Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Over the course of this summer, Brophy and I have talked a lot of offense. As many of you know, we’ve focused much of our discussion on what Noel Mazzone is doing at Arizona State. And given the richness of this topic, I suspect that we will continue to do so throughout much of this college football season.

For me, perhaps the greatest upshot of these discussions has been the way it took me back in time to when I first got into coaching football. Specifically, it got me thinking about Dennis Erickson and how much I enjoyed watching his offenses at Wyoming, WAZZU, and Miami, which in turn got me to think more critically about his hiring of Noel Mazzone. Sure, Mazzone was one of his guys for a short while at Oregon State, but when Erickson was forced to replace Rich Olsen, he clearly had the pick of the litter. I mean, besides knowing Mazzone, which obviously counts for something, there had to other reasons why he chose him, rather than, let’s say, Dana Holgorsen, or some other hip, en vogue spread offense guru.

I think to get at this problem the right way we have to settle a few things about why Erickson found himself in such a situation in the first place. If we were to blindly swill the pap that ESPN spews, the reason was quite simple: Erickson’s job was on the line and Rich Olsen’s offense was too antiquated for today’s game. Now, I think most readers know where I stand on this matter, but for the sake of posterity, let’s understand that Rich Olson is an outstanding football coach and that the offense he coordinated was not outdated by any stretch of the imagination. The simple fact is that the administration forced Erickson’s hand, so a change had to be made. But this should not be interpreted as the administration taking the keys away from Erickson, because his choice of Mazzone reflects the degree to which, at a deep structural level, Noel’s offensive thinking is predicated upon the same set of fundamental beliefs and values as Erickson’s.

The reason I harp on this is because, and I mean no disrespect here, Mazzone’s incarnation of the spread is so medieval that it’s progressive. By this, I mean that the fundamental principles and structures upon which Mazzone’s offense is predicated are virtually identical to those upon which Erickson based his offenses throughout the 80s and 90s, which is to say – verticals, quicks, and zone running made easy by defensive displacement.

I don’t want to spend too much time on Erickson’s original offense. For those interested, please see Chris Brown’s treatment at Smart Football. The other source to consider is UTEP football, because for all intents and purposes the offense Mike Price runs today is not too terribly different from the one he ran back in the 90s at WAZZU.

With that disclaimer of sorts, I will say a word or two about the spread offense Erickson ran with great success from Idaho and Wyoming to Miami, Oregon State, and, at least initially, Arizona State. For those expecting gaudy route structures, Erickson’s may appear, at least upon first blush, somewhat basic; Erickson really did not rely much on layered concepts, such as Shallow, Drive, Mesh, etc, preferring instead to rely on vertical stem packages in both his quick and drop back games. The reason for this is very simple: Erickson never wanted to stop running the ball; he simply wanted to create defensive structures that would enable him to run the ball effectively inside. This is why Erickson from the very beginning emphasized stretching the defense from sideline to sideline, not only with formations, but concepts as well. Formations and splits that would effectively center the defense by inviting it to align players closely to the LOS were jettisoned in favor of five very basic environments that by alignment would engender some type of a Nickel response.

Diagram I. Tight End / Slot

Diagram II. Trips Closed (TE to the boundary)

Diagram III. Trey

Diagram IV. 3X2 (with Y or T Flexed or in the Slot)

Diagram V. 3X2 (with Y in the Formation)

And because Erickson never wanted to bring the defense towards the ball, his passing game, by design, was designed to create an environment that would stretch the field horizontally, which he would then attack vertically. Consequently, Erickson eschewed routes that could possibly negate the horizontal stretch of his formations, for those that would always “push” the defense off the ball, creating even more vertical space between it and the offense.

Does this mean that Erickson’s one-back was not a ball-control offense, that it was always trying to go for the deep shot? No, only that he sought a way of throwing the ball that would not draw the defense towards the formation, and thus, towards the ball. As a result, what you see is a pass offense based around vertical stems, be they seams and benders, or option routes paired with posts and digs over top.

Now, before continuing, I want to head a potential problem off at the pass: rightfully, many coaches would look at this and say that without an aggressive shallow or drive game, how did he manage to control the linebackers? After all, this is essentially the problem Northwestern had a decade ago after their first big year in the spread offense; they had a half-field passing game to either side of the formation, but with nothing over the middle because of wide splits their receivers took. For this, much more so than Northwestern, Erickson used option routes that effectively prevented the linebackers from providing hard and aggressive run support.

So what does any of this have to do with Noel Mazzone? I think what we need to remember is that for a while, and even recently, when coaches hear Mazzone’s name they equate it not just with Snag, but with shallows and other layered concepts. And there is undoubtedly a great deal of truth to this, because for a while shallows and crossers were the bread and butter staples of any Mazzone offense; and while he recognized the need to get vertical even then to prevent people from squatting on his underneath stuff, it was, as will be covered in a future post, usually paired on the back side of his shallows. But shallows are not what characterize Arizona State’s current offense; in fact, one can say that while shallows and drives remain an important part of Mazzone’s current offense, they now play a decidedly more secondary role to his Arizona State’s Vertical game. And this is why, I think, Mazzone was so attractive to Erickson, because Mazzone’s current offensive thinking, from the role formations and verticals, to a simple, yet effective inside zone running game, effectively is entirely in synch with Erickson’s base offensive values.

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