Probably the most interesting spring practice in the state of Florida took place in Gainesville last month. With the Gators installing coordinator Brent Pease's new offense and trying to pick between two blue chip quarterbacks in Jacoby Brisset and Jeff Driskell, there was plenty of drama to go around. Today we're going to spend some time breaking down the X's and O's of the Gators' spring game and making some educated guesses as to what things will look like in the fall.
Likely the biggest question going in from a schematic standpoint was just how much the Gators offense would look like Boise State, where Pease was the OC in 2010 and wide receivers coach from 2006 to 2009. Before we answer that question we have to be clear on exactly what the Boise offense is. First and foremost, Boise State is not a pass happy Air Raid offense or run oriented spread team like Oregon or Clemson. For an extremely informative and in-depth breakdown of Boise's offense approach, check out Breaking Down Boise. Featured on Chris Brown's excellent Smart Football blog, the article was written by a high school defensive coordinator who visited with the Virginia Tech staff while they were preparing for their season opening game against Boise in 2010. To make an extremely brief summary, Boise is a fundamentally pro style offense, but they do not have any particular "system". To be sure, Boise has their base plays, their counters, and their constraint plays like all offenses, but they draw them from many different styles of offense and at first blush they do not seem obviously related. The thing that ties all the disparate plays together is a consistent use of pre-snap motion and a fundamental philosophy of using formations and motions to create advantages in leverage, numbers and personnel mismatches. Nole fans should note that although the specific plays and formations are different, many of the underlying philosophies are the same as those Jimbo Fisher uses at FSU.
So, based on what we saw in the Orange and Blue Debut, will the Gators offensive design look like Boise? In a word, yes. Whether the results will be similar is anyone's guess (I would suspect no, initially.), but the similarities were clear. Nearly every snap in the first half featured one or more motions or shifts before the snap, some with no apparent purpose, but many clearly designed to try and create leverage advantages for the offense. We'll break down a run and a pass play to see how this works.
For the run play, we'll take a look at the Gators second play from scrimmage.
As you can see, it's a very successful run wide into the boundary (This is another area where Boise and FSU are similar as both love to run wide to the short side of the field.), but the pre-snap motions set the defense up for a big play. As we can see below, when the Gators break the huddle, they are in a fairly standard 11 personel (1 back, 1 tight end) look with two receivers to one side, the tight end and another receiver to the other, and the running back and quarterback aligned in a pistol look. This is a balanced passing formation and a strong downhill run look that threatens a run somewhere inside the tackles.
Next, Brissett motions the running back to align next to him on his left side. Now, they are aligned in a shotgun set with the running back to the weak side. This alignment is still balanced from a passing perspective but now it has shifted to a formation that threatens the flanks in the running game, either by an off tackle run to the right, or a speed option to the left. The formation is still fairly balanced, so the defense is not forced to react... yet.
Finally, the receiver to the tight end side motions across the formation. Now the defense must react as the offense has 4 of the 5 eligible receivers (3 receivers and the back) to the field. If they do not shift the offense has a major numbers advantage in the passing game. On this particular play the Gator defense is playing man, so the corner runs with the receiver. Now the offense has exactly what they want. They have maneuvered the defense into presenting a soft edge, with only one back 7 defender outside the hash in the boundary. There is now a huge swath of daylight for the back to run to. They pull the center and the playside guard and hit a big play.
You might ask why they needed to motion the receiver across the formation. Couldn't they simply have the receiver block the corner? Well, yes. And if they expected a zone defense, that's exactly what they would do. However, even if the corner is blocked effectively, it would still change the back's path slightly and turn him back more towards the pursuing defenders. By voiding that defender they gave themselves a much better chance of hitting a big play.
Next, we'll look at a passing play. This is a simple stick play, a staple of pro-style, west coast and Air Raid offenses. The tight end is going to run a stick route at about six yards, getting upfield to his depth, then planting his foot and turning inside back to the QB and waiting for the ball. The back runs a flat route. The goal here is to create a horizontal stretch against a zone defense.
The play is unsuccessful for a number of reasons (Late snap, late throw, and good defense mostly.), but how they set it up with motion is again interesting. When they break the huddle they are again in 11 personnel, but now they are initially set in a quads look, with three receivers and the tight end to the field. The only eligible receiver to the weak side of the formation is the running back. The defense is respecting this with only one backer outside the hash to the boundary side.
Now, we can see the tight end has shifted over to what had been the weak side of the formation. If the defense had been playing zone the backers would have maintained their order, but redeployed over towards the short side of the field. Stick would have been a great play as there likely would have been one backer forced to decide whether to cover the tight end on the hash or the back running to the flat. Unfortunately for the offense, the defense was not playing zone. The backer who was aligned over the tight end in the original alignment ran with the tight end and critically, ended up outside the backer who was originally to that side. The two backers communicate and confirm their assignments at this point, but they might as well have jumped up and down and screamed "We're playing man!" If the offense had snapped the ball immediately, they may have caught the two backers confused as to who was taking which player, but by allowing the defense to settle they have lost that opportunity. At this point Jacoby Brissett needs to either focus on the backside of the play if he has a good man-beater route over there, or check to a different play.
Stick is not a good play against tight man coverage, especially if it's not a good matchup. Brissett completes the bungling of the play by throwing late. If this were not an intersquad scrimmage the tight end would get broken in half on this play.
So, as we can see from these examples, the Gators offense is using fairly basic plays, but using motion and formations to stress the defense.
Another interesting tactic the Gators showed is to have run personnel in the game but line them up in passing formations. At times, the Gators were in 22 personnel (2 backs and 2 tight ends) but they lined up in a 5 wide formation with an empty backfield. This is effective disguise if your backs and tight ends present mismatch problems against opposing linebackers in space. With the possible exception of Trey Burton and Jordan Reed, this is not really the case for the Gators. My guess is that during the season they will come out in this set to move defenders out of the box, then run up the middle.
The narrow broadcast angles make it difficult to draw many conclusions about what kind of passing plays the Gators were running, but there seemed to be a predominance of horizontal stretch concepts (levels, stick), and vertical stretch/hi-lo concepts (smash, flood). In the running game, they were primarily a zone team, with some power and toss sweeps mixed in. They did a fair amount of play action roll outs and zone read with Driskel, though there seemed to be a good deal less motion on his series. Either he or the players in on his possesions may have had some difficulty with the added complexity/verbiage.
It is dangerous to make broad assumptions from spring games, especially as it relates to the quality of teams. With that being said, you are who you are from a base scheme standpoint. It seems pretty clear that the Florida offense will be predominantly pro-style, with some spread ideas mixed in, and will make extensive use of pre-snap motion to try and create leverage and numbers advantages.
As we saw in the breakdown of the passing play, there are downsides to this approach. The quarterback must be an extension of the offensive play caller on the field. He must, on receiving the play, know what they are trying to achieve with the motion and whether or not they have gotten what they're looking for. The more motion and disguise you add to an offense the more complex it becomes for each individual player. The motion rules are designed to be as simple as possible, but there is no doubt that it is an additional burden beyond offenses that do not use as much of it. Players who are worried about where to line up will not play fast.
Will Muschamp has made no bones about the fact that he wants to be a power running team, and he now has a team that is at least plausibly suited to that style of play. The Gators have a solid offensive line and two backs in Gillislee and Mack Brown who can run between the tackles. They have size and physicality at tight end and full back. Their lack of talented depth at receiver has been a topic of much discussion on this site and there was nothing in the Gators spring game to dissuade anyone of that. Further, their QBs while certainly improved, didn't show much propensity to throw the ball downfield except on plays where they were picking on walk-on DBs. While they may throw it around the park against overmatched teams, against defenses with a pulse, expect the Gators to run the ball at at least a 60% clip, give their quarterbacks easy completions, and try to generate big plays via play action and "shot" plays.