It’s fun when worlds collide.
In the last two years, I’ve written pieces about two of my favorite offenses in college football: Oklahoma State’s and Princeton’s. Well, guess what? Oklahoma State just hired Princeton’s offensive coordinator, Sean Gleeson.
In one way, a hire like this makes perfect sense. A great offensive mind (Gundy) recognizes another great offensive mind (Gleeson). But Gundy’s willingness to think outside of both the box and the confines of the Big 12 made a hire like this realistic.
The guy Gleeson replaces, after all, had a pretty unique story of his own. Mike Yurcich, who recently left for a role on Ohio State’s staff, came to Stillwater after seven seasons as an offensive coordinator at the Division II level, first at Edinboro, then at Shippensburg. As the story goes, Gundy searched around for prolific offenses on the NCAA’s stats website, liked what he saw from Shippensburg, watched some videos online, and went from there.
There was no geographic familiarity, no pre-existing relationship, only a willingness to get creative to find the right fit. If you’re willing to go to Shippensburg, then the Ivy League certainly isn’t that much of a reach.
Princeton head coach Bob Surace has built a wrecking ball in New Jersey. The Tigers have either shared or won the Ivy title outright twice in the last three years and just wrapped up a 10-0 campaign that saw them ranked in the top 90 in all of Division I (FBS and FCS), per Sagarin — ahead of power conference teams like UNC, Kansas, and Arkansas.
They dominated to this degree because their defense caught up to their offensive prowess. But make no mistake: this was one hell of an offense.
Two things made Princeton’s offense unique: creativity and physicality.
The creativity started with the man at the top. There’s no law against getting weird, after all. From the story I wrote about Princeton:
Averaging nearly 90 plays and 44 points per game, the 2013 Tigers used modern-day tempo and made themselves almost un-scoutable. Three quarterbacks — Quinn Epperly, Connor Michelsen, and Kedric Boston — not only took snaps as first-stringers, but stayed on the field at other positions, too. [...]
“There’s no law against it,” Surace says, matter-of-factly. “There’s no law against a team like Alabama, with two good quarterbacks, having them in on the same play occasionally. If we do it, it’s because we think we can run efficient plays.” [...]
“Our guys can really process the information,” Surace says. “You can talk to them at a high level football-wise. They’re not NFL players, and we don’t have unlimited time with them, but within that small work week, we can give them a lot of information.”
The benefits of having a few different guys who can throw the ball can pay off in obvious ways, especially near the goal line.
When are some of these bigger schools going to start poaching coordinators from the Ivy League?— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) December 7, 2017
Turn on the film, some of the most creative offensive football out there! pic.twitter.com/N4mPtTJ3mO
Surace lost offensive coordinator James Perry to a head coaching position at Bryant in 2017. Perry improved Bryant’s output by nearly 100 yards per game in his first season and just got named head coach at his alma mater, Brown. Surace then moved Gleeson into the role. With Gleeson in charge, PU went from 34.6 points per game, to 38.2, then 47.
As illustrated in this set of Twitter videos from Dan Casey, Princeton leverages your assumptions against you. They know how the typical spread offense acts, they operate the basics well, and then they devastate you by going against tendency.
They can get you reacting to jet sweep motion, then hit you with a pass over the top.
Princeton running a jet motion pop pass.— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) September 29, 2017
QB and WR really sell this one! pic.twitter.com/in4xQYruKk
They’ll run the stretch that so many offenses run, then throw far back to the other end of the field.
One more from Princeton:— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) December 7, 2017
Stretch read, boot, throwback in the red zone! pic.twitter.com/2PAyzEIlYV
They’ll use all the pre-snap movement that has suddenly (and finally) become en vogue at the professional level.
Seriously, go watch some 2016 Princeton Offense!— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) December 8, 2017
That year their offensive coordinator was current Bryant Head Coach James Perry (@BryantHCPerry).
The pre snap movement and creativity are incredible! Shoutout to @A_Finch1 for the lead on this one! pic.twitter.com/esR114YrJK
They’ll do all of this with well-drilled precision, selling every fake and every feint.
They’ll also get as physical as possible. Surace may be a Princeton alum, but he is also a former center and NFL offensive line assistant who wears a camouflage hat on the sidelines. As smart and logical as this offense is, an offensive lineman’s mentality is front and center. The quick, horizontal passing game features either well-orchestrated blocking by receivers, offensive linemen charging out at defenders in space, or both.
This is a system built to take advantage of whatever you can’t stop, be it the run or the pass. And make no mistake: if you can’t stop Princeton from running the ball, Princeton won’t stop running the ball.
A foursome of Princeton backs combined for 27.4 carries and 187 yards per game (6.8 per carry), while quarterbacks added another 14.5 carries and 104 non-sack yards (7.2).
Considering what OSU returns in 2019, it would make sense that Gundy would be drawn to a system that gets both creative and nasty on the ground.
The Pokes return All-American receiver Tylan Wallace (86 catches, 1,481 yards, 12 touchdowns). But they also bring back 207-pound sophomore running back Chuba Hubbard (6 yards per carry), who helped OSU beat both West Virginia and Missouri after starter Justice Hill got hurt late in the year, and six offensive linemen with starting experience, including honorable mention all-conference guys in guard Marcus Keyes and tackle Teven Jenkins.
They’ll also almost certainly have a dual-threat guy behind center. With Taylor Cornelius gone, the job will likely go to either Hawaii transfer Dru Brown (6.6 non-sack yards per carry in two years of starting on the islands), four-star redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders (3,877 passing yards and 1,380 rushing yards as a senior at Denton (Texas) Ryan High in 2017), or incoming freshman Brendan Costello (2,328 and 658 at San Clemente (Calif.) High this fall).
Establishing a nice run game for a new QB is always a good thing, but doing so would also take advantage of the skill set these guys have to offer.
Any hire can fail. Maybe Gleeson is too used to guys who “can really process the information” and are “not NFL players,” and he struggles with the leap up in both athleticism and potential. He wouldn’t be the first. Plus, even with Gundy’s guidance, it took Yurcich a little while to grow into his new role.
But Yurcich did grow into the role. Odds very much favor Gleeson doing the same. And with the reputation both Gleeson and the Princeton football program have quickly built, this hire might be good enough that Gundy is forced to make another one in a couple of years.