What EMU’s football offense could be in 2013
Since Ken Karcher’s departure became official I’ve been giving some thought to the style of offense that I’d most like to see the EMU football team run next year. I want to be clear that I’m not talking here about some sort of abstract “wouldn’t it be nice if EMU had Oregon’s offense” sense, I’m talking about what makes the most sense given the players available and given the schedule the Eagles will face.
I started by taking a quick look at EMU’s presumptive starters and top backups on offense.
Quarterback: Tyler Benz finished 2012 as the starter, but he’ll be tested by incoming freshman Brogan Roback, a four-star recruit, while incoming freshman Brandon Bossard and sophomore Mark Iannoti could also get consideration with a good pre-season showing. Let’s just say that EMU will have far more flexibility and depth at quarterback than they’ve had for a number of years.
Offensive line: Campbell Allison, Bobby McFadden, Orlando McCord, Lincoln Hansen, and Scott MacLeod are the top returners. The offensive line excelled in run-blocking in 2011, but struggled in all facets of the game in 2012, partly due to predictable play-calling (opponents stuffed the box on obvious running plays) and partly due to injuries.
Running backs: Bronson Hill, with Ryan Brumfield as the top backup.
Receivers (WR/TE): Nick Olds, Demarius Reed, Donald Scott, Dustin Creel, Tyreese Russell (TE), Javonti Greene, Jay Jones, Quincy Jones.
After putting a bit of thought into it, I think one of the best fits for EMU would be a Holgorsen-style Air Raid offense. Before I get into the details of why this would be a good fit, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about.
The basic philosophy of the Air Raid, going back to its early days when Hal Mumme and Mike Leach were at Kentucky, is that the offense plays like a well-coached backyard team. It’s a pass-first approach in which the ball gets spread around to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically, but it’s simple enough that Dana Holgorsen has claimed it can be installed “in three days”. In fact, it’s been suggested that Holgorsen’s version of the Air Raid can be summed up in three words: simplicity, repetition, and freedom.
Simplicity means that instead of a full playbook, a team might have as few as 15 to 20 plays. The goal of this is to focus on the plays that are going to get the most use, and not spend time on plays that, if included, might only be used once a game. This is essentially an application of the Pareto Principle (80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes); if 80% of the snaps represent 20% of the possible plays/formations, given the limited practice time, it makes sense to focus on those plays and simply eliminate the rest.
In addition, each player becomes super-specialized at a single position — and “position” is narrowly defined. Rather than having a player line up sometimes wide left, sometimes in the slot on the right, and sometimes in the backfield, a player might only be a left outside receiver. After each player is assigned to a narrowly-defined position, a handful of plays (at most) are taught each day, so that each player gets many reps on just a few things. The goal of this repetition is to allow each route and each blocking assignment to become second nature, to reduce the in-game effort of remembering assignments.
Freedom means that most plays present the quarterback, and sometimes several receivers with post-snap choices. On a Y-stick play, for example, the Y receiver’s route is determined by the coverage scheme. In addition, the quarterback has a lot of freedom to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
A key aspect of Holgorsen’s version of the Air Raid is the way he packages concepts. For example, he might put three-step drop “quick” passing routes on one side of the field, and longer five-step routes on the other side. If the defense blitzes, the quarterback throws to the three-step side for a quick release, while if they back off, he can look to the five-step side for a bigger gain. Having a “safety valve” for a quick release is particularly important in the single-back and empty back sets that the Air Raid relies on, because there just aren’t enough bodies at the line of scrimmage to pick up a heavy blitz or an overload blitz to one side. Holgorsen has also mixed in blocking schemes that are more traditionally thought of as “run-blocking”, even on passing plays.
So, if a Holgorsen-esque Air Raid offense is the way to go, who might be available to bring it to EMU?
Like any hire, EMU will be working on a continuum; the higher the level of the program from which they hire, the lower the experience/background of the coach hired. So, for example, the Eagles could probably hire a head coach from a high school that runs the Air Raid, or perhaps an offensive coordinator from an FCS or a lower division program, or a position coach — ideally a quarterbacks or wide receivers coach — from a top-level program.
There are probably scores of high school head coaches who are well-versed in this offense and who could be lured to Ypsilanti, and a good number of lower-division coordinators as well, so rather than try to pick through those, I think its more interesting to look at the other end of that continuum.
One possibility is West Virginia quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital. He’s young — only five seasons coaching — but in that time he’s worked with some of the top Air Raid offenses. In addition, because of his youth, his pay is relatively low ($75,000 in 2012), so EMU could offer him a meaningful pay raise without breaking the bank. Besides, youth didn’t stop Toledo from hiring a good offensive mind (Matt Campbell), and now Akron’s got themselves a 26-year-old OC.
Another possible hire might be Washington State outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons. Simmons coached all 10 seasons under Mike Leach at Texas Tech (2000-2009), spent 2010 and 2011 at East Carolina, and followed Leach to Washington State this year. The problem there is that the Cougars are paying Simmons roughly $160,000, and EMU would be hard-pressed to pay a first-time offensive coordinator more than that.1
In the end, more than advocating for any specific individual, or for that matter any specific offense, my point is that despite inherent limitations in both prestige and ability to pay, EMU should be able to find plenty of good options to replace Ken Karcher.
The real question is whether Ron English is interested in even looking at those options, or whether he’ll go for an “in-the-box” hire who will run the same sort of predictable offense we’ve seen in Rynearson for the last four years.
(Extra credit reading: a detailed history of the Air Raid offense and its variants)
- For comparison, Ken Karcher was making about $121,000, while EMU defensive coordinator Phil Snow is one of the highest-paid non-AQ assistants, at roughly $210,000. [↩]