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The Florida Gators' new offense: A more tasteful murderball

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If 2014 is Will Muschamp's last stand, at least he's armed himself wisely by hiring former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.

University of Florida

Now that he's cornered, Florida head coach Will Muschamp is dangerous. He's looking at the end of the line, and he's reaching for a weapon that can turn this slugfest in his favor.

The Gators head coach once had a strong vision for Florida football. A vision defined by his own strengths, borne of frustrations with his own past experiences. It was wildly different from the beloved championship Gators produced by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.

After seeing his typically dominant Texas defenses struggle to erase physical run games from elite programs like Ohio State (2009 Fiesta Bowl) and Alabama (2010 BCS Championship), Will Muschamp was determined that his Florida defenses would routinely face a tough, hard-nosed run game every day in practice and not be taken aback by the upgrade in physicality when facing the SEC's better teams. Muschamp also wanted to sell Florida recruits on playing in a "pro-style" scheme in hopes of locking down the state's prodigious talent.

First he brought aboard Charlie Weis to execute that vision, but Weis left for the "opportunity" to coach Kansas after a lifeless 2012. Then he turned to Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease to install what our own Bill Connelly called "brilliantly ugly murderball," when it actually worked. In Muschamp's terms, the Gators were "creative" in the run game, which meant that they tried to mash you from a variety of different angles.

On the whole, that didn't work out so well. And so Muschamp turns to his third offensive coordinator in four years to turn in a performance that might need to save Muschamp's job: Kurt Roper of surging Duke.

The vision for Florida's offense is still somewhat consistent with Muschamp's original purposes: To be physical and inventive in the run game, unlock the potential in Floridian athletes, and to protect the defense with time of possession. But how they get there will change markedly.

Updating the run game

It's almost unfair to judge Florida for its wretched 2013. Injuries devastated the offensive line and took down first-string quarterback Jeff Driskel and backup Tyler Murphy. However the main feature of the team, the power run game, was fundamentally flawed and unable to carry it through the ordeal.

One of the Gators' favorite ways to run power in 2013 was with the full house backfield, which fielded two fullbacks:


It's an elaborate concert of down blocks, double teams, and pulling blockers, with a guard and two fullbacks looking to blast a hole through the defensive front.

Here's the problem with these murderball tactics: Florida put a lot of bodies into a confined space, and consequently the results weren't always terribly explosive.

Murderball_medium

While there were blockers to account for every X and potentially create a huge play, the nature of power O and these formations is such that after the ball was snapped, it often just amounted to throwing beef at beef and hoping that the ensuing pile of flesh ended up a few yards further down the field after the snap.

In particular, there are two key blocks on this play that have to go well for the offense in order to actually create a running lane for the back. First, the double team of the defensive end by the playside offensive tackle and tight end ("Y"). They need to cave that player in to create a running lane. Secondly, and more difficult, is the block of the edge linebacker ("S") by the playside fullback.

If the linebacker on the edge can squeeze that fullback inside, he will tighten the running lane before the pulling blockers can further widen it. In this instance, the lane is open wide enough for the running back to slip through, but even with multiple blocks winning the day, the back is unable to process all the information going on around him and is wrapped up after only a decent gain.

At other times, these violent collisions orchestrated by the Gator O would fail to win those crucial blocks. Once, that left their back with little option but to attempt to hurdle the mound of meat and plastic before him:


Another problem revealed here is that Florida's attempted murder is clearly premeditated. As in, Miami saw it coming. The Canes foresaw power to the tight end and met the blocks with better leverage and closer to the line of scrimmage. The double team still won, as double teams tend to do, but the edge linebacker met the fullback further inside and left less room for the pulling fullback and guard to create a running lane.

New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper still believes in double teams and pounding the ball up the middle. But he incorporates it into the spread-option philosophy of also introducing space and uncertainty as tactics for clearing away defenders.

While power comprised a chunk of Roper's Duke playbook, inside zone was the primary tactic. Roper ran it several different ways:

The key feature to Duke's inside zone is a double team on the backside of the play, so that the result more like a downhill veer run than a typical zone play. In other words, the back is not aiming to run through a crease on the other side of the center, but to get going straight ahead.

Additionally, in both examples the H-back, or "B" in Roper's terminology, is charged with executing a kick-out block to open the lane for the runner, just as in Florida's power run. However, Duke moves the H-back across the formation in one example while running to his side in another.

Duke_veer-zone_medium

As a result, wherever this "B" player lines up, Roper is able to run the same play with the same blocking structure, but with the defense unable to predict the play's direction. The Blue Devils also mixed in some quarterback option on these runs, which requires some lateral speed to get outside and but can result in easy candy if defenses don't account for him.

There's tremendous consistency in the approaches between Roper's Duke teams and the Pease Gators in that the emphasis is still on creating running lanes up the middle behind double teams and kick out blocks. But they get there differently.

The 2014 Florida run game

Of course Duke was also primarily in spread shotgun formations, so ideally the Devils could utilize space as well as brutality in their tactics. Unfortunately, their mastery of packaged plays wasn't sufficient to truly punish teams for loading the box with defenders:

Watch the nickelback lined up across from the slot receiver. When he reads run, he comes screaming down the edge to control either a QB run or a running back bounce.

Later Duke would attempt to punish his quick response to the run game with play action, only to see UNC's corner pick up the slot receiver:


The Blue Devils had a very solid run game because their H-back was a good blocker and they had an experienced OL that was great at creating that weakside lane behind the double team. But there's far more potential for these schemes with passes and quarterback options attached.

Enter Driskel:

Driskel has the speed to get outside and do damage if teams don't account for him in the run game, but more importantly, he has the ability to make the reads and throws to do even greater damage than that:

This play doesn't appear to be a read, but rather a called bubble screen. Yet you see the damage done against a secondary much better situated to defend the play than UNC was against Duke above.

When the QB of a spread-option team can threaten the edge with his feet and with a quick pass to the outside, it creates a great deal of perimeter stress on a defense. That can open up space for the offense, either for pounding the ball against a reduced box or throwing downfield.

One critical challenge for Roper at Florida will be finding that player who can handle the "B" position and make the kick out blocks that open up space for inside zone as well as being a factor in the Gator passing game. The former shouldn't be an issue, as Muschamp has been patiently accumulating bludgeons on the roster, but mastering the Roper passing game will be another issue.

Mixing up the passing game

The Florida passing game faced an impossible situation in 2013. In addition to two quarterbacks going down, six different contributors along the offensive line were hurt, including three offensive tackles.

Pease had a couple of favorite concepts that began to falter in effectiveness as the season went on and the OL offered weaker protection. Perhaps foremost were a variety of "under" concepts, which sent several receivers deep with crossing routes underneath for the QB to hit if the defense could account for the deeper routes.

Florida ran that with a few different flavors and varieties, occasionally with five receivers and an empty backfield and two receivers aiming for soft spots underneath:


Or from four-receiver sets, often trips, with long shallow crosses underneath for the QB to find after scanning downfield coverage:

There was very little wrong conceptually with Florida's passing game. It frequently attacked vertically while offering the quarterback open spaces underneath to either hit a receiver or to scramble for yards. The problem was in the glut of injuries, the frequent third-and-longs created by negative plays, and the lack of a red zone identity that led to the Gators being shockingly inefficient at finishing drives.

Roper's passing game at Duke was generally more conservative. Roper focused on creating easy rollout reads and throws that Duke QB Anthony Boone was very comfortable with, isolation opportunities for his best receiver on the weakside of a formation, and ball-control routes that focused on quick reads and timing.

In this approach he would frequently utilize his "B" player either in the slot ...


... or running routes from behind the line of scrimmage:

For the most part, Roper was content to rely on timing and Boone's arm strength to pick opponents apart underneath.

Of course, when Virginia Tech took away Duke's quick game with press-man coverage, Duke was completely unable to beat the Hokies with deeper routes or with fades and slants to the weakside.

The 2014 Florida pass game

WIth Driskel at the helm, Florida should be able to mimic the timing of Roper's passing game. The signal-caller has demonstrated the ability to make quick reads and accurate strikes in ball-control concepts:


If Florida can't find a "B" among its fullbacks and tight ends that it trusts to both zone block and run routes, these otherwise easy throws become interceptions. It's unfortunate for Muschamp that Florida has one year to master the routes and timing of a new offense with his job on the line. Clay Burton, a solid blocker not known for his receiving skills, is one likely candidate, while early enrollee and true freshman Deandre Goolsby might capture the position by the time fall camp is concluded. Stocky fullback Hunter Joyner, tight end Tevin Westbrook, and big running back Matt Jones are other possibilities.

Overall, Florida is maintaining an identity as a team that looks to hold onto the ball and pound it behind a physical run game. But the Gators' approach to personnel and matchups is changing considerably.

A major component of the Boise State attack that Pease introduced is having more formations and packages than the defense can prepare and plan for. Roper will be using far fewer formations, but relying on the versatility of his players to present a series of different threats from the same looks.

If Florida's best players can handle the shift from specialist to polymath, then there is promise. Driskel's ability to handle a spread option attack should create multiple stress points for opponents accustomed to obvious formulas like "spread-out Florida = vertical stretch pass game" and "packed-in Florida = power."

The offensive line is loaded with large and experienced upperclassmen, the receiving corps has some challenging weapons like Quinton Dunbar, and there is certainly talent at running back and tight end.

We know the defense will be good. So be on the lookout for Muschamp in a make-or-break season in Gainesville. He's stopped backing up, has just pulled out a Swiss army knife, and is looking to stab someone with what seems to be either a nail file or a reamer ...