tiller. Elway coached that system for about a dozen years at Cal State Northridge, San Jose State, and Stanford. Erickson and Tiller took the one back offense coast to coast.
For the most part this series has dealt with the Erickson branch of the one back tree. Afterall it was Erickson who gave Eddie Gran his start as a young grad assistant on the Hurricanes 1991 national championship. At the same time as Erickson was spreading and shredding a vastly unprepared college football landscape Tiller was developing his own variant of the system, in Wyoming.
Tiller took the head coaching job at Wyoming in 1991 and he had moderate success in his first couple of years before posting a 10-2 season in 1996 that functioned as his ticket out. As Tiller evolved in Wyoming his offense began to look very different from that of Erickson's. At Miami the Hurricanes enjoyed an overwhelming talent advantage. An advantage major adjustments to the attack redundant. The offense looked much as it had at Washington State, just with much better talent across the board.
In Wyoming where no such advantage in talent existed, and Tiller had to adjust. His main adjustment was to flood the field with four and five wide receiver sets to create favorable one on one match ups. That sounds elementary now, but it was revolutionary for the time, even in the wild wacky WAC.
Tiller took the Purdue job in 1997 and made Jim Chaney his offensive coordinator. They came to Purdue and like Erickson before them ran the same offense as before, but with much better raw materials. Chaney and co really liked to spread the field with four and five receiver sets. Their offense reached its peak with Drew Brees.
The characteristics that defined the Chaney/Tiller offense was not just the spread sets, though that is all anyone seems to remember. But what made that offense great was the thing that still makes Brees great today, his ability to process information and quickly release the football.
Chaney stuck around in West Lafayette for the Kyle Orton era before taking an NFL job with the St. Louis Rams. He returned to the college ranks to run the offense at Tennessee. His offense for Tennessee was pretty much the same one he used at Purdue, but the personnel was different. Gone for the most part was the four and five wide receiver sets that defined his tenure at Purdue. In came more conventional personnel groupings. 31* personnel was the norm for the Vols during the Chaney era. The plays were the same as they had always been, but the look was clearly influenced by Chaney's time with the Rams.
* 31 personnel means three wide receivers, one tight end.
Darren Hinshaw and Blake Rolan were apart of the new Jim Chaney era in Knoxville, so it seems a safe bet that the Bearcats passing game this year will have a lot in common with the Vols passing game of the last three years. The same passing game that tore the Bearcats up in 2010. The Vols used a couple of basic concepts, concepts that everyone has in their offense to one degree or another. None of which is overly complicated.
* Note: All diagrams can be enlarged by clicking on them
Of all the concepts that Tennessee ran the last few years this might be my favorite one. The inside receiver runs a quick out at five yards while the outside receiver runs a fade. This is a play that everyone has, because its a play that works against almost any coverage. The quick out is a great man beater, particularly when you consider that his match up is usually with a linebacker, safety or nickle back on the offenses slot receiver or tight end. The fade is a man beater, particularly if thrown back shoulder. But it is the better option against zone, because it creates an always tricky high/low read for the defense. If the defense is in zone the QB simply reads the corner. If he bails to the fade the quick out is open. If the corner sticks the out it creates a window before the safety can get over to take the top off the fade.
The scale is off on my diagram, but the basic jist is there. 96 is a double slant play, but with a twist. While the outside receiver runs a slant the same way the route has been run for ages (three steps and break) the inside receiver isn't running a slant as much as they are reading the underneath coverage. Against man the route is just a slant. Against zone coverage the job of the inside receivers is to read the underneath coverage, find a void and settle. it might look a little hitchy.
Drag and Drive
Drag and Drive are different concepts, but they are really the two sides to the same coin. The way Tennessee ran it the drag route was always the tight end, though it could be the slot receiver. It doesn't have to be one way or the other. The idea behind drag is to stress the linebackers laterally. The tight end and the slot receiver are both running full speed in opposite directions which forces the hand of the linebackers, particularly the MIKE. He has to make a choice, and the choice he makes leverages open a hole. Thats what makes the drag such a great zone beater.
Drive is similar in stressing the linebackers, whats different is that where drag makes the stresses the linebackers laterally drive does it vertically. The wide receiver runs what Bill Walsh called the drive route, which is a fast, shallow (ideally 2 to 3 yards depth) cross, with the emphasis on fast. The way Tennessee ran the play varied from Walsh, who would often motion his receiver into the formation so that Jerry Rice (usually) would have a running start on his drive. Tennessee would skip the motion which made the play, if anything, more effective, particularly against zone. Before the receiver would even enter the box the tight end would usually have run the linebackers off creating a big void against most zones. This is a great third and medium play because it subverts the defenses vertical expectations. The video below is drag followed by drag.
When Tennessee wanted to go big over the top the go to play was three verticals, also known as shakes. The play is simple the three receivers in the route push vertically, reading the defense as they go. The play of the corner tells the outside receivers what to do. if after 15 yards the corner is bailing to defend the fade the receiver cuts the route off to either a comeback or an out. The middle receiver is reading the middle third of the defense. If the middle of the field is open (MOFO) meaning cover two, the slot pushes vertically up the middle of the field. The pre snap read is the corner. How they align, signifies man or zone. Off means zone (usually) bumped up means man (usually). The post snap read is the safeties. A single high safety indicates cover 1 or cover 3, which for the purposes of this play are the same thing, a single match up with their corner on your receiver. Two high safeties means cover 2 which puts the middle receiver in play down the middle of the field.
This was one of UC's favorite plays last year, so it will be back with some variation. The play is designed to free up the slot receiver, 20 or so yards down field, on the opposite sideline. The post is designed to run off the safety help which usually results in a linebacker trying to cover a slot waaaay outside his comfort zone. Or it could bust, as it is in the second clip below.
For the most part the Vols had the same constraint plays that everyone in the country has in their playbook. The bubble screen, middle screen, half back screen etc. One idea of theirs that did catch my eye was another screen variant. I am sure they have a different name for it, bit I call it the one tackle screen. All it involves is a running back flaring out of the backfield with a tackle faking a pass set and releasing to the flats to hit the first available defender. A simple play, but very effective.
One final point to be made. In the preceding 2,000 words there have been liberal reference to receivers reading defenders. That isn't by accident. Its a crucial part of this passing game, and it isn't limited to certain plays or situations. Receivers have the freedom and ability to improvise on the fly and change routes based on what the defense is doing. While that was never a big feature of the Butch Jones system, Brian Kelly gave the Bearcats receivers similar freedom.