Playing two quarterbacks is as simple as L1, R1.
In the first quarter against Baylor, ULM's junior starter Kolton Browning was joined by backup Cody Wells. Both stood in the backfield, and both appeared to be checking signals from the sideline and calling out information to the offense. Either could take the snap and make a read to either run or pass, or hand off to the other quarterback, who could in turn run or pass.
The resulting confusion caused a flustered Baylor to call timeout and Wells and Browning to high-five in celebration.
The secret to such a system is dexterity. Browning throws left-handed, Wells right-handed. Both quarterbacks run only to their throwing sides. And ULM head coach Todd Berry said that while both players appear to be making calls, the snap and read responsibilities are determined by which hash the ball is on; the left-handed QB snaps on the left hash, the righty on the right. For maximum effectiveness in personnel groupings as well as clarity for quick substitutions, all of ULM's quarterbacks are trained at running back and wide receiver.
Berry said that he's used the system since his days as an offensive coordinator at UNLV, and that the plays against Baylor were noticed only because it was a national broadcast.
"We’ve got about five different packages we can run off this thing. Some of the systems are ‘quarterback check with me’ based off the look. They’ll come to the line and then look back [for the play call]. Some of them are actually read run/pass options. The thing that’s probably unique about having the right- and left-handed quarterback is the read zone, which is so much a big part of the spread option offense. The quarterbacks are all adept at that, and a lot of this package is built on still reading the front. It’s not just looking up to see what the coverage is. We’re actually reading players on the field about whether or not to hand it off or to keep it. Now we’ve kind of tied in this read zone concept up front with our offense, but we’ve actually added in these route dynamics down the field to where now the quarterback can now run it or throw based on the fact that we’ve got an opportunity to get to the edges."
There are at least four potential plays -- each quarterback either running or passing the ball -- to account for initially. However, that doesn't include a read that either quarterback could make, be it at the line before a play or once they're handed the ball to run or pass.
There's an issue of injury concerns, as both Wells and Browning went down at different times in the year, making the formation obsolete without a trustworthy run/pass threat from both sides. But the play itself is no more threatening to each individual quarterback. Because ULM frequently runs an empty backfield and throws hot routes, neither QB is asked to chip, run block or take on a blitzing linebacker.
When you're good but not supposed to be, it's hard to find opponents.
In the church of Arkansas coach Bret Bielema's "American Football," Monroe might as well be Sodom. But whereas Berry's contemporaries in the no-huddle, hurry-up offense simply scoff at Bielema's claims that such an offense is somehow more dangerous to player safety, Berry elects to take the debate a step further.
"I actually think it's less injury-prone. Generally, injuries happen when you create piles. There was a timeframe when we were carrying guys off the field left and right because everyone was in the I-formation and everybody was running the downhill power. There were 11 guys on one side, 11 guys on the other, and 22 heads colliding on each play. We're not creating the piles we used to."
If only Bielema's Arkansas team was on the schedule again this year. ULM beat a lesser version of the Hogs, 34-31, in Little Rock last year.
"I think you can't ever really change the progression of a program until you go on the road against a really good opponent in a really volatile situation with crowd noise and all those kind of things and win. You also need to beat a ranked team, and you need to come from behind. All those things happened in the same game. As a coach, to say, 'Okay, we are at that point to where we've turned a corner,' well, all those things came at the same moment in one ball game."
Following Arkansas was an ESPN-televised, 47-42 loss at home to Baylor that Berry characterizes as "a truly fun game for coaches, a real chess match." In the stands, something magical happened, too: fans showed up, and the campus' roughly 30,000-seat Malone Field enjoyed a rare sellout. To recapture that atmosphere year-round, ULM will introduce beer sales inside Malone in 2013. It's a move that brand new A.D. Brian Wickstrom said was made not for revenue, but atmosphere.
"Electric crowd," Berry said. "Some of the things that I think had held the program back was that you're looking for one of those games to where you can capture your own fan base, to hear the energy and the excitement and all of what college football is. We had that type of crowd and that atmosphere in a game like that against a prominent program. Those were huge for us too, and it's carried over to this year in terms of the buzz around town and even on campus."
ULM will open the 2013 season on the road against an Oklahoma team that's questionable on offense and pegged by many as ripe for a slump. And Barry Switzer seems pretty worried about it:
said " Do not open FB season with a Northern La. team"— Barry Switzer (@Barry_Switzer) July 13, 2013
Ask Alabama! Players better have respect for their players! Great Spoilers!!!!— Barry Switzer (@Barry_Switzer) July 13, 2013
"That's nice," reacts Berry. "But obviously when we scheduled this game, if you’re looking at it from their perspective, we probably weren’t quite as dangerous a team when this got scheduled. Sometimes those thing are hard to predict."
ULM's valuation on the FBS open market doesn't match its current growth: If major BCS programs are looking to buy a FBS-level home win in a one-off contest, the Warhawks are now the least attractive among Sun Belt and MAC programs in the $1.2 million range. Their non-conference slate for 2013 was originally set long before last season, but because of four programs leaving the Sun Belt, ULM will play six non-conference games. That includes trips to Oklahoma, Baylor, and Wake Forest, who will return the favor and play in Monroe next season, along with games at LSU and Texas A&M in 2014.
Past that, the future has become more difficult to plan.
"We’ve had some people that have made contact with us about a game that have pulled out," Berry says. "We are finding it more difficult here recently about trying to get a game. Obviously we want those TV exposures, too, which are sometimes difficult for us to get. So we’re looking for programs that we kind of feel like are creating a buzz and that maybe a game could get picked up on television. But it has become a little bit more difficult. But we knew that coming in."
Television can make or break a program.
So if you upset a SEC team and then start playing two quarterbacks simultaneously on ESPN, high school football players across the country think you're cool.
"We were an interesting team to watch last year, so we got on TV a few more times last year. You get on TV a few more times, you're going to expose the recruits to more opportunities to watch you. If people see something they like and they think they can fit into that system, they're going to start contacting you."
ULM beat Arkansas in the second week of the 2012 season on a national cable broadcast (ESPNU) and encored with a near-upset against another SEC team in Auburn. That set the stage the following Friday for what was arguably the biggest televised game in ULM's history, against the Bears. Berry said that highlight DVDs from potential quarterback recruits are now coming in daily, a development he credits to Browning's success both throughout the season and in that specific run. But when pressed, Berry admits that the combination of a window into the national viewing audience's awareness created by the Arkansas win and his own offensive innovation has created in ULM a potential mecca for progressive-minded offensive skill players to seek out.
"Where we're seeing it is right now," Berry emphasizes. "We've got kids that are actively recruiting us, which we've never seen before. They're contacting us wanting us to recruit them. And I'm talking about real players. From a quarterback perspective we've been getting video from all over the country."
Berry said that the majority of what ended up being his 15-player 2013 class was more or less in place apropos of the win over Arkansas.
"I read somewhere that now about 70 percent of the players at the Division 1 level are committed by the time the season starts. Maybe that can be argued, but I knew that the level was getting pretty high. So if you have that number of kids that already off the market, you only get so many kids that you can impact with what you do that season."
But while discussing the burgeoning concept of Louisiana-Monroe as cool to a rising generation of football players, Berry isn't quick to admit the obvious, that the reckless, aggressive offense he's rebuilt the program with is the real draw for recruits and fans, both filling empty spaces at the tiny directional school.
"Well, I would hope so. I think that part of the differential advantage you get when you do stuff that's unique is that you make yourself a little harder to defend, you give some defenses some extra things to think about, but also the exposures you get. I don't know if it's exponentially or arithmetically, but the exposures go up."
He circles back around.
"But ... it has to be more than just a label of being interesting to watch. When we got here a few years ago, boy, we were really interesting to watch, because I didn’t even know what was going to happen."