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Can't Beat the Spread
August 11, 2008
The hottest offense thrives on speed, stretching the defense across the field and exploiting mismatches all over. It's near unstoppable, and more and more coaches are converting
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August 11, 2008

Can't Beat The Spread

The hottest offense thrives on speed, stretching the defense across the field and exploiting mismatches all over. It's near unstoppable, and more and more coaches are converting

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THE YOUNGEST 75-year-old in America has come full circle. Some 53 years after he got into the coaching biz—following stops at high schools and colleges and almost every --FL you can think of (AFL, CFL, USFL, NFL)—Mouse Davis is back in Oregon. It was here that he landed his first coaching gig, at Western Oregon, in 1955. And it was here, as coach at Portland State from 1975 through '80, that his Vikings, fueled by a cutting-edge offense known as the run-and-shoot, set 20 Division I-AA offensive records. � "I remember talking at a clinic in Southern California," recalls Davis, who last year returned to Portland State, this time as offensive coordinator. As he proselytized on his groundbreaking system, which had no conventional tight end, only one back and four wide receivers, "these guys were looking at me like, 'Who is this stumblebum and what kind of horses--- is he selling?' They were ready to burn me at the stake. Now practically everyone is running it. Hell, it's about to debut at Michigan!"

It's true. The run-and-shoot, of course, gave rise to the hottest thing going in the college game today: the spread offense, a variation of which Rich Rodriguez took with him to Ann Arbor last December, following his toxic departure from West Virginia. The Michigan job had come open in no small measure because of the events of Sept. 1, 2007. That was the day defending I-AA champion Appalachian State—perfectly executing a spread-option offense that coach Jerry Moore had picked up from his old pal Rodriguez—knocked off the fifth-ranked Wolverines in the Big House.

Among the body blows RichRod has absorbed since leaving Morgantown was the decision by top-rated high school quarterback Terrelle Pryor, a dual threat ideally suited for the spread, to spurn the Wolverines in favor of Ohio State. That means The Game, Michigan's annual brawl with the Buckeyes, will soon be a showcase for an offense that neither Bo Schembechler nor Woody Hayes would've recognized as football. When a trend has worked its way to Ann Arbor and Columbus—and State College and Austin and Norman, to name a few—it has officially entered the mainstream.

The spread is a catchall label for several species of the wide-open offense, from the zone-read option executed so masterfully by West Virginia quarterback Pat White, to its single-wing-like cousin run with such rugged panache by Florida's Tim Tebow, to the unapologetically unbalanced Air Raid directed by Graham Harrell at Texas Tech (gatefold feature, page 55).

Here's what most spread offenses have in common: no huddle, shotgun snap, one running back (if that), and four or five wide receivers. The primary goal: spread defenders across the width of the field, making them feel naked and alone as the running back and receivers run to the open spaces. "Whether you run first or pass first, the fundamental reason people go sideline to sideline is to force the defense to defend the whole field," says Florida coach Urban Meyer. "That's how you uncover pressures. It's much more difficult to blitz a corner when he's out near the sideline. You can see it coming."

A cold bed of offensive innovation not long ago, the SEC is fast becoming Spread Enthusiasts Central. Meyer brought his system from Utah to Florida in 2005 and won the national championship a year later. Last season LSU won it all with an offense that blended elements of the spread-option and the power-I. Now Auburn has hired Tony Franklin (page 78), a kind of coordinator-entrepreneur (coordipreneur?) who has peddled his copyrighted spread offense playbook and DVD set, The Tony Franklin System, the past seven years. It's a testament to the allure of the spread that some 350 high school programs have shelled out the $3,495.

Indeed, one reason the spread is multiplying so rapidly at the college level is that it has saturated the high school ranks. "Seven years ago we never saw it," Meyer says. "Today, I'd say 80 percent of the high schools we go into are running a version [of the spread]. It's absolutely changed the game."

"Twelve years ago," says Todd Dodge, the second-year coach at North Texas, "high school ball in Texas was dominated by the run. Now you've got quarterbacks from this state running some of the best spread offenses in [college football]."

One of them is Chase Daniel, whose senior season at Missouri will be his eighth straight as a wideout or quarterback in a spread attack. Daniel starred at Southlake Carroll High under Dodge, a contrarian who'd been getting after defenses with a wide-open, one-back passing offense since 1990, when he was an assistant coach at Rockwall High, outside Dallas. In 2002, his third season at Southlake, he upped the ante, installing a no-huddle. "It worked out pretty well," Dodge recalls. "We won 79 of our next 80 games."

Other quarterbacks from the Lone Star State running spread offenses include Colt McCoy at Texas, Todd Reesing at Kansas and Texas Tech's Harrell, whose coach, Mike Leach, is, like Franklin, a disciple of Hal Mumme's, a longtime spread advocate who's now the New Mexico State coach. Franklin, by the way, was forced by SEC regulations to relinquish ownership of his company in July. It is now called simply The System Seminars. The truth is that there are as many variations of the spread as there are branches of Protestantism. "One veer's like another," says Rodriguez. "You see one West Coast offense, the next one will be very similar. You see 10 spreads, 10 different things are being featured."

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