Understanding the spread option offense

When Cal head coach Jeff Tedford announced plans to use the spread option offense, many Bear fans were restrained in their enthusiasm. Some feared that Cal would adopt a Texas Tech-like offense with five receivers and wide splits. To others, the spread option brought back nightmares of the ill-fated dalliance with the run-and-shoot in 1981.

Even for those who respect Tedford's tactical acumen were scratching their heads and wondering, why, based on the 2005 season, given the way that the team ran and the team passed, would the team want to put in an offense that would call for more passing?  Under some circumstances it might make sense to throw the ball 40 times a game, but the Bears have Marshawn Lynch, Cal's most gifted running back since Chuck Muncie, as in Heisman Trophy candidate Marshawn Lynch.  And besides, the spread option would seem to need a quarterback that can run - which would not appear to be one of probable starting quarterback Nate Longshore's strengths.

The spread option offense became the offense du jour for good reason.   Utah and West Virginia, two teams that will never pack their rosters with four- and five-star recruits, used it to get into a BCS bowl and win.  Bowling Green turned their program around and flirted with the Top 20 for a couple of weeks with it.   Texas had the perfect quarterback for the spread option and used elements of it to help win a national championship.  Oregon, which had struggled after Tedford's departure, implemented the offense and finished last season with a 10-2 record.  The basic idea is to use three and four wide receivers, which keeps defenses from stacking the box or crowding the middle of the field.   Defenses are forced to cover the receivers, which makes it easier for the rushing attack to find open space.  If the defensive backs cheat off of the receivers, then the quarterback can keep throwing hitches and bubble screens until the defense decides to take them seriously.  The offense is so different from what most teams run, that just given two or three practice sessions to prepare for it, defenses have a difficult time preparing for it.

Teams that run the spread option run something quite a bit different than what Texas Tech uses. Where as the Red Raiders are throwing the ball 50 to 55 times a game every game, a spread option team almost never throws the ball that much.  It offers sufficient flexiblity that some teams, such as last year's Oregon team use it and end up gaining 70% of their yardage through the air, while West Virginia uses it differently and last year gained 70% of their yardage on the ground.

Getting to now

In 2004, California's offense had a near-perfect convergence of talent and experience.   With a first-round NFL draft choice at quarterback at Aaron Rodgers, one of the Pac-10's all-time great running back tandems in J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch, a veteran group of receivers led by Geoff McArthur, and a dominant front line, the Bears crushed teams week after week.  Because of its superiority, it rarely had to draw upon the gadgetry that Tedford occasionally used during his first two years.  The team executed so well that it could afford to be conservative. If the offensive line is consistently knocking defenses back, there's no need to try a fleaflicker or a reverse, when a running back probably even more likely to race through a hole for a big gain.

Last year, the Bears returned most of their front line, but the all-time single season rushing leader was gone, as was the all-time passer rating leader and the all-time leading receiver.  While there were talented people waiting to fill the voids, replacing top-level experienced players doesn't happen overnight.  Understandably, the Cal offense struggled and at times seemed to be sticking to the 2004 level of conservatism despite facing an entirely different reality. The 2004 team didn't need to have a lot of creative ways to get the ball to Arrington and McArthur.  However last year's team, especially with the various issues affecting the quarterback position, could have been helped by some different low-risk plays to Lynch and Jackson.  While the Bears did well against lesser opposition, better teams could stack the box, jam the receivers, and take their chances.

Considering that all of the skill position players were returning but the offensive line had to be rebuilt, Cal could either continue using their current schemes, adding a flourish here and there and hope that another year in the system will help the unit to become more efficient and productive or they could choose to go in another direction.

Maybe it was the 2003 game against Utah when the Bears rallied from an early deficit to take a late lead, only to see the Utes start snapping to the ball to their wide receiver to change the game's momentum that made the first impression.  Utah wasn't the biggest team or the fastest team the Bears' faced that year, but with Urban Meyer's big ball of tricks, they were certainly one of the most difficult to defend.  Or maybe it was Tedford his former team, Oregon, have success with the spread option in its first year without having a quarterback who was a significant threat to run.  It also could have been watching Northwestern give Big 10 teams fits despite having talent disadvantages compared to most of the rest of the conference.

Whatever the case might be, Tedford didn't simply decide to visit a few coaches in the offseason to try to pick up a nuance or two, he hired an offensive coordinator to implement the spread option.

Four key moments in spread option history

Depending on who you read, the spread option had its origins in one of two places. One was with Bill Snyder's work with Kansas State in 1993 with a read play off the counter - where the offense would pull the guard and tackle, and let the defensive end rush in. At the moment of handoff, the quarterback had to read the defensive end to see if the end is chasing the running back.  If the end chases the running back, the quarterback pulls the ball back and runs with it. If the end stays outside or appears headed for the quarterback, he hands the ball off. Urban Meyer took those concepts and used them at Colorado State, where he was an assistant, and carried them with him to head coaching jobs that he's had at Bowling Green, Utah, and now Florida. The other is with West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez, who had been using some version of it since the early 90s when he was the head coach at Division II Glenville State, who continued his work with that offense when he was an assistant at Tulane and Clemson, before becoming head coach in Morgantown in 2001. Meyer's read play worked about the same as Rodriguez' zone play - with the quarterback having to read the defensive end. 

Every coach experiments with offenses, and once an offense is successful, everybody wants to emulate it.  Whether it's the single wing, wishbone, the veer, or the West Coast offense, once an offense is successful, more and more teams will adopt it until defenses catch up with it. While the spread option is the latest wave, there are a few key events that helped propel into being college football's latest big thing.

1.  Utah, Urban Meyer and Alex Smith

One reason why offenses catch on is because they allow teams that don't have the depth and talent of other teams to have an edge on their opponents.  If a team could win consistently by running the ball up the middle for five yards play after play after play, that's all they'd ever do.  Most teams can't, so they diversify their offense with different formations and different plays to catch the defense off-guard.  During a season, a team might have two or three days to prepare its defense for the upcoming opponent's offense.  If every team is running the I-formation with two wide receivers and a tight end, defensive game plans are considerably easier to develop than they are when teams are running all sorts of different offenses.

The spread option was different enough that Urban Meyer was able to build Bowling Green from a team went 2-9 in the season before he started, to a team that was in the Top 20 for a couple of weeks two years later.  In 2003, he went to Utah and with a team that was 4-7 in 2002, guided the team to a 10-2 record in 2003 and a 12-0 record in 2004 which was capped off by a BCS bowl victory and a #4 ranking at season's end.  Additionally, Alex Smith threw for 2,952 yards and ran for 631 yards, while finishing 2nd in the nation in passing efficiency, fourth in the Heisman voting, and becoming the NFL's #1 overall draft choice in 2005. 

Meyer took two teams that didn't have anywhere near the highly-touted level of talent that a lot of traditional powers have, turned their fortunes around, and established himself as college football's latest genius.

2. Vince Young

Texas is not a spread option team, but they took one element of it, the read (or the zone) paired it up with an ideal quarterback for it (Vince Young), and rode it all the way to the National Championship. If a team wins a national championship, everything it does is legitimized, dissected, and becomes subject to imitation. The threat of Young running, plus the fact that his size and speed made him difficult for a lone defender to bring down, kept defenses from overcommitting to the middle of the field which helped Ramonce Taylor and Jamaal Charles combine for nearly 1,400 yards.  Last season, Young passed for 3,036 yards and ran for 1,050, whle accounting for 38 touchdowns.  Texas may continue to run the read option this year, but they'll be significantly easier to defend.

3. 2006 Sugar Bowl - West Virginia 38, Georgia 35

With the Big East depleted by the defections of Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami, it kept its BCS bid, much to the dismay of the other power conferences that had higher ranked at-large teams that were ostensibly more deserving of playing in a BCS game.   The final 2005 BCS standings had West Virginia at 11th, which did nothing to help #5-Oregon, #8-Miami, #9-Auburn or #10 Virginia Tech - all of who got shut out from BCS games - feel better about things.   While some people thought that Georgia would come in and give West Virginia a big "undeserving" stamp across the forehead, the Mountaineers ran for an astounding 382 yards against the Bulldogs in a 38-35 win.   Even though Georgia had a few weeks to prepare for the intricacies of Rodriguez' spread option offense, it still couldn't prevent a fusillade of  backs from sprinting into the secondary.   Coming into the game, Georgia's defense allowed 298 yards a game which was the sixth-best in the country. West Virginia gained 502 yards against Georgia; only one other Bulldog opponent gained more than 400 yards all season.  With West Virginia having national championship aspirations this season, during the offseason it became a popular destination from other team's coaches.

4.  Woodrow Dantzler

While having a quarterback who can execute the read and be fast enough to get a decent gain went without saying for Rich Rodriguez, it wasn't until he had Woodrow Dantzler at Clemson that gave the offense the dimension it needed from becoming very good to becoming lethal.  Dantzler was a quarterback who also was an exceptional runner.  In 2000, Dantzler threw for 1,871 yards and ran for 1,028 yards, which made him the team's leading rusher. That year, Clemson finished 9-3 which provided Rodriguez a springboard to the head job at West Virginia.

Details

With enough creativity in formations and ball-handling as well as a fast-thinking quarterback, it's possible for the spread option to give the defense as many options to defend as a veer or wishbone attack without taking away the threat of the forward pass.   Because it allows for one-back, four-receiver sets, and occassionally five-receiver sets with an empty backfield, it causes matchup problems for defenses in standard three-linebacker, four-defensive back formations.

During the course of a game, there'll be a certain number of plays when a receiver is matched up against a linebacker or a safety is forced to play closer to the line of scrimmage to matchup against a receiver.  If the safety plays too far off the line,   the receiver's wide open for a short pass.  If the safety plays too close to the line, it leaves the defense susceptible to a running play and takes away some of the defense's ability to roll someone over to provide support on a deep pass play. 

As the offense is rotating people in and out of the game and using them in different formations, it's increasingly different for a different to have the right matchups on the field all of the time.  The success of the spread option offense will largely depend on a team's ability to identify those mismatches and take advantage of them. 

This spring, Tedford travelled to Florida and West Virginia to observe practices and learn more about the spread option offense.

A lot of what Meyer and Rodriguez emphasize with the offense is mentioned in two recent college football coaching manuals.  The manuals consist of transcripts from Nike Coaches Clinics.  In the "2005 Coach of the Year Clinics Football Manual", Urban Meyer wrote "Read, Read Option and the Shovel Pass," while Rich Rodriguez contributed "Shotgun Wide Open Spread Offense."  In the "2004 Coach of The Year Clinics Football Manual," Meyer's talk was called "Establishing the Spread Offense."

Based on those three chapters, here's a rough idea of what Tedford might have come away with after his two visits.

What five things Urban Meyer might have told Jeff Tedford

1.  Force the defense to cover the outside receivers.

One motivation behind using the spread option is to open up the middle of the field.   While having three and four wide receivers helps achieve that, the offense needs to run enough plays to them to keep defenders from cheating on the run.  Bubble screens and other short passes are relatively low-risk pass plays that can become big gains with proper execution.

2.  Adapt the offense to suit your quarterbacks' skills.

Just because the starting quarterback doesn't run like a deer doesn't mean that the spread option can't be effective.  At Utah, Alex Smith ran for 452 and 631 yards out of the spread option.  When Urban Meyer left to take the Florida job, he didn't wait to see if the quarterbacks could run the spread option before deciding whether or not to use it.  Chris Leak couldn't run as well as Smith so Meyer modified the offense so Leak wasn't called upon to run as much.  Leak ended up running for 81 yards in 2005 and the Gators won nine games.

3.  Don't be afraid to use an empty set.

With only two days to prepare for a spread option offense, defenses aren't likely to spent too much time preparing for an empty set with five receivers out in the pattern.   Used occasionally, you can see if the defense is inclined to assign a linebacker to guard a receiver, or if they're going to bring in an extra defensive back.  The quarterback also needs to be able to exploit mismatches - either a fast receiver against a linebacker or a slower defensive back or a big receiver against a small defensive back.   A team that effectively runs the ball will force the defense to keep linebackers in the game.  Slipping in an empty set formation can catch the defense off-guard.

4.  Make sure the quarterback can consistently read the safeties.

A quarterback's ablity to read where the safeties line up will determine whether a play's a run or a pass. Let's say that the offense has four wide receivers lined up. Between the hash marks and  at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, the defense will likely have two safeties, one safety, or none as the defense tries to sneak him into the box.  If there are two safeties deep, the offense should have an advantage inside the box; so the offense should run the ball. If there's one safety deep, that means that the four receivers are being guarded man-to-man with a free safety or some sort of zone.  This leaves six people in the box. The offense has five blockers - and the quarterback's read is considered a block. If the numbers are equal then the offense should run.  If there are no safeties deep, that means the defense is playing man-to-man with no free safety. In this case the offense would either run the read option or throw a quick pass.  The faster a team's receivers are, the less likely defenses are to bring their free safety up.

5.  Structure the offense to put the ball into the hands of the team's playmakers.

When most teams want to find different ways of getting the ball to their receivers, they dust off the one reverse play in the playbook and hope they can catch the defense napping.  With the spread option, receivers can run the ball on reverses, becoming the trailing back on an option play, or even take a direct snap. In 2003, Utah was trailing Cal 24-21 and had seen their offense sputter in the third quarter.  On a 1st-and-10 from the Cal 44, Utah called a direct snap to wide receiver Paris Warren who threw an incomplete pass. On the next play they called another direct snap to him that resulted in a 29-yard run.  This shook the Bears up enough to have them burn a timeout. The play right after, Utah threw to Warren, and two plays after that he carried the ball on another run.  Although the Utes were held to a field goal, it set up the following possession - a 10-play, 63-yard drive that put Utah up 31-24.  With the Cal having expended another timeout on that possession, it meant that going into the last possession, it had to 80 yards in 1:06, with just one time out left.

What five things Rich Rodriguez might have told Jeff Tedford.

1.    Run what you can execute.

Implementing a new offense can be difficult especially if players' roles change significantly from the previous year/offense.  Fit the offensive schemes to the skills that the players have, and take advantage of things that the quarterback does well.   The offense has to be something that the players can understand and execute.   If the players can't execute certain plays, don't run them.

2.    Change tempo.

By going no-huddle and accelerating the pace of the offense, several things happen:   the defense that appeared on the previous down will often be the same defense that appears on the next down because the defense hasn't had time to huddle and hasn't had a chance to rotate its substitutions. Quick snap counts also keeps the defense from communicating adjustments. A fast tempo also makes conditioning a factor in the early going.  During practices, West Virginia will run as many as 13 plays during a five-minute period, most teams might run seven or eight.

3.   Design the offense to get the ball to your best players.

Last year, West Virginia had two exceptional players, running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White.  White was one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in the country last season. In addition to running the standard read option/zone play where the quarterback reads the lineman and has the option of taking the ball around the end, they have a play that look similar but is actually a trap play.  With the defense conditioned to look to one corner of the line for running back and the other corner of the line for the quarterback running off the read option, a trap play by a fast quarterback can catch defenses, and even cameramen, by surprise (as you'll see later).

4.   Make sure that the running backs are able to read the end and tackle.

In the zone running play, the running back doesn't simply run as fast as he can through the first hole he sees. In this play, he has to be patient and follow the blocking.   As the running back goes  the outside, he has to get to the outside of the offensive tackle.  If the defensive end is blocked, the running back takes the ball outside.  If the defensive end beats his block, then the running back has to see what's happened with the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle has been walled off or blocked, the running back cuts between the tackle and the guard. If the defensive tackle has slid over to the hole between the tackle and the guard, the running back breaks it back behind the guard and the center.  Conceptually, it sounds logical, but doing this in real time is trickier than it sounds.  Learning this to the point where it becomes instinctive is something that is going to require repeated drills.

5.  Three-step drop timing and shotgun timing should be about the same.

A lot of this depends on the efficiency of the shotgun snap. If the quarterback knows that the snap is perfect, he can keep his eyes on the coverage.  If there's any degree of uncertainty by the quarterback, his eyes have to adjust to the ball and then he has to readjust his vision to look downfield. If the snap is good, the quarterback should be able to get the ball off in the same time or faster than with a three-step drop.

(Note: All three essays include detailed discussions about the role of offensive linemen and their roles, which are too abstruse to be explained here. To read these essays in their entirety, you can purchase the 2005 and 2004 volumes.  The 2005 edition also has a talk called "Quarterback Drills and Techniques" by Jeff Tedford.)

Recent teams statistics using the spread option

The following tables are meant to give statistical breakdowns of teams using the spread option offense.  The idea is to show how passes are distributed among receivers, how well running backs have done both as runners and receivers, how much quarterbacks are called upon to run, and what the total yardage balance is.

Included in this grouping are Urban Meyer's last three teams (Utah 2003-2004, Florida 2005), Mike Dunbar's last two teams (Northwestern 2004-2005), Rich Rodriguez's last two teams (West Virginia 2004-2005), Oregon's first year (2005), and for comparison's sake, Cal's last two seasons.

In almost every case, a team has either using the spread option has either had a 1,000 yard rusher, or a running back tandem that combined for well over 1,000 yards.   Running backs are used as receivers, but with most teams, the backs caught 16 to 20 percent of the team's completions, which is about what Cal's done during the past two years.

While the spread option offense is generally associated with running quarterbacks; Utah and West Virginia's quarterbacks ran for big yardage. Brett Basanez's totals with Northwestern were modest, while Oregon and Florida's quarterbacks ran for relatively little yardage.  Even though the offense might have lost some dimension by not having a quarterback capable of biting off big gains, it was still effective enough for Oregon to finish 10-2 and Florida to finish 9-3 last season.

Something else to pay attention to is that most of the teams in this list threw for quite a few yardage but had very low sack totals. Even though having more receivers means less pass blockers, it doesn't mean that the quarterbacks more susceptible to getting sacked. Northwestern averaged 41 pass attempts per game during the past two years, but allowed slightly more than one sack per game. Utah averaged 32 pass attempts a game during the past two years, but allowed about 1.5 sacks per game. Last year, Oregon averaged 39 pass attempts a game but surrendered only 1.7 sacks a game.

Florida

When Urban Meyer took over at Florida, he installed the spread option offense with Chris Leak at quarterback.  Leak was entrenched as the starting quarterback, but he wasn't a quarterback who could make plays with his feet like Alex Smith.  Leak's running numbers are lower than any other quarterback listed here who ran the spread option - but that did not prevent him from being a moderately effective quarterback.  Although the Gators averaged less than 400 yards a game,  Florida's team cut their interceptions from 12 to 7, and Leak still managed to throw for 2,639 yards and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is a solid 20-to-6.  Even though 2005 could have been considered a retooling year for the offense, Florida still came out of it with nine wins. Nonetheless, the offense failed to meet Meyer's lofty expectations and his frustration reached the point that in the latter part of the season, he scaled down his offense considerably.  The charts for Utah and Northwestern show that quarterbacks usually make improvement after another year of familiarity of running the spread option. Even so, it's unlikely that Leak will put up Smith-like running totals in 2006. 

2005 Florida
Top two RBs/% total rushing DeShawn Wynn (621) + Marcus Manson (365) = 986/1761  (56.0%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Chad Jackson (88) + Dallas Baker (52) + Jemalle Cornelius (29) = 169/241 (70.1%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Kestahn Moore (13) + DeShawn Wynn (12) = 25/241 (10.4%)
QB running Josh Portis (163) + Chris Leak (81) = 244 (20.3 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 1761 run + 2720 pass = 4481 total (39.3% run/60.7% pass)
*Gator quarterbacks were sacked 35 times for a total of 224 yards. Florida's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 468 yards or 39.0 yards/game.

Utah

Contrasting Florida with Utah allows the chance to see how differently the Florida numbers compared with the Utah numbers, but also to see how the offense changed after Alex Smith had a year to become more familiar with the spread option. Two things to notice are that the Utes through primarily to their top three receivers and very rarely threw to their running backs. Another thing to notice is that in both years, the quarterback was responsible for 20-to-25% of the team's rushing yardage.  For all of Utah's ritzy passing numbers, they averaged less than 30 pass attempts a game in both 2003 and 2004.   In 2005, the year after Meyer and Smith left, Utah quarterbacks still combined for 579 of Utah's 2142 running yards, which is consistent with the numbers from the previous tw years.  In 2005, Utah's third-leading runner was a wide receiver (Brent Casteel) who had 35 carries for 208 yards, which appear to indicate that he was used as option back from time-to-time. 

2004 Utah

Top two RBs/% total rushing Marty Johnson (802) + Quinto Ganther (654) = 1456/2833  (51.4%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Paris Warren (80) + Steve Savoy (67) + T. Latendresse (27) = 174/232 (75.0%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Marty Johnson (7) + Quinto Ganther (7) = 14/232 (6.0%)
QB running Alex Smith (631) + Brian Johnson (92) = 723 (60.2 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 2833 run + 3164 pass = 5997 total (47.2% run/52.3% pass)
*Ute quarterbacks were sacked 20 times for a total of 98 yards. Utah's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 821 yards or 68.4 yards/game.

 

2003 Utah

Top two RBs/% total rushing Brandon Warfield (976) + Mike Liti (207) = 1183/1926  (61.4%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Paris Warren (76) + Steve Savoy (40) + T. Latendresse (32) = 148/203 (72.9%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Brandon Warfield (7) + Mike Liti (3) = 10/241 (10.4%)
QB running Alex Smith (452) + Brett Elliott (73) = 525 (43.7 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 1926 run + 2568 pass = 4494 total (42.9.% run/57.1% pass)
*Ute quarterbacks were sacked 16 times for a total of 118 yards. Utah's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 643 yards or 53.6 yards/game.

Northwestern

From 2004 to 2005, Northwestern increased its offensive output by nearly 100 yards a game, with most of the increase coming in the passing game. Some elements remained the same: a workhorse running back getting most of the carries and catching a lot of passes, and a roughly 60% pass/40% run yardage  breakdown.  However as quarterback Brett Basanez became more comfortable in the system, he increased his rushing yardage from 258 to 423, as did his pass efficiency.  An offense which averaged 39 attempts a game and 237 yards a game in 2004, went to 43 attempts a game and 307 yards a game in 2005.   here we see another example of where a team using the spread option offense has a very low sack ratio. The Wildcats only allowed 11 sacks while attempting 512 passes.   There's no need to worry about Dunbar falling in love with the passing attack at the expense of the running game. As the past two seasons would indicate, Northwestern was very productive with its running game.

2005 Northwestern

Top two RBs/% total rushing Tyrell Sutton (1474) + Gerard Hamlett (174) = 1648/2323  (70.9%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Shaun Herbert (79) + Jonathan Fields (60) + Mark Philmore (55) = 194/320 (60.6%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Tyrell Sutton (44) + Brandon Roberson (8) = 52/320 (16.3%)
QB running Brett Basanez (423) + C.J. Bacher (25) = 448 (37.3 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 2323 run + 3681 pass = 6044 total (38.4% run/61.6% pass)
*Wildcat quarterbacks were sacked 11 times for a total of 82 yards. Northwestern's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 530 yards or 44.2 yards/game.

 

2004 Northwestern

Top two RBs/% total rushing Noah Herron (1381) + Terrell Jordan (315) = 1696/2065  (82.1%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Mark Philmore (54) + Jonathan Fields (48) + Shaun Herbert (32) = 134/249 (53.8%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Noah Herron (36) + Terrell Jordan (4) = 40/249 (16.1%)
QB running Brett Basanez (258) + Chris Malleo (26) = 284 (23.7 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 2065 run + 2848 pass = 4913 total (42.0% run/58.0% pass)
*Wildcat quarterbacks were sacked 12 times for a total of 69 yards. Northwestern's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 353 yards or 29.4 yards/game.

West Virginia

West Virginia's the one team that consistently runs out of the formation for big yardage. In Rich Rodriguez's last four years there, the Mountaineers have run for 280, 212, 266, and 259 yards a game.  Moreso than any other spread option team, the quarterback is a big element of the team's running attack.  West Virginia averaged just 16 pass attempts a game and four of its top receivers averaged less than 10 yards a reception.  If you're looking for a second team to root for and entertainment value is a key criteria, West Virginia would be a very good choice.

2005 West Virginia

Top two RBs/% total rushing Steve Slaton (1128) + Owen Schmitt (380) = 1508/3269  (46.1%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Brandon Myles (34) + Darius Reynaud (30) + Vaughn Rivers (6) = 70/122 (57.4%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Steve Slaton (12) + Jason Colson (8) = 20/122 (16.4%)
QB running Patrick White (952) + Adam Bednarik (170) = 1122 (93.5 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 3269 run + 1398 pass = 4667 total (70.0% run/30.0% pass)
*Mountaineer quarterbacks were sacked 18 times for a total of 95 yards. West Virginia's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 1217 yards or 101.4 yards/game.

 

2004 West Virginia

Top two RBs/% total rushing Kay-Jay Harris (825) + Jason Colson (686) = 1411/2781  (54.3%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Chris Henry (49) + M. Henderson (17) + Eddie Jackson (10) = 76/136 (55.9%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Kay-Jay Harris (16) + Jason Colson (11) = 27/136 (19.8%)
QB running Rasheed Marshall (790) + Charles Hales (-11) = 779 (70.8 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 2781 run + 1802 pass = 4583 total (60.7% run/39.3% pass)
*Mountaineer quarterbacks were sacked 21 times for a total of 121 yards. West Virginia's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 901 yards or 81.9 yards/game.

Oregon

For its first year with the spread offense while mixing it in with its musical quarterback routine, the Ducks did fairly well, finishing with a 10-2 record. Oregon's passing went from 238 yards a game in 2004 to 301 yards a game in 2005.  However their rushing fell from 159 yards a game to 139.  While none of the quarterbacks were spectacular runners, they did well enough to gain a modest amount of yardage and keep the sack total down. Oregon's quarterbacks were sacked just 20 times while attempting 482 passes. 

2005 Oregon

Top two RBs/% total rushing Terrence Whitehead (679) + Jonathan Stewart (188) = 867/1612  (53.8%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Demetrius Williams (59) + James Finley (57) + Tim Day (25) = 141/303 (46.5%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Terrence Whitehead (52) + Terrell Jackson (8) = 60/303 (19.8%)
QB running Kellen Clemens (228) + Dennis Dixon (143) + Brady Leaf (-19) = 352 (29.3 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 1612 run + 3654 pass = 5276 total (30.6% run/69.4% pass)
*Duck quarterbacks were sacked 20 times for a total of 105 yards. Oregon's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 457 yards or 38.1 yards/game.

California

Even though the Cal was faced with breaking a new starting quarterback and replacing its leading rusher and receiver, most of the percentages stayed roughly the same from 2004 to 2005.  The top three receivers caught a little more than half of all receptions,   the top two running backs caught about one-sixth of all completions and the quarterbacks grossed about 20 yards a game on the ground.  The Bears' two leading rushers combined for 76% of team's rushing yardage; while with most of the spread option teams listed here the two top two running backs combined for just over half of the team's rushing yards, partly due to teams that had quarterbacks that ran for a lot of yardage.   The one noticeable exception - Northwestern. 

2005 California

Top two RBs/% total rushing Marshawn Lynch (1246) + Justin Forsett (999) = 2145/2823  (76.0%)
Top three WRs/% total catches DeSean Jackson (38) + Robert Jordan (34) + Lavelle Hawkins (18) = 90/167 (53.9%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches Marshawn Lynch (15) + Chris Manderino (13) = 28/167 (16.8%)
QB running Steve Levy (64) + Joe Ayoob (58) = 122 (10.2 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 2823 run + 2312 pass = 5135 total (55.0% run/45.0% pass)
*Golden Bear quarterbacks were sacked 23 times for a total of 119 yards. Cal's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 241 yards or 20.1 yards/game.

 

2004 California

Top two RBs/% total rushing J.J. Arrington (2018) + Marshawn Lynch (628) = 2646/3081  (85.9%)
Top three WRs/% total catches Geoff McArthur (57) + Robert Jordan (29) + Garrett Cross (28) = 114/219 (52.1%)
Top two RBs/% of total catches J.J. Arrington (21) + Marshawn Lynch (19) = 40/219 (18.3%)
QB running Aaron Rodgers (126) + Reggie Robertson (5) = 131 (10.9 yds/game)
Run/pass yardage balance 3081 run + 2828 pass = 5909 total (52.1% run/47.9% pass)
*Golden Bear quarterbacks were sacked 25 times for a total of 116 yards. Cal's quarterbacks gross rushing yardage was 247 yards or 20.6 yards/game.

What the spread option looks like

Every coach will tweak the spread option to take advantage of game situations, personnel, and general preferences.  Thanks to YouTube, it's possible to get a look at what different teams do with the spread option.  This sampling of plays from Florida, West Virginia, Texas, Utah, and Northwestern will give a good indication of what's possible.

Before each of these videos, short time markers are given, letting you know where a particular play is within a certain video.  With some videos it's possible to stop and freeze a particular frame which can help you to see what's happening with the blocking and what other types of motion are going on.  But with others, freezing a frame results in a big haze.

West Virginia

All three of these plays are runs by quarterback Patrick White.  With the Mountaineers' spread option, there's motion all over the place which makes it difficult for the defense to know where to focus its attention. 

0:22 - On play #10, the quarterback fakes the handoff and rolls right on the option.   The outside linebacker stays outside to cover the trailing back, and the quarterback cuts upfield for a large gain. 

2:12 - On play #3, from a 4th-and-10, all of the receivers run downfield, well past the first down line.  The defense only rushes three, leaving a lot of space for the quarterback to run. He runs up the middle and gains the first down easily. QB sees middle is open.

2:33 - On play #2, the defense has been frustrated by the run enough that it gambles by sending everybody to the right side, leaving the left side of the field wide open for the quarterback.

 

Utah

With starting quarterback Brian Johnson sidelined with a knee injury, these highlights feature backup quarterback Brett Ratliff.  From Johnson to Ratliff, there was little fall-off as the completion percentage was about the same (63.6% for Johnson to 62.3% for Ratliff), the TD-interception ratio was better (18-7 for Johnson compared to 8-2 for Ratliff), and as the clips below showed Ratliff was a more than capable runner.

1:22 & 1:31 - On both of these plays, the receivers cleared out one side of the field and the quarterback took advantage by running for a long gain.  On the second play, you can see the right side receivers run a short cross and a deep cross, taking the secondary with them.

5:40 - In overtime, Utah had four men receivers split out, with one blocking back.   Brigham Young rushed three players, bring a fourth on a delayed rush.  One of the left-side receivers ran a skinny post. With the defense shadowing receivers all over the field, there was no deep cover man to roll over to provide help on the receiver.

 

Florida

In Florida's first year with the spread option, they had a quarterback who wasn't ideally suited towards it, and a bunch of athletic backs and receivers who had to learn a new system.  Yet Urban Meyer was able to able to have the team learn the system, with all of the various tricks and wrinkles that had been a hallmark of his Utah teams.

0:33 - Take a look at this play a couple of times to see the chaos that the spread formation can cause for a secondary.  One receiver who runs a short crossing from the right takes two defenders with him, while a left side receiver is running a deep cross. This leaves another left receiver running a fly pattern with one-on-one coverage. Help is late in coming over and the play results in a touchdown.

0:38 - This is the sort of play that'll give defensive coordinators nightmares.   Watch one of the left-side receivers come in motion and then stop to line up as a running back.  The play goes left with the wide receiver as the trailing option back.   The quarterback then flips the ball to another left-side receiver coming  across on a reverse.

1:44 - The defense appears to have prepared itself for both the quarterback and the trailing back on a option play going to the right. But the other running back who started out as a blocker and follows the play on a delayed basis, takes the shovel pass and runs for a long gain.

1:59 - Another look at the reverse off of the option.

3:46 - In this run play, the left back circles behind the quarterback, giving the look of an option play. This freezes the right outside linebacker.  The inside linebacker is looking at the play, but while trying to find the ball carrier, he's taken out from the side with a crushing block which springs the play.

Texas

Texas isn't thought of as a spread option team.  They have run a considerable amount of their offense off of the read option the past few years because they had a big fast quarterback (Vince Young), good depth at running back (Cedric Benson, Ramonce Taylor, Jamaal Charles, and Selvin Young), and a strong offensive line.  This set of plays shows how well a team is able to run out of the spread option.  It's important to note that many of the videos are against Rice and Louisiana-Lafayette, two teams not noted for their run defense. Also pay attention to how defenses were concerned about Young taking the ball around the end, which caused linebackers the play with more caution than they would against a less agile quarterback. In this sequence of plays, the running back is Jamaal Charles.

1:48 - Young hands off to Charles off the read option.  After the handoff, Young takes two steps towards the line of scrimmage which causes the outside linebacker to hesitate just long enough for Charles to run past him.

1:55 - The same thing happens in this play with the linebacker coming off  the other side;

2:03 - Depending on what the blocking does, the running back has choices between bouncing a play outside, finding a lane, or cutting the play back. Here, the blocking forces the defense outside, giving the runner a lane;

2:11 - In this play, the play starts right, but the blocking walls off the defense to the left, and Charles is able to break the ball back to the left.

2:22 - Young has been killing defenses all season running around the right side.   In this play, three defenders are drawn in on the right side. The two Missouri defenders on the left side of the play relatively close to the line of scrimmage are effectively walled off, leaving no one open on the left side of the field.  One linebacker easily sheds his blocked, but Charles cuts right around him;

2:29 - Same play but after the handoff, Young runs toward the line which fools a linebacker, who's blitzing and isn't able to change directions in time to tackle Charles.

2:36 - With eight defenders in the box, Young eludes the pass rush, and Charles circles out of the backfield, is uncovered by the defense and catches a long pass.

2:52 - The read option works especially well when you have two sets of defenders running into each other in pursuit of the ball carrier. With one running back and three receivers out, Young hands the ball off to Charles. Notice that three-on-two blocking takes care of the right side, while on the left side a two-on-two matchup is working, leaving a big hole and a linebacker (#42 - Rufus Patterson) lurking just behind.  One linebacker stays outside to contain Young.  The defense flows to the large hole and Charles cuts back. The center comes off his man looking for Patterson, but Patterson reads the cutback and has an angle but is taken out by own man. Another defender sheds a blocker and gets ahold of Charles but doesn't have enough leverage or strength to bring him down partly because he's also run into by a teammate which allows Charles to break loose for a touchdown.  This play also includes a replay that offers a good look at what's happening with the line.

3:21 - The defense sends in a linebacker to break up the play, but Charles is outside well before then.  Watch the blocking by the wide receivers, one receiver chips a defender just enough for Charles to run past him; another wide receiver has a defensive back tied up downfield.

3:27 - There wasn't a lot of footage of short yardage plays. Here, the defense blocks off the inside lanes and Young pitches the ball just before the defense closes off that side of the field.

3:35 - If a defense has to worry about a quarterback who's capable of tearing off yardage in 20-to-30-yard chunks, it's going to play a lot more cautiously. Here, concern about Young freezes defenders on the outside. The offensive line opens up a huge hole up the middle and excellent downfield blocking springs Charles on a long gain.

Vince Young vs. Oklahoma (2003)

During the early part of his freshman year, Young had been backing up Chance Mock and wasn't nearly as well-scouted as he would be later on. While Oklahoma would eventually win this game in a blowout, Young had this one astonishing run. From the read option, Vince Young fakes the handoff to Cedric Benson and takes the ball around left end for a long gain.  Pay attention to the defender that comes charging in from the left side of the offense and has to make a decision about whether to pursue Benson or Young.  The defender chooses to go after the running back, and has to change direction to pursue Young who's too big and quick for the defender to corral.  

 

Northwestern

One would suppose that by looking at Northwestern's offense from the past couple of years, one might be able get an idea of what wrinkles might be added to Cal's offense this year.  The only clips available from the past two years comes from the 2004 Northwestern-Ohio State game.  Nothing in this video shows anything wild-and-wooly like the Florida or West Virginia videos.  The three clips that are pointed out here are relatively straightforward - two screens and a quarterback run by Brett Basanez.

0:24 - Similar to a play that Cal runs often, Northwestern runs the throwback screen pass to a back. Coming off of the snap, Basanez looks right until throwing the screen to the left. When the receiver catches the ball, he has three blockers there to assist him.

1:07 - Nicely executed flanker screen, which is helped by a block by a wide receiver.

2:23 - Basanez wasn't a big runner during his junior year, running for a modest 258 yards that season. In this play, the running back goes in motion to the left. From an empty backfield, Basanez goes to the left, but the defense is expecting him to take the ball around the end. Basanez cuts upfield for a nominal gain.

California, 2006, and the spread option

When it was reported that Cal would be using the spread option offense this fall, the first question that went through most people's minds was what this would mean in terms of Cal's quarterbacks.  One element of most successful spread option offenses is having a quarterback that's fast enough to run for big gains as the situation allows.   Nate Longshore has outstanding ability as a passer but is not known for his quickness.  Joe Ayoob looked much more tentative running last year then he did at City College of San Francisco.  Steve Levy has the best instincts as a runner but is still having to fight his way up the depth chart.

While it would be great to have a Vince Young or an Alex Smith, some teams have done very well with the spread option without having the quarterback run for a lot of yards.   Oregon's quarterbacks ran for a total of 352 yards last season, 40% of those yards came in two early season non-conference games.  In the last six games, a Duck quarterback ran for more than 25 yards just once. Oregon went 5-1 during that time, losing just the Holiday Bowl game to Oklahoma.  For Northwestern, Basanez's limited amount of running didn't keep him from running a highly productive offense. Leak's 81 yards for Florida wasn't that much more than Levy's 64 yards or Ayoob's 58 yards last season.

At the very least, the spread option will keep defenses from crowding the line and will give California tailbacks more room to run.  To the extent that the Bears choose to change formations and move receivers and backs quickly, having a quarterback who's able to exploit mismatches and make good decisions off of the read option will be more important than having a quarterback who's fast.

In the case of Smith and Basanez is they both did significantly better as runners during their second year of running the spread option. It's also important to note that neither of those two had the benefit of an offensive line nearly as strong as Cal has had the past couple of years, and neither has had the benefit of a running back as talented as Marshawn Lynch.  If Longshore's running numbers are modest during the first few games, that's not necessarily a sign that the spread option isn't working. A lot of things can go well without the quarterback putting up big rushing numbers.

The spread option can be run both with and without a tight end.  If a tight end, like Craig Stevens is split out, it could pull a linebacker away from the middle of the field. The defense could use a defensive back to guard the tight end, which result in a huge size advantage for the tight end.  With pressure being put on the defense to make the right matchup, bringing in taller receivers like David Gray and LaReylle Cunningham could cause fits for the defensive backs.

A strength of the spread option is that it allows more chances to get the ball into the hands of the team's playmakers in a lot of different way, and with Lynch, Forsett, Jackson, Hawkins, and Jordan, the Bears certainly have one of the stronger offensive arsenals in the country. 

However, for what it's worth, in Florida's third game of the year, using its new offense, it played Tennessee in Gainesville. While Florida won 16-7, the offense managed just 247 yards; 179 through the air (on 17-of-26 passing), and just 68 on the ground.

And in conclusion

In his two essays, Meyer repeatedly makes the point that the spread option is not a wild, high-risk offense.  Many of the plays are fairly conventional - handoffs, play-action, shovel passes, option pitches - but because the offense looks unconventional and isn't static, it gives the impression of being flashy and slick - which are two words football coaches generally don't like associated with their work.  If anything, he says that the spread option shares a lot of concepts with wishbone offenses of the 70s.   For all of the ball fakes and different motions going on, the wishbone was simply another formation to run, run, and run some more. 

Eventually the wishbone died out because defenses caught up with it and started emphasizing speed at the linebacker position.  The spread option is effective because relatively few teams run it, and most defenses will have trouble preparing for an offense that they'll only see once or twice a year on short notice.  As more teams run it and defenses spend a larger time in practice working against it and figure out the right blend of personnel to use against it, it will become a harder offense to use effectively.

But here, in 2006, Cal could still be considered relatively near the forefront of an offensive trend.  With an offense like the spread option, the talent level that the Bears are begining to attract on a consistent basis, a creative thinker like Jeff Tedford, and someone who understands the offense like Mike Dunbar, the Bears may be ready to embark on one of the most intriguing offensive eras in Cal football history.   


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Even for those who respect Tedford's tactical acumen were scratching their heads and wondering, why, based on the 2005 season, given the way that the team ran and the team passed, would the team want to put in an offense that would call for more passing?  Under some circumstances it might make sense to throw the ball 40 times a game, but the Bears have Marshawn Lynch, Cal's most gifted running back since Chuck Muncie, as in Heisman Trophy candidate Marshawn Lynch.  And besides, the spread option would seem to need a quarterback that can run - which would not appear to be one of probable starting quarterback Nate Longshore's strengths.

The spread option offense became the offense du jour for good reason.   Utah and West Virginia, two teams that will never pack their rosters with four- and five-star recruits, used it to get into a BCS bowl and win.  Bowling Green turned their program around and flirted with the Top 20 for a couple of weeks with it.   Texas had the perfect quarterback for the spread option and used elements of it to help win a national championship.  Oregon, which had struggled after Tedford's departure, implemented the offense and finished last season with a 10-2 record.  The basic idea is to use three and four wide receivers, which keeps defenses from stacking the box or crowding the middle of the field.   Defenses are forced to cover the receivers, which makes it easier for the rushing attack to find open space.  If the defensive backs cheat off of the receivers, then the quarterback can keep throwing hitches and bubble screens until the defense decides to take them seriously.  The offense is so different from what most teams run, that just given two or three practice sessions to prepare for it, defenses have a difficult time preparing for it.

Teams that run the spread option run something quite a bit different than what Texas Tech uses. Where as the Red Raiders are throwing the ball 50 to 55 times a game every game, a spread option team almost never throws the ball that much.  It offers sufficient flexiblity that some teams, such as last year's Oregon team use it and end up gaining 70% of their yardage through the air, while West Virginia uses it differently and last year gained 70% of their yardage on the ground.

Getting to now

In 2004, California's offense had a near-perfect convergence of talent and experience.   With a first-round NFL draft choice at quarterback at Aaron Rodgers, one of the Pac-10's all-time great running back tandems in J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch, a veteran group of receivers led by Geoff McArthur, and a dominant front line, the Bears crushed teams week after week.  Because of its superiority, it rarely had to draw upon the gadgetry that Tedford occasionally used during his first two years.  The team executed so well that it could afford to be conservative. If the offensive line is consistently knocking defenses back, there's no need to try a fleaflicker or a reverse, when a running back probably even more likely to race through a hole for a big gain.

Last year, the Bears returned most of their front line, but the all-time single season rushing leader was gone, as was the all-time passer rating leader and the all-time leading receiver.  While there were talented people waiting to fill the voids, replacing top-level experienced players doesn't happen overnight.  Understandably, the Cal offense struggled and at times seemed to be sticking to the 2004 level of conservatism despite facing an entirely different reality. The 2004 team didn't need to have a lot of creative ways to get the ball to Arrington and McArthur.  However last year's team, especially with the various issues affecting the quarterback position, could have been helped by some different low-risk plays to Lynch and Jackson.  While the Bears did well against lesser opposition, better teams could stack the box, jam the receivers, and take their chances.

Considering that all of the skill position players were returning but the offensive line had to be rebuilt, Cal could either continue using their current schemes, adding a flourish here and there and hope that another year in the system will help the unit to become more efficient and productive or they could choose to go in another direction.

Maybe it was the 2003 game against Utah when the Bears rallied from an early deficit to take a late lead, only to see the Utes start snapping to the ball to their wide receiver to change the game's momentum that made the first impression.  Utah wasn't the biggest team or the fastest team the Bears' faced that year, but with Urban Meyer's big ball of tricks, they were certainly one of the most difficult to defend.  Or maybe it was Tedford his former team, Oregon, have success with the spread option in its first year without having a quarterback who was a significant threat to run.  It also could have been watching Northwestern give Big 10 teams fits despite having talent disadvantages compared to most of the rest of the conference.

Whatever the case might be, Tedford didn't simply decide to visit a few coaches in the offseason to try to pick up a nuance or two, he hired an offensive coordinator to implement the spread option.

Four key moments in spread option history

Depending on who you read, the spread option had its origins in one of two places. One was with Bill Snyder's work with Kansas State in 1993 with a read play off the counter - where the offense would pull the guard and tackle, and let the defensive end rush in. At the moment of handoff, the quarterback had to read the defensive end to see if the end is chasing the running back.  If the end chases the running back, the quarterback pulls the ball back and runs with it. If the end stays outside or appears headed for the quarterback, he hands the ball off. Urban Meyer took those concepts and used them at Colorado State, where he was an assistant, and carried them with him to head coaching jobs that he's had at Bowling Green, Utah, and now Florida. The other is with West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez, who had been using some version of it since the early 90s when he was the head coach at Division II Glenville State, who continued his work with that offense when he was an assistant at Tulane and Clemson, before becoming head coach in Morgantown in 2001. Meyer's read play worked about the same as Rodriguez' zone play - with the quarterback having to read the defensive end. 

Every coach experiments with offenses, and once an offense is successful, everybody wants to emulate it.  Whether it's the single wing, wishbone, the veer, or the West Coast offense, once an offense is successful, more and more teams will adopt it until defenses catch up with it. While the spread option is the latest wave, there are a few key events that helped propel into being college football's latest big thing.

One reason why offenses catch on is because they allow teams that don't have the depth and talent of other teams to have an edge on their opponents.  If a team could win consistently by running the ball up the middle for five yards play after play after play, that's all they'd ever do.  Most teams can't, so they diversify their offense with different formations and different plays to catch the defense off-guard.  During a season, a team might have two or three days to prepare its defense for the upcoming opponent's offense.  If every team is running the I-formation with two wide receivers and a tight end, defensive game plans are considerably easier to develop than they are when teams are running all sorts of different offenses.

The spread option was different enough that Urban Meyer was able to build Bowling Green from a team went 2-9 in the season before he started, to a team that was in the Top 20 for a couple of weeks two years later.  In 2003, he went to Utah and with a team that was 4-7 in 2002, guided the team to a 10-2 record in 2003 and a 12-0 record in 2004 which was capped off by a BCS bowl victory and a #4 ranking at season's end.  Additionally, Alex Smith threw for 2,952 yards and ran for 631 yards, while finishing 2nd in the nation in passing efficiency, fourth in the Heisman voting, and becoming the NFL's #1 overall draft choice in 2005. 

Meyer took two teams that didn't have anywhere near the highly-touted level of talent that a lot of traditional powers have, turned their fortunes around, and established himself as college football's latest genius.

Texas is not a spread option team, but they took one element of it, the read (or the zone) paired it up with an ideal quarterback for it (Vince Young), and rode it all the way to the National Championship. If a team wins a national championship, everything it does is legitimized, dissected, and becomes subject to imitation. The threat of Young running, plus the fact that his size and speed made him difficult for a lone defender to bring down, kept defenses from overcommitting to the middle of the field which helped Ramonce Taylor and Jamaal Charles combine for nearly 1,400 yards.  Last season, Young passed for 3,036 yards and ran for 1,050, whle accounting for 38 touchdowns.  Texas may continue to run the read option this year, but they'll be significantly easier to defend.

With the Big East depleted by the defections of Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami, it kept its BCS bid, much to the dismay of the other power conferences that had higher ranked at-large teams that were ostensibly more deserving of playing in a BCS game.   The final 2005 BCS standings had West Virginia at 11th, which did nothing to help #5-Oregon, #8-Miami, #9-Auburn or #10 Virginia Tech - all of who got shut out from BCS games - feel better about things.   While some people thought that Georgia would come in and give West Virginia a big "undeserving" stamp across the forehead, the Mountaineers ran for an astounding 382 yards against the Bulldogs in a 38-35 win.   Even though Georgia had a few weeks to prepare for the intricacies of Rodriguez' spread option offense, it still couldn't prevent a fusillade of  backs from sprinting into the secondary.   Coming into the game, Georgia's defense allowed 298 yards a game which was the sixth-best in the country. West Virginia gained 502 yards against Georgia; only one other Bulldog opponent gained more than 400 yards all season.  With West Virginia having national championship aspirations this season, during the offseason it became a popular destination from other team's coaches.

While having a quarterback who can execute the read and be fast enough to get a decent gain went without saying for Rich Rodriguez, it wasn't until he had Woodrow Dantzler at Clemson that gave the offense the dimension it needed from becoming very good to becoming lethal.  Dantzler was a quarterback who also was an exceptional runner.  In 2000, Dantzler threw for 1,871 yards and ran for 1,028 yards, which made him the team's leading rusher. That year, Clemson finished 9-3 which provided Rodriguez a springboard to the head job at West Virginia.

Details

With enough creativity in formations and ball-handling as well as a fast-thinking quarterback, it's possible for the spread option to give the defense as many options to defend as a veer or wishbone attack without taking away the threat of the forward pass.   Because it allows for one-back, four-receiver sets, and occassionally five-receiver sets with an empty backfield, it causes matchup problems for defenses in standard three-linebacker, four-defensive back formations.

During the course of a game, there'll be a certain number of plays when a receiver is matched up against a linebacker or a safety is forced to play closer to the line of scrimmage to matchup against a receiver.  If the safety plays too far off the line,   the receiver's wide open for a short pass.  If the safety plays too close to the line, it leaves the defense susceptible to a running play and takes away some of the defense's ability to roll someone over to provide support on a deep pass play. 

As the offense is rotating people in and out of the game and using them in different formations, it's increasingly different for a different to have the right matchups on the field all of the time.  The success of the spread option offense will largely depend on a team's ability to identify those mismatches and take advantage of them. 

This spring, Tedford travelled to Florida and West Virginia to observe practices and learn more about the spread option offense.

A lot of what Meyer and Rodriguez emphasize with the offense is mentioned in two recent college football coaching manuals.  The manuals consist of transcripts from Nike Coaches Clinics.  In the "2005 Coach of the Year Clinics Football Manual", Urban Meyer wrote "Read, Read Option and the Shovel Pass," while Rich Rodriguez contributed "Shotgun Wide Open Spread Offense."  In the "2004 Coach of The Year Clinics Football Manual," Meyer's talk was called "Establishing the Spread Offense."

Based on those three chapters, here's a rough idea of what Tedford might have come away with after his two visits.

What five things Urban Meyer might have told Jeff Tedford

One motivation behind using the spread option is to open up the middle of the field.   While having three and four wide receivers helps achieve that, the offense needs to run enough plays to them to keep defenders from cheating on the run.  Bubble screens and other short passes are relatively low-risk pass plays that can become big gains with proper execution.

Just because the starting quarterback doesn't run like a deer doesn't mean that the spread option can't be effective.  At Utah, Alex Smith ran for 452 and 631 yards out of the spread option.  When Urban Meyer left to take the Florida job, he didn't wait to see if the quarterbacks could run the spread option before deciding whether or not to use it.  Chris Leak couldn't run as well as Smith so Meyer modified the offense so Leak wasn't called upon to run as much.  Leak ended up running for 81 yards in 2005 and the Gators won nine games.

With only two days to prepare for a spread option offense, defenses aren't likely to spent too much time preparing for an empty set with five receivers out in the pattern.   Used occasionally, you can see if the defense is inclined to assign a linebacker to guard a receiver, or if they're going to bring in an extra defensive back.  The quarterback also needs to be able to exploit mismatches - either a fast receiver against a linebacker or a slower defensive back or a big receiver against a small defensive back.   A team that effectively runs the ball will force the defense to keep linebackers in the game.  Slipping in an empty set formation can catch the defense off-guard.

A quarterback's ablity to read where the safeties line up will determine whether a play's a run or a pass. Let's say that the offense has four wide receivers lined up. Between the hash marks and  at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, the defense will likely have two safeties, one safety, or none as the defense tries to sneak him into the box.  If there are two safeties deep, the offense should have an advantage inside the box; so the offense should run the ball. If there's one safety deep, that means that the four receivers are being guarded man-to-man with a free safety or some sort of zone.  This leaves six people in the box. The offense has five blockers - and the quarterback's read is considered a block. If the numbers are equal then the offense should run.  If there are no safeties deep, that means the defense is playing man-to-man with no free safety. In this case the offense would either run the read option or throw a quick pass.  The faster a team's receivers are, the less likely defenses are to bring their free safety up.

When most teams want to find different ways of getting the ball to their receivers, they dust off the one reverse play in the playbook and hope they can catch the defense napping.  With the spread option, receivers can run the ball on reverses, becoming the trailing back on an option play, or even take a direct snap. In 2003, Utah was trailing Cal 24-21 and had seen their offense sputter in the third quarter.  On a 1st-and-10 from the Cal 44, Utah called a direct snap to wide receiver Paris Warren who threw an incomplete pass. On the next play they called another direct snap to him that resulted in a 29-yard run.  This shook the Bears up enough to have them burn a timeout. The play right after, Utah threw to Warren, and two plays after that he carried the ball on another run.  Although the Utes were held to a field goal, it set up the following possession - a 10-play, 63-yard drive that put Utah up 31-24.  With the Cal having expended another timeout on that possession, it meant that going into the last possession, it had to 80 yards in 1:06, with just one time out left.

What five things Rich Rodriguez might have told Jeff Tedford.

Implementing a new offense can be difficult especially if players' roles change significantly from the previous year/offense.  Fit the offensive schemes to the skills that the players have, and take advantage of things that the quarterback does well.   The offense has to be something that the players can understand and execute.   If the players can't execute certain plays, don't run them.

By going no-huddle and accelerating the pace of the offense, several things happen:   the defense that appeared on the previous down will often be the same defense that appears on the next down because the defense hasn't had time to huddle and hasn't had a chance to rotate its substitutions. Quick snap counts also keeps the defense from communicating adjustments. A fast tempo also makes conditioning a factor in the early going.  During practices, West Virginia will run as many as 13 plays during a five-minute period, most teams might run seven or eight.

Last year, West Virginia had two exceptional players, running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White.  White was one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in the country last season. In addition to running the standard read option/zone play where the quarterback reads the lineman and has the option of taking the ball around the end, they have a play that look similar but is actually a trap play.  With the defense conditioned to look to one corner of the line for running back and the other corner of the line for the quarterback running off the read option, a trap play by a fast quarterback can catch defenses, and even cameramen, by surprise (as you'll see later).

In the zone running play, the running back doesn't simply run as fast as he can through the first hole he sees. In this play, he has to be patient and follow the blocking.   As the running back goes  the outside, he has to get to the outside of the offensive tackle.  If the defensive end is blocked, the running back takes the ball outside.  If the defensive end beats his block, then the running back has to see what's happened with the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle has been walled off or blocked, the running back cuts between the tackle and the guard. If the defensive tackle has slid over to the hole between the tackle and the guard, the running back breaks it back behind the guard and the center.  Conceptually, it sounds logical, but doing this in real time is trickier than it sounds.  Learning this to the point where it becomes instinctive is something that is going to require repeated drills.

A lot of this depends on the efficiency of the shotgun snap. If the quarterback knows that the snap is perfect, he can keep his eyes on the coverage.  If there's any degree of uncertainty by the quarterback, his eyes have to adjust to the ball and then he has to readjust his vision to look downfield. If the snap is good, the quarterback should be able to get the ball off in the same time or faster than with a three-step drop.

(Note: All three essays include detailed discussions about the role of offensive linemen and their roles, which are too abstruse to be explained here. To read these essays in their entirety, you can purchase the 2005 and 2004 volumes.  The 2005 edition also has a talk called "Quarterback Drills and Techniques" by Jeff Tedford.)

Recent teams statistics using the spread option

The following tables are meant to give statistical breakdowns of teams using the spread option offense.  The idea is to show how passes are distributed among receivers, how well running backs have done both as runners and receivers, how much quarterbacks are called upon to run, and what the total yardage balance is.

Included in this grouping are Urban Meyer's last three teams (Utah 2003-2004, Florida 2005), Mike Dunbar's last two teams (Northwestern 2004-2005), Rich Rodriguez's last two teams (West Virginia 2004-2005), Oregon's first year (2005), and for comparison's sake, Cal's last two seasons.

In almost every case, a team has either using the spread option has either had a 1,000 yard rusher, or a running back tandem that combined for well over 1,000 yards.   Running backs are used as receivers, but with most teams, the backs caught 16 to 20 percent of the team's completions, which is about what Cal's done during the past two years.

While the spread option offense is generally associated with running quarterbacks; Utah and West Virginia's quarterbacks ran for big yardage. Brett Basanez's totals with Northwestern were modest, while Oregon and Florida's quarterbacks ran for relatively little yardage.  Even though the offense might have lost some dimension by not having a quarterback capable of biting off big gains, it was still effective enough for Oregon to finish 10-2 and Florida to finish 9-3 last season.

Something else to pay attention to is that most of the teams in this list threw for quite a few yardage but had very low sack totals. Even though having more receivers means less pass blockers, it doesn't mean that the quarterbacks more susceptible to getting sacked. Northwestern averaged 41 pass attempts per game during the past two years, but allowed slightly more than one sack per game. Utah averaged 32 pass attempts a game during the past two years, but allowed about 1.5 sacks per game. Last year, Oregon averaged 39 pass attempts a game but surrendered only 1.7 sacks a game.

When Urban Meyer took over at Florida, he installed the spread option offense with Chris Leak at quarterback.  Leak was entrenched as the starting quarterback, but he wasn't a quarterback who could make plays with his feet like Alex Smith.  Leak's running numbers are lower than any other quarterback listed here who ran the spread option - but that did not prevent him from being a moderately effective quarterback.  Although the Gators averaged less than 400 yards a game,  Florida's team cut their interceptions from 12 to 7, and Leak still managed to throw for 2,639 yards and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is a solid 20-to-6.  Even though 2005 could have been considered a retooling year for the offense, Florida still came out of it with nine wins. Nonetheless, the offense failed to meet Meyer's lofty expectations and his frustration reached the point that in the latter part of the season, he scaled down his offense considerably.  The charts for Utah and Northwestern show that quarterbacks usually make improvement after another year of familiarity of running the spread option. Even so, it's unlikely that Leak will put up Smith-like running totals in 2006. 

Contrasting Florida with Utah allows the chance to see how differently the Florida numbers compared with the Utah numbers, but also to see how the offense changed after Alex Smith had a year to become more familiar with the spread option. Two things to notice are that the Utes through primarily to their top three receivers and very rarely threw to their running backs. Another thing to notice is that in both years, the quarterback was responsible for 20-to-25% of the team's rushing yardage.  For all of Utah's ritzy passing numbers, they averaged less than 30 pass attempts a game in both 2003 and 2004.   In 2005, the year after Meyer and Smith left, Utah quarterbacks still combined for 579 of Utah's 2142 running yards, which is consistent with the numbers from the previous tw years.  In 2005, Utah's third-leading runner was a wide receiver (Brent Casteel) who had 35 carries for 208 yards, which appear to indicate that he was used as option back from time-to-time. 

 

From 2004 to 2005, Northwestern increased its offensive output by nearly 100 yards a game, with most of the increase coming in the passing game. Some elements remained the same: a workhorse running back getting most of the carries and catching a lot of passes, and a roughly 60% pass/40% run yardage  breakdown.  However as quarterback Brett Basanez became more comfortable in the system, he increased his rushing yardage from 258 to 423, as did his pass efficiency.  An offense which averaged 39 attempts a game and 237 yards a game in 2004, went to 43 attempts a game and 307 yards a game in 2005.   here we see another example of where a team using the spread option offense has a very low sack ratio. The Wildcats only allowed 11 sacks while attempting 512 passes.   There's no need to worry about Dunbar falling in love with the passing attack at the expense of the running game. As the past two seasons would indicate, Northwestern was very productive with its running game.

 

West Virginia's the one team that consistently runs out of the formation for big yardage. In Rich Rodriguez's last four years there, the Mountaineers have run for 280, 212, 266, and 259 yards a game.  Moreso than any other spread option team, the quarterback is a big element of the team's running attack.  West Virginia averaged just 16 pass attempts a game and four of its top receivers averaged less than 10 yards a reception.  If you're looking for a second team to root for and entertainment value is a key criteria, West Virginia would be a very good choice.

 

For its first year with the spread offense while mixing it in with its musical quarterback routine, the Ducks did fairly well, finishing with a 10-2 record. Oregon's passing went from 238 yards a game in 2004 to 301 yards a game in 2005.  However their rushing fell from 159 yards a game to 139.  While none of the quarterbacks were spectacular runners, they did well enough to gain a modest amount of yardage and keep the sack total down. Oregon's quarterbacks were sacked just 20 times while attempting 482 passes. 

Even though the Cal was faced with breaking a new starting quarterback and replacing its leading rusher and receiver, most of the percentages stayed roughly the same from 2004 to 2005.  The top three receivers caught a little more than half of all receptions,   the top two running backs caught about one-sixth of all completions and the quarterbacks grossed about 20 yards a game on the ground.  The Bears' two leading rushers combined for 76% of team's rushing yardage; while with most of the spread option teams listed here the two top two running backs combined for just over half of the team's rushing yards, partly due to teams that had quarterbacks that ran for a lot of yardage.   The one noticeable exception - Northwestern. 

 

What the spread option looks like

Every coach will tweak the spread option to take advantage of game situations, personnel, and general preferences.  Thanks to YouTube, it's possible to get a look at what different teams do with the spread option.  This sampling of plays from Florida, West Virginia, Texas, Utah, and Northwestern will give a good indication of what's possible.

Before each of these videos, short time markers are given, letting you know where a particular play is within a certain video.  With some videos it's possible to stop and freeze a particular frame which can help you to see what's happening with the blocking and what other types of motion are going on.  But with others, freezing a frame results in a big haze.

All three of these plays are runs by quarterback Patrick White.  With the Mountaineers' spread option, there's motion all over the place which makes it difficult for the defense to know where to focus its attention. 

0:22 - On play #10, the quarterback fakes the handoff and rolls right on the option.   The outside linebacker stays outside to cover the trailing back, and the quarterback cuts upfield for a large gain. 

2:12 - On play #3, from a 4th-and-10, all of the receivers run downfield, well past the first down line.  The defense only rushes three, leaving a lot of space for the quarterback to run. He runs up the middle and gains the first down easily. QB sees middle is open.

2:33 - On play #2, the defense has been frustrated by the run enough that it gambles by sending everybody to the right side, leaving the left side of the field wide open for the quarterback.

 

With starting quarterback Brian Johnson sidelined with a knee injury, these highlights feature backup quarterback Brett Ratliff.  From Johnson to Ratliff, there was little fall-off as the completion percentage was about the same (63.6% for Johnson to 62.3% for Ratliff), the TD-interception ratio was better (18-7 for Johnson compared to 8-2 for Ratliff), and as the clips below showed Ratliff was a more than capable runner.

1:22 & 1:31 - On both of these plays, the receivers cleared out one side of the field and the quarterback took advantage by running for a long gain.  On the second play, you can see the right side receivers run a short cross and a deep cross, taking the secondary with them.

5:40 - In overtime, Utah had four men receivers split out, with one blocking back.   Brigham Young rushed three players, bring a fourth on a delayed rush.  One of the left-side receivers ran a skinny post. With the defense shadowing receivers all over the field, there was no deep cover man to roll over to provide help on the receiver.

 

In Florida's first year with the spread option, they had a quarterback who wasn't ideally suited towards it, and a bunch of athletic backs and receivers who had to learn a new system.  Yet Urban Meyer was able to able to have the team learn the system, with all of the various tricks and wrinkles that had been a hallmark of his Utah teams.

0:33 - Take a look at this play a couple of times to see the chaos that the spread formation can cause for a secondary.  One receiver who runs a short crossing from the right takes two defenders with him, while a left side receiver is running a deep cross. This leaves another left receiver running a fly pattern with one-on-one coverage. Help is late in coming over and the play results in a touchdown.

0:38 - This is the sort of play that'll give defensive coordinators nightmares.   Watch one of the left-side receivers come in motion and then stop to line up as a running back.  The play goes left with the wide receiver as the trailing option back.   The quarterback then flips the ball to another left-side receiver coming  across on a reverse.

1:44 - The defense appears to have prepared itself for both the quarterback and the trailing back on a option play going to the right. But the other running back who started out as a blocker and follows the play on a delayed basis, takes the shovel pass and runs for a long gain.

1:59 - Another look at the reverse off of the option.

3:46 - In this run play, the left back circles behind the quarterback, giving the look of an option play. This freezes the right outside linebacker.  The inside linebacker is looking at the play, but while trying to find the ball carrier, he's taken out from the side with a crushing block which springs the play.

Texas isn't thought of as a spread option team.  They have run a considerable amount of their offense off of the read option the past few years because they had a big fast quarterback (Vince Young), good depth at running back (Cedric Benson, Ramonce Taylor, Jamaal Charles, and Selvin Young), and a strong offensive line.  This set of plays shows how well a team is able to run out of the spread option.  It's important to note that many of the videos are against Rice and Louisiana-Lafayette, two teams not noted for their run defense. Also pay attention to how defenses were concerned about Young taking the ball around the end, which caused linebackers the play with more caution than they would against a less agile quarterback. In this sequence of plays, the running back is Jamaal Charles.

1:48 - Young hands off to Charles off the read option.  After the handoff, Young takes two steps towards the line of scrimmage which causes the outside linebacker to hesitate just long enough for Charles to run past him.

1:55 - The same thing happens in this play with the linebacker coming off  the other side;

2:03 - Depending on what the blocking does, the running back has choices between bouncing a play outside, finding a lane, or cutting the play back. Here, the blocking forces the defense outside, giving the runner a lane;

2:11 - In this play, the play starts right, but the blocking walls off the defense to the left, and Charles is able to break the ball back to the left.

2:22 - Young has been killing defenses all season running around the right side.   In this play, three defenders are drawn in on the right side. The two Missouri defenders on the left side of the play relatively close to the line of scrimmage are effectively walled off, leaving no one open on the left side of the field.  One linebacker easily sheds his blocked, but Charles cuts right around him;

2:29 - Same play but after the handoff, Young runs toward the line which fools a linebacker, who's blitzing and isn't able to change directions in time to tackle Charles.

2:36 - With eight defenders in the box, Young eludes the pass rush, and Charles circles out of the backfield, is uncovered by the defense and catches a long pass.

2:52 - The read option works especially well when you have two sets of defenders running into each other in pursuit of the ball carrier. With one running back and three receivers out, Young hands the ball off to Charles. Notice that three-on-two blocking takes care of the right side, while on the left side a two-on-two matchup is working, leaving a big hole and a linebacker (#42 - Rufus Patterson) lurking just behind.  One linebacker stays outside to contain Young.  The defense flows to the large hole and Charles cuts back. The center comes off his man looking for Patterson, but Patterson reads the cutback and has an angle but is taken out by own man. Another defender sheds a blocker and gets ahold of Charles but doesn't have enough leverage or strength to bring him down partly because he's also run into by a teammate which allows Charles to break loose for a touchdown.  This play also includes a replay that offers a good look at what's happening with the line.

3:21 - The defense sends in a linebacker to break up the play, but Charles is outside well before then.  Watch the blocking by the wide receivers, one receiver chips a defender just enough for Charles to run past him; another wide receiver has a defensive back tied up downfield.

3:27 - There wasn't a lot of footage of short yardage plays. Here, the defense blocks off the inside lanes and Young pitches the ball just before the defense closes off that side of the field.

3:35 - If a defense has to worry about a quarterback who's capable of tearing off yardage in 20-to-30-yard chunks, it's going to play a lot more cautiously. Here, concern about Young freezes defenders on the outside. The offensive line opens up a huge hole up the middle and excellent downfield blocking springs Charles on a long gain.

During the early part of his freshman year, Young had been backing up Chance Mock and wasn't nearly as well-scouted as he would be later on. While Oklahoma would eventually win this game in a blowout, Young had this one astonishing run. From the read option, Vince Young fakes the handoff to Cedric Benson and takes the ball around left end for a long gain.  Pay attention to the defender that comes charging in from the left side of the offense and has to make a decision about whether to pursue Benson or Young.  The defender chooses to go after the running back, and has to change direction to pursue Young who's too big and quick for the defender to corral.  

 

One would suppose that by looking at Northwestern's offense from the past couple of years, one might be able get an idea of what wrinkles might be added to Cal's offense this year.  The only clips available from the past two years comes from the 2004 Northwestern-Ohio State game.  Nothing in this video shows anything wild-and-wooly like the Florida or West Virginia videos.  The three clips that are pointed out here are relatively straightforward - two screens and a quarterback run by Brett Basanez.

0:24 - Similar to a play that Cal runs often, Northwestern runs the throwback screen pass to a back. Coming off of the snap, Basanez looks right until throwing the screen to the left. When the receiver catches the ball, he has three blockers there to assist him.

1:07 - Nicely executed flanker screen, which is helped by a block by a wide receiver.

2:23 - Basanez wasn't a big runner during his junior year, running for a modest 258 yards that season. In this play, the running back goes in motion to the left. From an empty backfield, Basanez goes to the left, but the defense is expecting him to take the ball around the end. Basanez cuts upfield for a nominal gain.

California, 2006, and the spread option

When it was reported that Cal would be using the spread option offense this fall, the first question that went through most people's minds was what this would mean in terms of Cal's quarterbacks.  One element of most successful spread option offenses is having a quarterback that's fast enough to run for big gains as the situation allows.   Nate Longshore has outstanding ability as a passer but is not known for his quickness.  Joe Ayoob looked much more tentative running last year then he did at City College of San Francisco.  Steve Levy has the best instincts as a runner but is still having to fight his way up the depth chart.

While it would be great to have a Vince Young or an Alex Smith, some teams have done very well with the spread option without having the quarterback run for a lot of yards.   Oregon's quarterbacks ran for a total of 352 yards last season, 40% of those yards came in two early season non-conference games.  In the last six games, a Duck quarterback ran for more than 25 yards just once. Oregon went 5-1 during that time, losing just the Holiday Bowl game to Oklahoma.  For Northwestern, Basanez's limited amount of running didn't keep him from running a highly productive offense. Leak's 81 yards for Florida wasn't that much more than Levy's 64 yards or Ayoob's 58 yards last season.

At the very least, the spread option will keep defenses from crowding the line and will give California tailbacks more room to run.  To the extent that the Bears choose to change formations and move receivers and backs quickly, having a quarterback who's able to exploit mismatches and make good decisions off of the read option will be more important than having a quarterback who's fast.

In the case of Smith and Basanez is they both did significantly better as runners during their second year of running the spread option. It's also important to note that neither of those two had the benefit of an offensive line nearly as strong as Cal has had the past couple of years, and neither has had the benefit of a running back as talented as Marshawn Lynch.  If Longshore's running numbers are modest during the first few games, that's not necessarily a sign that the spread option isn't working. A lot of things can go well without the quarterback putting up big rushing numbers.

The spread option can be run both with and without a tight end.  If a tight end, like Craig Stevens is split out, it could pull a linebacker away from the middle of the field. The defense could use a defensive back to guard the tight end, which result in a huge size advantage for the tight end.  With pressure being put on the defense to make the right matchup, bringing in taller receivers like David Gray and LaReylle Cunningham could cause fits for the defensive backs.

A strength of the spread option is that it allows more chances to get the ball into the hands of the team's playmakers in a lot of different way, and with Lynch, Forsett, Jackson, Hawkins, and Jordan, the Bears certainly have one of the stronger offensive arsenals in the country. 

However, for what it's worth, in Florida's third game of the year, using its new offense, it played Tennessee in Gainesville. While Florida won 16-7, the offense managed just 247 yards; 179 through the air (on 17-of-26 passing), and just 68 on the ground.

And in conclusion

In his two essays, Meyer repeatedly makes the point that the spread option is not a wild, high-risk offense.  Many of the plays are fairly conventional - handoffs, play-action, shovel passes, option pitches - but because the offense looks unconventional and isn't static, it gives the impression of being flashy and slick - which are two words football coaches generally don't like associated with their work.  If anything, he says that the spread option shares a lot of concepts with wishbone offenses of the 70s.   For all of the ball fakes and different motions going on, the wishbone was simply another formation to run, run, and run some more. 

Eventually the wishbone died out because defenses caught up with it and started emphasizing speed at the linebacker position.  The spread option is effective because relatively few teams run it, and most defenses will have trouble preparing for an offense that they'll only see once or twice a year on short notice.  As more teams run it and defenses spend a larger time in practice working against it and figure out the right blend of personnel to use against it, it will become a harder offense to use effectively.

But here, in 2006, Cal could still be considered relatively near the forefront of an offensive trend.  With an offense like the spread option, the talent level that the Bears are begining to attract on a consistent basis, a creative thinker like Jeff Tedford, and someone who understands the offense like Mike Dunbar, the Bears may be ready to embark on one of the most intriguing offensive eras in Cal football history.   

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