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Posted: Wednesday December 26, 2007 12:29PM; Updated: Wednesday December 26, 2007 12:29PM
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Rich Rodriguez helped popularize the current rise of spread offenses, but similar game plans had been in place long before he started coaching.
Rich Rodriguez helped popularize the current rise of spread offenses, but similar game plans had been in place long before he started coaching.
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Stewart, can you please explain to everyone the difference between the "spread offense" and specifically the "spread-option offense?" I understand Rich Rodriguez would prefer a mobile quarterback, but didn't he run a pass happy spread offense down at Tulane to the tune of an undefeated season?
--Nick, Toledo

Indeed, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding out there about not only Rodriguez's offense but the spread in general. I've even seen Rodriguez credited as the "inventor" of the spread offense, which is laughable, seeing as it existed before Rodriguez even got into coaching.

In its most general definition, the "spread" refers to any offense where you're playing with just one or no backs and lining up with three or more receivers. It can be traced as far back as the 1970s, when John Elway was running it at his California high school. Elway's father, Jack, went on to implement it at the college level in the late '70s and early '80s (at Cal-State Northridge, San Jose State and Stanford), and he passed it on to disciples like Dennis Erickson (who was running it at Washington State 20 years ago), Mike Price (who succeeded Erickson) and Joe Tiller (who's been using it at Purdue since 1997 and at Wyoming before that).

In all those cases, the spread was used primarily as a passing offense, with almost no regard as to whether the quarterback was mobile, and indeed, when Rodriguez first installed it at Glenville State in the early '90s, he was throwing the ball 50 to 60 times a game. Where Rodriguez earned the "pioneer" label was by incorporating wishbone-like running principles (the QB zone-read, option pitches, etc.) into what had previously been a primarily passing offense. (Around the same time, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder began using the shotgun, zone-read philosophy with QB Michael Bishop, and it's never been clear to me whether one "invented" it and the other copied, or whether it was just pure coincidence).

Rodriguez's run-happy version of the spread formed the basis of what's come to be known as the "spread option." A particularly crucial period was his two years as offensive coordinator at Clemson (1999-00) with dual-threat QB Woody Dantzler. Future spread practitioners Urban Meyer (then at Bowling Green), the late Randy Walker (Northwestern) and Chip Kelly (at the time with New Hampshire, now Oregon's offensive coordinator) all visited Clemson during that time, and nearly all teams that run such systems today inherited it either directly or indirectly from Rodriguez.

Obviously, as we saw with Dennis Dixon and Tim Tebow this season, the spread seems to be most dangerous when the quarterback can run, because it makes things that much more taxing on a defense. However, there are still plenty of pure-passing spread offenses out there, like Tiller's at Purdue. You wouldn't exactly call his quarterbacks mobile. Mike Leach doesn't like to label his "Air Raid" offense a "spread" (he likens it more to the Run 'n' Shoot), but it's based on the same basic principles of spreading out a defense and creating mismatches for your skill players. Leach's quarterbacks aren't runners, either.

All of this a long way of saying that Rodriguez will be able to run the spread at Michigan next season even without a Dantzler or Pat White on hand -- but I certainly think he'd prefer it if he did.

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