Throughout spring practices and the first days of fall camp at Arizona State, Sun Devil players and coaches have insisted first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey's scheme isn't that different from that of his predecessor Mike Norvell's.
Part of ASU head coach Todd Graham's rationale for hiring Lindsey was the coordinator's familiarity with the terminology Graham's offensive coaches have used throughout his career.
Lindsey's baseline knowledge of Graham's preferred system was gleaned working as an assistant under Graham protege Gus Malzahn at Auburn, but has been fine-tuned since Lindsey arrived at ASU.
A defensive coach at heart, Graham has clear-cut ideas of how an offense should run. Those ideas have formed through Graham's career, but according to ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, began to take on a more definite shape when Graham hired Malzahn as the offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2007.
"The greatest thing that ever happened to coach and I was when we hired Gus Malzahn at Tulsa," Patterson said. "Those people, the Air Raid guys, the Gus Malzahn's, the hurry-up, no-huddle, they changed football. Forever probably. I don't ever see it going back any other way any time soon."
Without experience under Malzahn, it's fair to say Lindsey wouldn't hold the title of ASU's offensive coordinator. Without experiences outside of Malzahn's system, though, it's fair to say Lindsey wouldn't be nearly the coach he is today.
Lindsey is much more than a branch on the Graham-Malzahn coaching tree. He's a football sponge, who has soaked up the ideas of dozens of different offensive minds.
As the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss last season, Lindsey coordinated one of the nation's most balanced attacks. With a 4,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard rushers, Lindsey's base 11-personnel set tormented Conference USA opponents.
Yet when Lindsey reflects on his career, one of the guiding minds who helped him develop his offensive philosophy isn't a name synonymous with the Air Raid evolution. In fact, the coach Lindsey credits for his maturation is former Alabama high school coach John Mothershed, whose scheme might be considered the antithesis of the Air Raid.
As an assistant under Mothershed at Deshler High School, Lindsey helped coordinate a Winged-T offense, a multiple-tight end, multiple-back scheme hyper-emphasizing the run game.
As a former high school coach, Lindsey remembers the days of convincing students to try out for the football team, which is perhaps why Mothershed's scheme influenced Lindsey so much.
"The interesting thing about him (Mothershed) was it was hey, let’s build the offense around our players," Lindsey said. "And I still find myself saying the same thing today. You have to build the offense around your playmakers and that's what we’re doing here at Arizona State. I think any good coach does that. Guys say that they’re this or they’re that, but at the end of the day, it’s about getting the ball to your playmakers.”
Much like his days as a high school coach, Lindsey still plays with the cards he was dealt. In his first season as ASU's offensive coordinator, Lindsey inherits an offense breaking in a new quarterback and four new starting offensive linemen, but one with two veteran running backs and an experienced tight end corps.
The Sun Devils' offensive strengths suggest Lindsey may break away from the base 11-personnel set Graham, Malzahn, and Lindsey himself have used in recent years, mostly because that's what his new personnel calls for.
ASU has floated the idea of using two backs at once, and throughout fall camp, the Sun Devils have incorporated a number of 12-personnel sets as well. The personnel groupings that put ASU's veteran playmakers on the field are derived mostly from the mold of a Pro-Style offense, and Lindsey doesn't lack for experience in that regard.
"When I left there (Auburn) and got the chance to go to Southern Miss with Todd Monken who had been quote--an Air Raid guy at Oklahoma State--but he had a lot of Pro background too you know with the Jacksonville Jaguars," Lindsey said. "So it’s been kind of fun, you try to pick and choose the things you like from each and then see what fits your personnel and then come in here and we wanted to be who Coach Graham is."
Rebuilding the run game
Graham's preferred offensive identity is built on a strong running game, and ASU seemingly has the backs in place to make its head coach's wish a reality.
After Norvell's departure in December, Ballage said the opportunity to play in Lindsey's offense sparked excitement even before Lindsey officially accepted ASU's offer. With Lindsey's name springing up in rumors and hallway conversations in December, Ballage did some digging, and discovered the success the candidate's running backs had in his previous gig.
“It’s hard to ignore it," Ballage said. "I noticed that before we even hired Coach Lindsey. You know, just kind of hearing his name around the building when we were looking for a new offensive coordinator and kind of hearing people whisper about the two 1,000-yard rushers in one offense, it’s kind of hard to ignore."
The raw rushing statistics Ito Smith and Jalen Richard racked up in Southern Miss' 2015 offense marked a clear starting point for Ballage, but the receiving totals the backs recorded also stood out. Smith and Richard combined for 79 catches last year, while Ballage netted just 12 receptions in Norvell's scheme.
"Last year I don’t think that we were involved in the passing game enough, as much as we should have been," Ballage said of ASU's running backs. "Both Demario (Richard) and I, Nick (Ralston) and also running backs that are coming up have the ability to catch a five-yard pass and take it for 40, or take it for 60, or take it for 80.”
While Ballage's early-season bout with mononucleosis took a cut from the numbers the Colorado native was capable of producing, both he and Richard have focused on maintaining their health in preseason camp.
Richard was sidelined with an ankle injury for part of last week, but ditched a non-contact jersey on Friday and participated in the team's regular warm up line. With a new running backs coach in John Simon monitoring every rep the players take in scrimmages, team periods and individual drills throughout camp, ASU is dead-set on keeping its top skill players healthy, and Lindsey is focused on finding creative ways to get them the ball.
“If you look at the NFL, you don’t see too many running backs picked early in the draft and there’s a reason for that, right," Lindsey said. "The value of what, the livelihood of those guys and it’s important and we’ve tried to make the point with both of these kids, they need each other. And next year, they’ll need each other again. And then when they move on, it’ll be two other guys who need each other again."
Breeding confidence through competition
While he's been asked about the process of managing a pair of talented running backs throughout the offseason, Lindsey joked he would never grow tired of talking about Richard and Ballage.
On the flip side, Lindsey has also been asked to dive deeper into the discussion of ASU's on-going quarterback battle, and he's been reasonably vague on the subject.
It's unlike Graham or his assistants to dive into the specifics of a player-to-player competition, as ASU appears committed to allowing the race for the starting job to play out as long as the team possibly needs it to.
Early in camp, White called Lindsey the best coach (aside from his dad) he's ever worked with, and at ASU media day, White doubled down on his assessment.
"On the field, he’s (Lindsey) just a great teacher, he knows you’re going to make some mistakes and obviously there’s some mistakes that have a little more weight to them than others and he’s going to get upset," White said. "That’s part of the game, but he’s a really good teacher where we can go over something, he’s going to help you on the field, but he’s also going to put you in those hectic situations in order for you to learn and gain some experience from that.”
Wilkins, meanwhile, discussed the challenge Lindsey gave to his quarterbacks to cut down on repeated mistakes. As White said, mistakes are unavoidable for inexperienced players, and Wilkins said Lindsey has helped him focus on avoiding the same mistake twice.
"Each and every day, we’re obviously going to make some mistakes and you’ve got to learn from those mistakes and not make those mistakes again and that’s what makes great quarterbacks great," Wilkins said. "It’s not making the same mistakes over and over.”
Both Wilkins and White have emerged from the first two weeks of fall camp with their confidence intact, and Lindsey has taken note. What Lindsey said has made the competition so close thus far is each quarterback's ability to impress their coaches on a daily basis. If one quarterback suffers through an off day, that player has typically returned with a much stronger performance in the following practices, which is a testament to the duo's focus on learning from each decision they make.
With fewer than three weeks to go until the season opener, both Wilkins and White appear to be at peace with where they stand in a competition that only figures to gain in intensity.
The quarterbacks have taken on the demeanor of their coordinator, and White said they'll be happy to let the offense flow as it's intended to this fall.
“I’m not really stressed, I’m not really putting pressure on it," White said. "Obviously we’re in the midst of a quarterback competition and we know that a guy is going to be named or whatever happens, a guy is going to go out, we could both, I don’t know what it is, but like I said, I’m very confident in myself. I’m very blessed to be in this opportunity with these guys. I know we’re battling it out right now, and the coaches know where we stand right now, but every day we want to get better and every day we want to take care of the ball and push each other.”
Regardless of who wins the starting job, the quarterback who leads ASU this fall will be engineering an offense built by many different minds, with concepts blended from many different schemes.
While the Sun Devils' personnel lends itself to a run-based offensive philosophy early in the season, player development and weekly game plans will ultimately shape the scheme for a coordinator who knows variety is the spice of offense--and life.
"Each week brings a different animal, a different defense or a different style of play," Lindsey said. "Or as a team, as a staff, what it’s going to take to win that week. You play a team like Stanford, there’s one thought, you play a team like Oregon who’s going to play as fast as they can and snap it, then there’s another thought. I think it’s important for us to be multiple.”