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What EMU’s football offense could be in 2013

December 13, 2012

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)

  1. 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. []
7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2012 5:29 am

    From what I hear english is not interested in the spread offenses.he doesnt like it and is content with that garbage offense they been running which isnt putting any points on the board, so I hope someone gets in his ear about gettin a very good offensive mind that goin to spread the field or this could very welll be his last year as eagles like you said a young(o.c) mind that like to put points up, which bring W’s which would be great and that will also bring the fans out. I just hope english has the same mind set

    • cmadler permalink*
      December 14, 2012 6:03 am

      Yeah, if I had to bet, I’d bet on him hiring a “Michigan man” to continue the same sort of old Big Ten power-running ball-control offense. Don’t get me wrong, I actually prefer that kind of offense if you can make it work, but I think given the personnel available and the state of the MAC, they’ll have more success with something more aggressive and less traditional. Other forms of the spread, like Chip Kelly’s run-oriented Oregon offense, could work too, but the Air Raid is probably the easiest to install and run.

      • December 14, 2012 8:47 am

        The thing with that is their in the mac where they throw the ball around.In the mac you have to score points and a lot of team chuck the ball around the ground and pound is only going to get you so far in that conference. l.the air raid or chip kelly offense ill take either one the way the play callin has been going this year.

  2. grady permalink
    December 14, 2012 8:58 am

    The title game this year features two run oriented, ball control offenses complimented by tuff defenses. That is what, I believe wins at the top level in college football. Having said that, the MAC is not at that level and all options should be taken into consideration.

    I don’t have an issue running a traditional, running offense but the pay calling has to be more felxible and more risks need to be taken. I am not suggesting a Jeff Genyk fake punt/onside kick every fourth play mentality, but mix it up, It will be 2013 and the old 1970s Big Ten model of three yards and a cloud of dust is outdated, boring, and predictable. Watching EMU’s third down play calls the last four years, and the astute fans predicting the exact play before it happened, was frustrating.

    Coach – its your last year – live a little. Even Coach Carr opened the play book in his final game and the offense was incredible. (Capital One bowl vs. Florida.)

  3. David permalink
    December 15, 2012 5:51 pm

    Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it was mentioned that EMU should hire a high school coach for its HC! Also, stop this talk about hiring an OC or position coach. Hire a proven head coach with winning college experience.

    Please, if you are going to have an BCS program – act like an BCS program!

    • cmadler permalink*
      December 15, 2012 6:28 pm

      Go back and read it again. I’m not talking about hiring a head coach — I’ve ALWAYS said EMU should hire someone with experience as a head coach, probably either from FCS or D-II — I’m talking about hiring a new offensive coordinator for next year to replace Ken Karcher.

  4. Holy Bovine permalink
    December 17, 2012 12:14 am

    Good column. I agree with you — I’ve loved the “Air Raid” for about the past 10 years, and it would certainly be a compelling approach for our Eagles. Sadly, we’ll have to wait for another head coach for that to happen.

    Just for kicks, though, here are some other Air Raid guys that EMU could possibly get:

    -Clay McGuire, OL coach at Washington State. Five years of coaching experience under Mike Leach and Lincoln Riley at ECU. Coached RBs in addition to OL.
    -Lee Hays, OL coach at Houston. Former offensive coordinator at Baylor before Art Briles. Lit up the Big 12 skies using the Air Raid, depute having extremely limited talent at his disposal.
    -Chris Thomsen, current interim HC at Texas Tech. Not from the formal Air Raid coaching tree, but was head coach/OC of D2 Abilene Christian, when they put up record-setting numbers using a passing spread.
    -Dave Nichol, Outside Receivers, ECU. Trained at TTU and at the University of Arizona with Sonny Dykes.

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