- See also: Brian Kelly and the Secret Sauce
- See also: Kelly and Leadership, Part I: Developing Players from the Inside Out
(The Rock Report) – There has been a “lively” debate over whether a pass-first spread offense can work at Notre Dame, but one thing that became clear during the debate is that very few people knew much more than the term “spread” and that Kelly passes a lot. I’ve long held to the Holtz theory that the lines dictate the outcome of the game and I’m certainly biased toward the running game and controlling the line of scrimmage. While I like the Kelly hire, his offense is my biggest concern about his ability to be successful at Notre Dame. But I also know that football is constantly evolving and that three of the last four teams in the BCS Championship game ran a version of the spread.
So I asked Chris Brown of Smart Football to help explain Kelly’s offense and how it compares to other successful spread offenses such as Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon and Georgia Tech. Chris writes football analysis, strategy, and, at times, philosophy for his own website as well as Yahoo!/Rivals and The New York Times’ The Fifth Down.
Here’s Chris’s take:
Can you explain Kelly’s offense to us?
Kelly’s offense is a traditional spread, developed in the late 90s and early 2000s, with some additional focus on the run game. Unlike, say a Rich Rodriguez or Mike Leach, he didn’t have specialized players to push his offense too far in either direction. With Crist it’ll probably be similar to what he did with Tony Pike.
The Run Game: The run game is interesting but, without a big running QB, fairly straightforward. A lot of zone and “dart”– an iso play where the backside tackle pulls and acts like a fullback would as lead blocker.
The Pass Game: For passing game the precepts have a lot in common with the run and shoot: the receivers release vertically or do a “switch release”–ie criss-cross–and then release vertically. The basic theory is to threaten the defense vertically and to make all the pass plays look the same, at least from the start.
This is designed to combat the “pattern reading” coverages made so popular by coaches like
The first option is to hit the fade or seam routes, but, if they can’t get open on their initial moves, the receivers then have freedom to settle or curl/hook back to the QB in the open areas. On these routes,
Kelly also uses a wider variety spread of formations than most spread teams do. One common example is his use of quads (four receivers to side).
The goal is to isolate a guy like Floyd one-on-one on the backside, and either throw it to him against single coverage or, if the defense rotates defenders to his side, work a good pass combination against fewer defenders (because they have rotated to Floyd backside) to the four receiver side.
One thing Kelly uses a lot — though I like this aspect of his passing game the least, in execution if not also in theory — are his sprint out passes.
For example, the
Kelly instead focuses on routes that at least begin by attacking vertically, even if the eventual throw isn’t always an over the top one.
Compare this to Weis’ pass game which focused on trying to constrict the defense with runs and screens to set up the big bomb to the outside or deep post to the middle; Weis always wanted to throw over the top of you. This is one reason why Weis’s offense, despite several years of a lot of success, could be so inconsistent: there was a big learning curve, its reliance on big plays required great talent with great experience (Quinn/ Samardzija and Clausen/Tate/Floyd); and the big plays resulted in a high variance rate for the offense — if they weren’t being hit the offense could stagnate for long periods of time. Kelly, by contrast, focuses on spreading you out to find the open and consistent passing and running lanes, with the goal being to consistently chew up 5-15 yard gains.
How does Kelly’s running game in the spread compare to
Well they all use the exact same plays: inside zone, outside zone, counter (backside guard and tackle pull, one traps one leads), and power (backside guard or tackle pulls and leads). See my article, Defending the Zone Read.
The only real difference is
Does the relative lack of a fullback or tight end affect Kelly’s run game?
Well, Kelly (typically) isn’t trying to overpower defenses, but rather his run game relies on on space and angles, which is also something
Is the question whether Kelly’s run game will be “tough enough.” There are a lot of answers to this question. One, I feel like the idea that you have to line up with fullbacks and tight-ends to run the ball and be “tough” is overrated. The best rushing team in the NCAA last year (other than
A couple comments on what kind of success I expect his run game to have. First, will he run it 45 times a game? No. Will he have some big rushing games? Yes. I fully expect his team to average more yards per carry and per game than Weis’s teams. Indeed, Kelly’s Cincinnati team — even if you exclude Zach Calloros, the mobile quarterback who filled in for an injured Tony Pike — had more than 300 more yards rushing than Notre Dame and averaged more than a full yard per carry more.
But how do you do that without all those big guys blocking? Remember, a running back who gets 120 yards on 20 carries simply plays in a better offense than one that gets 130 on 35 carries. Everything in the game breaks down to math and physics. How many defenders are where, and where can they get to. When Mr. Smashmouth himself Lou Holtz went to
An even better example of not getting confused by whether a team is powerful if it is spread is to think of
But again, is this the only way to run the ball? Back in the day when Holtz had multiple all-americans at the offensive line, he could just run the ball over anyone he wanted. You didn’t need to be a strategic genius to figure out if my guy is four inches taller, weighs 50 pounds more and bench presses 200 pounds more then I can run the ball pretty well. But in modern college football it’s hard for one team to stockpile so much talent that scheme is irrelevant. It’s no shock that the recent National Champions have been
Indeed, you can run the ball effectively in lots of different ways. Contrast
I hear Notre Dame fans about wanting a “power team,” but would they want Jim Tressel’s offense (especially without Terrelle Pryor or Troy Smith)? A lot of fullbacks and tight-ends and “power runs” without a ton of success.
Everything requires a balance.
All I mean is that people should keep an open mind: spread doesn’t always mean finesse; “balance” is not just running and passing the same amount, it requires a bit more of “game theory” and the bottom line is that Kelly has won everywhere he’s been, and I would not get wrapped up in the idea that a team like Texas or Oklahoma — which succeeds largely because it has so much more talent than its opponents — has a better scheme than what Kelly does. Schemes are adaptable to players, and they often percolate up from smaller schools where there is room to experiment.
That said, no one can predict how successful he’ll be, and I’m not saying I think his offense is perfect. It’s quite basic, which is a good thing in that he’ll be able to teach it quickly but there isn’t a ton of variation within it. And I would like to see Kelly incorporate
an H-back or tight end/fullback type who aligns where a tight end would but off the line of scrimmage.
In the end, Kelly believes in his offense, has won everywhere he’s been, and I would be surprised if it didn’t work at Notre Dame. He’s a spread offense pass first guy, and that’s who was hired. Did Saban stop coaching his defense when he was hired? Did Urban Meyer junk his O? Both have adapted over time (which Weis did not), but he was hired to do what he knows how to do.
Can Kelly’s offense work as well against talented teams, like USC, as it has against the less talented teams
The biggest question to ask for a pass first spread when they face a talented team like USC is, “By spreading out and isolating receivers, are they generating match-ups they can’t win?” Stated another way, “If I go five wide and the defense has five good cover men who can all guard them, have I done myself any favors?”
For example think about a frequent ND opponent, Purdue. Joe Tiller and Drew Brees had a lot of success against some of those Bob Davie teams, but as teams recruited better skill players and used better schemes against the spread Purdue became easier to defend. Purdue changed their offense later under Tiller. I’m not saying Kelly runs the Joe Tiller offense, but just using Purdue as an example.
The concern with this approach is that if you play teams with top talent that you won’t win any of the one-on-one match-ups. Teams have to decide whether they have a better chance of winning one of many one-on-one match-ups or if they can recruit the right players to win the big battle at the line of scrimmage? Kelly’s chooses to use formations and match-ups to spring one guy and he’s won a lot of games as have many top spread teams.
Now think about the converse. If you do have stud players who can win the one-on-one match-ups, then spreading out the defense can work amazingly well. How many teams can guard them effectively? The answer is not many and this is why the schools who can recruit a lot of talent like Florida, OU and Texas adopted the spread; they have so much talent the balance of match-ups favor them. That’s why I think the spread is now more of an “amplifier” of talent than it is an equalizer offense (as it was in the early 2000s).
The idea of “controlling the LOS” assumes that you have the players to basically out-physical a defense. Again, think of Holtz at
Indeed, while recruiting is a huge part of being a successful coach, you really can’t rely on simply outrecruiting your opponents every year and then just running them over. Stanford had a boss at running back this year, but we’ll see how it works in the future when he’s gone. It’s more important to have a structure in place; when you can do that, you employ the power concepts, but otherwise you focus on putting your kids in position to win, not prove a point about anyone’s toughness. And again, using a few super talented teams is not a good example because, by definition, they can overpower their opponents.
As mentioned above, Kelly doesn’t really care about what phase is moving the ball; it’s just about moving it. On a yards per play/game theory basis, passing is more efficient than running, though running is by no means obsolete. They complement each other, but it isn’t about just running as much as you pass or for as many yards. It’s about keeping the defense off balance and making them uncomfortable.
What’s the bottom line?
Will Kelly’s offense will work? Structurally and schematically it’s fine. He’s not an offensive genius, but (a) who really is? and (b) didn’t you guys just go through that “decided schematic advantage” business with Charlie Weis? (Beware of coaches claiming genius.) He knows his offense, and by that I mean more than he schemes well; he knows how to coach his offense, down to the little fundamentals of receiver releases versus press coverage, quarterback reads and ball faking, line technique, and the like. Kelly also gameplans well even if the offense itself is pretty straightforward other than being a true four or five wide spread. And, ultimately it will be about playmakers making plays. He should give them opportunities to do that.
In the end, I can basically guarantee that the run game will improve from Kelly and, also, that there won’t be as much reliance on a few big bomb plays or the receiver needing to make an acrobatic catch. Whether that results in a better offense — and more importantly team — remains to be seen.