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The state of the spread: Mississippi rivals on the future of football's trendiest attack

From pistols to zone reads, spread offenses have evolved to storm the NFL. They've been high school staples for more than a decade, but the college game is where the philosophy continues to innovate and expand. And in no state is the spread philosophy currently more universal than in Mississippi.

Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

There's still no definition of the spread offense.

Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning reverts to his preferred teaching method. The former Texas wide receiver vibrates with enthusiasm, leaping to his feet, but before he hits the whiteboard to chart the evolution of spread offense formations - "I'm a visual learner," he explains - he says:

"This is how I start when I'm at coaching clinics: 'What does the term spread offense mean to you?'" he asks.

There's a pause, and then I realize he wants an answer from me.

Originally it was maybe shotgun, one back, two receivers to either side, that’s probably where it’s started ... but I know it’s changed, because you put a tight end in and run power out of...

"Awesome. Those are great answers," he cuts me off. "You know what spread really means?"

Uh, no?

"Whatever type of quarterback you have, utilize him. That's it. See, you’re trying to get into formations," he corrects me. "Formations to an offensive staff is just a way to create mismatches. The basis of it is how you get the best way for your football team to move the ball."

Head coach Dan Mullen brought sweeping change in 2009, but none more so than the offensive overhaul honed by his years as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator. Entering his fifth season, Mullen's Bulldogs average more than 1,400 total yards a season and a yard per play more than the previous regime's west coast offense. That's translated to three consecutive winning seasons, two New Year's Day bowl appearances and a level of consistency heretofore unseen in Starkville in the modern era of SEC football.

Most spread offenses are balanced.

Over in Oxford, the offensive transition has been shorter but even more noticeable: After back-to-back Cotton Bowls, Houston Nutt's 2009 and '10 Rebel teams flatlined in a 6-18 run, with the Rebels failing to score more than 13 points in seven games. Nutt's playcalling had grown so stagnant that it was possible to predict calls from the stands. But in Hugh Freeze's first season, the Rebels racked up over 5,500 yards hit the 30-point mark eight times.

Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner came to Oxford from Miami, first under Ed Orgeron and now on his second tour with Hugh Freeze. A pro-style practitioner, Werner was installed to help complement Freeze's system with his own experience. He was also to help debunk any preconceived notion of the spread being a gimmick attack.

"What is a spread now? I think most people think that if you’re in shotgun, you’re in spread," Werner said. "Certain teams go to the spread to run the football, and that’s basically all they do. Then there are others, the air raid, basically they throw it every snap. We want to be both. We want a pro-style quarterback that can run a true pro-style drop back scheme with the ability to also run the ball and do different things to keep defenses honest."

The Rebels were hardly a Mike Leach derivation - Ole Miss favored the run 551 to 411, despite having only one true tailback (senior Jeff Scott) to start the year.

Speed, not formation, is the equalizer.

An up-tempo spread jabs at a superior defense's conditioning, even if it's one that wins national titles in the neighboring state and same division. One of the reasons so many staffs have latched on is to help even the field, making defenses defend every part of the field and creating mismatches to give undersized players an advantage.

But Koenning expands further, pointing to the easy-to-apply marriage of the two most common offensive line blocking schemes: zone and gap. To illustrate, he stands and pulls his shorts almost sternum-high, then squats.

"So if everybody stops and we get our jocks on and we get our pants straight and we get ready to come off the ball and their guy weighs 290 and ours weighs 220, who’s gonna win? But if you go really fast, that 290 guy, he gets tired and a little confused. And all of a sudden that’s an advantage for the offense. And if you’re always running laterally [in a power formation] all of a sudden those big guys are tired. And so all of a sudden you can gap it down, pull around and one guy gets out his gap - he scrapes too hard? Say the backside 'backer scrapes to the top, you gash ‘em to the safety!"

"the only thing slowing us down is the ref."

it also temporarily locks them into personnel groupings (something certain winning head coaches in certain Alabama towns absolutely hate). As Red Cup Rebellion breaks down here, Ole Miss ran the same play five times in a row in a minute of clock time for a 48-yard scoring drive against Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

"As fast as that ref will set the ball down is as fast as we should go," Werner said. "Some refs will take their time, and I see different crews ... some whip that ball in and set it down and they're gone. Others will sort of walk it in and make sure defenses are set. We want it to be as fast as possible."

While it sounds like a baseball problem of varying strikes zones depending on each night's ump, there's a fair amount of consistency in the speed of ball-setting from conference to conference. He notes that the Pac-12 crews are especially fast.

"I've seen Oregon games where the guys are whipping the ball to each other to get the next play set. And we see other conferences take time enough for the defenses to get set."

And the SEC officials are how fast?

"You're not going to get me to say anything about the SEC officials," he laughs. "But put it this way: as fast as they want to put it down, we'll snap it. We tell our players that when we get into that tempo that the only thing slowing us down is the ref. If he can set it and walk away before we snap it, we're going too slow."

Quarterbacks cannot be one-dimensional.

Does a quarterback have to be able to run like a tailback? Not to a Michael Vick or Vince Young standard. But the quarterback must be some kind of threat to run.

"Old school thinking was that we never wanted our quarterback getting touched. But now, I just think that to even the odds up he has to be in the process somewhere, whether it’s running or throwing more," Werner said. "I think I was hard-headed for a long time, thinking it wasn’t my style or whatever. Teams used to play base defenses, and it wasn't an issue. But the more you kept running into an extra defender, coaches just got sick of it. And so now people are starting to realize you have to recruit the right type of guy for that position."

The biggest bullet point on Mullen's resume is Heisman winner Tim Tebow, who overshadows former No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith of Utah as an example of the system thriving without a track star behind center. Smith was a traditional quarterback, but implementing him as a runner allowed Utah to keep defenses honest. Smith's starting run in San Francisco ended in part because he wasn't as mobile as Colin Kaepernick, yet he ran for 1,072 yards and 15 touchdowns at Utah.

"It's not mandatory, but it helps," Mullen concedes. "But I'd say that decision-making trumps mobility greatly. You don't have to be mobile to run option football; you have to be a great decision-maker. If you've made the right decision in option football and you keep the ball, you can still run even though you're not dynamic, but because you've made the right decision."

When Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace pulled on a zone read against LSU and, uh ... lumbered for a 57-yard touchdown straight through the defense, it was the right decision and execution, but was still shocking to Freeze, who had coached Wallace at Arkansas State before the quarterback transferred.

"When we were at Arkansas State it was a big joke, like 'Oh, Bo runs a 4.9, he's slow,'" Wallace laughs. "So as soon as I scored I went straight for him on the sideline, and Freeze pats my head and says, 'I'm so sorry for making fun of you your freshman year,' but you can see me on film tightening up around the ball, thinking, 'Surely to God, someone's about to catch me.' I couldn't see, because at LSU there's only a Jumbotron at one end."

According to Koenning, a stiff-legged passer rumbling through a secondary is the essence of the system's beauty.

"That’s the benefit of the spread," he says. "You still have gap schemes, you still have zone schemes, you’re still making them think, but when I go to run the zone read, if Tyler Russell’s running the zone read, what’s the defense going to practice? Tackling the running back. But when Tyler gets a pull, it’s for 20 yards, because they can only practice against so much."

Wallace against LSU. Crystal LoGiudice-US PRESSWIRE.

The spread also cannot be one-dimensional.

MSU and Ole Miss will enter 2013 with starting quarterbacks considered to be passers, yet both will continue to be spelled by runners Dak Prescott and Barry Brunetti.

Brunetti appeared in 12 game for the Rebels last season, but had only 36 pass attempts to Wallace's 368, whereas he had almost half as many rushing attempts (60 to 143). That tendency created a trend in coverage when the former West Virginia quarterback would enter the game.

"Oh yeah," Brunetti admits. "I’d go out there last season, and I’d hear the checks. They’d be checking to certain places ... I’d hear them say, ‘Watch the option, watch the run.’"

Neither team is quarterbacking by committee, but the matter at hand will be maintaining versatility no matter which quarterback is in the game. Mullen enjoyed three years of success in Starkville with Chris Relf, the 6'4, 240-pound, run-first threat. His career totals at State are impressive (1,578 yards rushing, 3,297 passing, 37 total TDs) but his run/pass ratio (401 carries to 460 pass attempts) shows that he was more Tebow than Smith. Enter Russell, a nationally ranked pro-style quarterback. He became the full-time starter in 2012, spelled by redshirt sophomore backup Prescott, a more Relf-ian type.

"The biggest issue we have is what our kids can do the best. In order to be successful offensively you've got to utilize the talents that you're given. We're not a place where we get a Christmas list all the time," Koenning said.

Russell, a Merdian, Miss., native, was the best quarterback in the state when he committed to the Bulldogs, so in what Mullen calls "the big thick playbook," State dropped a few chapters and added some different ones.

"I’m looking to throw the ball but when we have a run play called, I’m looking... 'OK, what are they doing? Are they going to respect me on this play? Is the end just going to crash down and go for the back?' I might get six, seven yards from that. It’s not going to happen every time, but it’s going to happen at some point in a game," Russell said.

When teams shift their defensive calls dramatically depending on State's quarterbacks, Russell doesn't get offended if he's left relatively alone on a run assignment.

"It doesn’t really make you mad, it’s just kind of funny," Russell says. "You’re supposed to play sound football. The defensive end has the C gap, and if you’re not going to respect the C gap and just try and tackle the running back and there’s nobody else out there, I’m going to take it."

State fans would tell you that Russell is the passer (231-394 for 2,897 yards) and Prescott is the runner (32 carries, 118 yards), but because of the way defenses play the pair individually, Prescott must maintain the ability to throw (18-29 for 194 yards) and Russell must be some threat to run (43 total carries, but -5 net yards due to sacks). Koenning and Mullen both contend that either can command the offense, because the offense must always be versatile enough to fit the talent, whatever the talent may be.

"We're in a situation where our 'passer' can run," Mullen said. "He's not a dynamic runner, but in the open field if you don't cover him he'll go run down the field. And our runner can throw, he threw a bunch of touchdown passes last year. And that aspect of things changes based on your personnel."

Mullen points to the difference in running the zone read at Utah and a Florida - the Utes featured pocket-passing Smith, who had little perimeter speed, whereas in Gainesville the monstrous Tebow was flanked by light backs like Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.

"If Peyton Manning wanted to come play for me, I'd figure something out."

"All we did was reverse the play," said Mullen. "Tebow would read to go inside, the running backs to go outside. You're still reading the same way, but instead of the running back going inside and the quarterback (Smith) keeping around the edge, it's the quarterback (Tebow) keeping it inside or giving to the running backs around the edge. Those are the little flexibilities you have to have in your system. It can't ever be just one particular way."

"Hey," Mullen adds. "If Peyton Manning wanted to come play for me, I'd be all in. I'd figure something out. But he probably wouldn't run too often."

Who can be a quarterback has changed.

Veteran NFL receiver Roscoe Parrish played wide receiver for the Hurricanes while Werner was on staff at Miami. But Werner also had a package of plays for Parrish, a high school quarterback, in 2005 that would've constituted spread-option offense. Today's demand for that type of athletic talent at QB has outpaced the evaluation skills of some veteran recruiters, and cautionary tales of mobile Heisman quarterbacks Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III being unsuccessfully offered to play other positions give coaches nightmares.

Werner agrees that the sample size for potential BCS-level quarterbacks has grown substantially, but the core demands on the position haven't changed.

"No doubt we're looking in more places. But this is what I stress to our recruits: I think some schools are looking for athletes who can throw, but I'm still looking for a quarterback who's a good athlete. You have to be a quarterback first. If you can run, great, but when it's 3rd and 8, we can't win if all you can do is run."

The success of NFL offenses in Seattle, Washington and San Francisco was celebrated outside their respective fan bases, as scores of college and high school quarterbacks felt validated. Werner admits that as a coach on the recruiting trail years ago, he was able to campaign against offenses that weren't specifically pro-style by using the fear of the NFL when recruiting quarterbacks.

"I was an old pro-style guy. When I was at other schools that's what I sold them on: look, you can go to one of those schools but nobody does. Whereas now they are, so I want to make sure ... in the NFL it's not like they're only running the quarterback. They still have to learn all their protections and reads. That's a big selling point to our quarterbacks now is, hey, we're going to teach you the pro-style schemes, the drop backs and reads, with an addition to what the pro-style is going towards."

This doesn't mean Denard Robinson wouldn't have to change positions if he came out in three or four years - height and weight nullify some outright - but it does mean that a quarterback like Prescott, who was labeled "ATH" by recruiting services, isn't forced to become a tight end or flanker to make money professionally.

"Being in a run-first college offense - and we’re still 50/50 - but being in that, it’s hard," Prescott admits. "It’s like Denard moving to receiver. It’s hard when you run the ball to actually get in the NFL. Even when you believe you can throw, the film says you’re running the ball 60 percent of the time, they’re going go off that. It’s a business. Now that they’re integrating the dual-threat quarterback and the read option, it’s actually helping us and making it easier for us."

"I feel they’ll definitely take a chance on a guy who has more of a running ability then just what you would call a simple dropback passer," Prescott said.

Prescott against Arkansas. Spruce Derden, US Presswire.

It's no easier on an offensive line.

One of the lingering falsehoods about the spread is that a shotgun somehow allows for offensive line play to become less aggressive. Ironically, the resurgence in power running plays has come from the spread and option, most notably with Newton and Gus Malzahn at Auburn and since replicated all over.

"When I came back here, taking to booster clubs that was the mentality. 'Are we going to be tough up front?'" Werner said. "Well, it's not like we're telling the offensive line 'Hey, since we're in shotgun you guys can go be soft.' We're still running the inside zone and the power, and they're still blocking. There were a lot of people nervous about that, but when they see how we run the football it makes them feel a lot better about it."

Koenning, along with a host of NFL general managers set to wager a few million, is convinced the secret to the last Heisman-winner's success in Texas A&M's offense came along the line specifically.

"You know why Manziel’s really good?" he asks. "Number one, he’s a really good football player. That’s number one, but number two are those offensive tackles he has [No. 2 Draft pick Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews]. Imagine a kid with that much athleticism sitting back there going [Koenning yells] 'One Mississippi, two Mississippi ...' [Texas A&M] reminds you of that. We’re playing in the backyard. 'Oh hey, he ain’t open ... Three Mississippi! Move over a little bit!’"

Koenning said the Mississippi State staff spent time in the offseason breaking down A&M film to watch the Aggie offense specifically.

"We counted eight seconds in the pocket a couple times. That doesn’t happen. Those two tackles are really really good. Johnny Manziel is good, don’t get me wrong, but you’re going to find out those two offensive tackles helped him a lot more than what people really thought."

Injuries happen in every offense.

"Getting hit, that’s probably why the NFL didn’t use this offense for so long," Brunetti supposes.

He's probably right. The concept of turning $100 million franchise players into less-durable tailbacks never sounds appealing to a general manager. But there's no hard proof that one particular system injures quarterbacks more than another. Wallace spent the spring on the sidelines and in the film room recovering from surgery on his throwing shoulder, an injury he sustained on a zone read play against Tulane in September. The hit - Wallace hit a linebacker head on before his lineman could create a block - clearly affected his accuracy and arm strength for the remainder of the year, but Wallace said he didn't change his running style, despite the multiple protests of his coaches.

"Once I got banged up I should've changed a lot of things, but that's me just trying to compete and fight for every yard. We were 5-5 trying to get a bowl game, so you're trying to do every little thing you can. I guess I'm just hard-headed, but yeah, going forward I'll have to change things."

While not season-ending, the injury had a direct effect on the entire offense ("By the end of the year I was lucky if I could throw anything 45 yards," he said), an issue Werner is still addressing in the offseason. According to Wallace, the team spent some of the spring trying out new formations, pistol included, and he's anxious but unable to try them out.

"We're not the type that's going to run him 20 or 30 times. But if they're going to give us the run, we have to take it. People don't like that quarterback running down the middle because usually when he does run, we're getting nice gains out of that. As soon as they start taking that away we can go to different things," said Werner.

Consequently, Brunetti and backup Maikhail Miller spent the spring learning to fall correctly - forward unless arriving at head-on contact, with the ball tucked and on your non-throwing shoulder - while Wallace is still immobile until he starts throwing rehab the first week of May.

"Anytime you have an operation on your throwing shoulder it makes you nervous. You can go a month without throwing a football and come back and for a couple days you won't be the same. So I'm interested to see where I'm at," Wallace said.

The NFL will adjust.

The zone read is only one way of answering the pass rushing defensive end, and it's not foolproof. Coaches insist it's not just about freezing out all-world defensive ends like Jadeveon Clowney, but Brunetti and his fellow zone read enthusiasts wax poetic at the thought of doing just that:

"My favorite moment is once [the defensive end] pulls down, and I pull, it and it’s open field... If I see ‘em start real wide, I figure he thinks it’s going to be a straight-ahead hand off. I watch his shoulders to see how he’s leaning. Is he playing with me? Is he trying to play both ways? If he tries to play me and the running back I’ll try and hold it a little bit longer than I would usually. I learned that from watching Cam Newton."

In the SEC, zone read quarterbacks attest that the adjustments are already in place, including specific changes late in 2012. Wallace said that of the entire conference schedule, Georgia's 3-4 was the most frustrating due to its twisting linemen late in the game.

Brunetti breaks down the most common technique he saw in 2012: "They’re shooting the [defensive] end down and making the quarterback pull it, and then scraping a linebacker over the top to make it a one-on-one play between the linebacker and the quarterback. But one thing I was always good at in high school and this level is one-on-one in the open field. The worst is when that D-end really can play both guys, when you’re playing against a great end who’s athletic enough to stop you from handing it off and stop you from getting outside."

Mullen shrugs off the idea that one play can be an inarguable answer at any level, merely that it's an issue of matchups and little else.

"If your two D-tackles absolutely dominate the O-line it doesn't matter. The simplest [defense] in zone read is if you can't throw the ball or you don't have great wide receivers, well, then our corners can completely lock down on your receivers, and I'll stand two extra guys on the line of scrimmage. It's not hard to defend the zone read ... you're just having to give up something to do it."

Rest assured that the confirmed (and unconfirmed) visits from NFL defensive coordinators to a variety of college coaching staffs running air raid, pistol and spread concepts were to accelerate the learning curve.

"It's not hard to defend the zone read. You're just having to give up something."

"It's just something that no one in the NFL has done until here lately," Werner said. "There's a lot of different things going on, but the simplest part is on the backside of a run they [the defensive coaches] can teach that guy [the defensive end] to squeeze and he'd squeeze, and every now and then we'd call a naked [bootleg] off of it. You could hit 'em with a little pass in the flat, and you'd hit for a six- or seven-yard gain. The defense says fine, you can do that two or three times a game, but we're going to stop the run, whereas now, they've got to come up with another defender because the quarterback pulls it and gains 15 yards or more, and they've got problems."

Mullen agrees: "The defense of it in college is much better because kids see it in high school. The ability to understand the zone read as a college player, you've defended against it in high school. It used to be 15 years ago there were 10 teams in the whole country running, and it was like going to play against the wishbone. If you don't ever see it it's hard to prepare for it one week. It's hard to simulate what they're going to do in just one week. The zone read and spread option stuff used to be very similar."

The spread era had no beginning and will have no end.

'There's about five people who say they invented the zone read," Werner said. "From what I hear it was an accident. The story I heard was that one day the quarterback missed a handoff in practice, and he just took off running, and the coaches noticed what happened. That's usually how this stuff happens. People always talk about football geniuses, and if we were geniuses we wouldn't be coaching football. All it is is the option."

Koenning can chart a quick-look evolution of what the layman fan recognizes as the spread evolution - a split-back look, a one-back offset, the pistol stacking the running back and removing tendencies for the defense to scout, and the next great wrinkle, which he either isn't telling about or is among those still searching for.

"You’ve got to think outside of the box. you think inside the box and you’ll never progress. That’s where it’s going; you’re seeing more people thinking outside of the box. Everybody’s becoming more broad. We’re all thieves by nature. Don’t think that we’re all geniuses. Yes, we do have good ideas, but we’re thieves by nature," he said.

Mullen's name will sit forever next to Meyer's in the annals of offensive scheming, if only for their introduction of the spread option and its subsequent application to a national champion. But in 2013, as over half the conference that once shunned the idea as a gimmick will run some form of what he and Meyer brought to Florida, he's hesitant to anoint the popular trend as the new standard.

"The general consensus," said Mullen, "of who the top three teams in the SEC were last season were Alabama, LSU and Georgia. Pro teams, all three of 'em are under center, I-formation teams. Any offense can beat any defense. I can beat any zone blitz if I've got the right play called. And any defense can stop any given play if you have the right kind of defense called. You see that in good old Tecmo Bowl, right? Just hit the right button and Bo Jackson scores."

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