The offense-oriented Big 12 had featured only four head coaches this decade whose resumes were built on defense, until Baylor hired Matt Rhule from Temple this offseason.
Bob Stoops built a legacy of hiring aggressive spread coaches and passed the baton to his most recent air raid hire, Lincoln Riley. Gary Patterson shook up TCU by hiring air raid assistants. Charlie Strong went offensive to try and save his job, then was replaced by spread guru Tom Herman. Then there was Paul Rhoads at Iowa State, who could never get either his offense or defense on track.
Five defensive head coaches, and all of them eventually embraced the spread.
In the similarly high-scoring Pac-12, Kyle Whittingham, father of an impressive coaching tree of defensive minds that includes BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen, and LSU’s Dave Aranda, has been inching in this direction. This offseason, he finally took the plunge.
The tendency for defense-minded head coaches is to field a tough offense that offers the defense breathing time in games and physicality in practice.
Perhaps the greatest fear in embracing aggressive offense is that defenders will fail to develop the toughness needed to stop a downhill offense. Adopting tempo carries similar risks, as the nature of fast-paced practices frequently doesn’t suit the development of team pursuit and effective tackling.
Whittingham built his successful program’s offense around downhill running, the kind that often supports great defenses, and the Utes’ forays into spread offense were geared around the run.
The 2016 Utes wanted to be a smash mouth team that used some spread-I formations and a running quarterback (Troy Williams) to help feature back Joe Williams find lanes. Troy was second in carries with 111, and had five touchdowns. Joe was first, running 210 times for 1,407 yards (6.7 ypc) and 10 more touchdowns, despite stepping away and then returning amid injuries elsewhere.
The Utes’ offense finished 57th in S&P+ due to a plodding, error-prone, and inefficient passing game. QB Williams was unable to provide a dangerous adjunct to RB Williams, either as a runner or as a passer attacking vacated spaces outside of the box.
So 2016 joined the last several years of Whittingham football, featuring a solid defense paired with an ineffective offense. The Utes haven’t ranked anywhere near the top of the country in yards per play since 2010’s No. 25 ranking and have twice ranked in the 100s.
So Whittingham took the plunge and hired spread passing guru Troy Taylor from Eastern Washington.
Taylor coached Washington QB Jake Browning from fifth grade on and headed up a private skills academy. After demolishing California high school competition for a while, Taylor got his chance last year as the QB coach, passing game coordinator, and play caller at FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington, which has also sent QB Vernon Adams to Oregon and head coach Beau Baldwin to Cal as OC.
The Eagles were coming off a 6-5 season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time in four years. Taylor came into an offense that was returning top receivers Kendrick Bourne and Cooper Kupp, but starting over with four new starters on the line and plugging in a former walk-on at QB, redshirt sophomore Gage Gubrud.
Gubrud threw 570 passes for 5,160 yards at 9.1 yards per attempt with 48 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His top three receivers, Kupp, Bourne, and Shaq Hill, each went over 1,000 yards receiving, with Kupp at an astounding 1,700.
Gubrud also led the team in rushing, with 134 carries for 606 yards and five touchdowns. The team went 12-2, with a win over Washington State, an overtime loss to North Dakota State and nearly beat Bo Pelini’s Youngstown State in the semifinals. The Eagles won the Big Sky and dominated most of their competition.
The Taylor system is an air raid-ish approach, similar to what Kliff Kingsbury has used at Texas Tech.
You can see him explain one of his favorite concepts in this short video:
Essentially, he trains inside receivers to find open grass and quarterbacks to find windows to hit them, all within the hash marks. The Eagles would throw outside the hash marks, but they had a lot of plays oriented around passing windows over the middle, where Gubrud could find the 6’2, 210-pound Kupp settled into space.
Some of the more creative elements of this simple offense include formations that helped create spacing.
Against the Bison, Taylor used empty sets that would align a slot receiver in between offensive linemen:
Or in four-wide sets designed to confuse inside linebackers:
This is Mike Leach-level wizardry.
The question is how this will work with the Ute roster and within Whittingham’s program.
Taylor’s ability to mold quarterbacks into assassins is quite proven. Gubrud was an athletic and poised passer who knew how to evade a pass rush, move in the pocket, and hit windows over the middle. But it’s safe to assume Taylor can make a vessel with less clay than your typical QB coach.
Troy Williams is a solid athlete who can only benefit from a system like this, and the Utes also have Tyler Huntley and former Alabama QB Cooper Bateman, who walked on. Big target Raelon Singleton is back, and the Utes have moved running back Troy McCormick to receiver in the hopes of finding guys who can run quick routes over the middle.
There’s more to work with along the OL than what Taylor found at EWU, perhaps comparable talent at QB, and relatively less at the skill positions. However, the nature of this system is a simple playbook and quick install, to allow innumerable reps in the same concepts so that execution gets razor sharp. Brilliant execution of modern passing concepts is a nearly unbeatable formula.
Utah’s execution of the spread passing game last year was not sharp, and it wasn’t simply an issue of talent.
The second in route here is open, but because Williams didn’t take a three-step drop, he has zero room to see clearly and get the pass off. You never want to rule out how much improvement can occur in a Power 5 QB from receiving high-level coaching and a few thousand reps in an offseason. Just ask Trevone Boykin.
Whether it takes Taylor a year or so, the more interesting question is how well Whittingham integrates this system.
In all likelihood, 2017 probably won’t be the year to judge the experiment, since the Utes face a tough schedule and a lot of turnover on defense.
The Horned Frogs fell off on offense in year two of the air raid after their returning starters graduated, while Oklahoma’s offense was one of the country’s best in both of Riley’s years as OC.
If Whittingham can maintain the practices that’ve kept Utah ranked highly in defense and special teams but simply add an explosive passing game, that could take Utah to unexpected heights in the Pac-12.