Not Quite Yet Time To Scrap The Spread Option

At this point, seven games into Urban Meyer's first season as Florida's head coach, the naysayers who have been around since the day he was hired, are wearing their "I told you so" grins, claiming they knew all along that the spread option was doomed for failure the moment it met up with a defense that had speed and athleticism like they have at Alabama and LSU.

It is obvious that something is wrong with the offense, but it is far too early to declare it an ill-conceived bust, something that will only work against poorly coached teams.

The principles of the spread option offense are plenty sound enough and while no offense is totally indefensible, this one has the capability of finding holes and exploiting a defense in a greater variety of ways. If it's run properly, it constantly adapts and evolves to take advantage of whatever holes the defense presents. What happens when it doesn't adapt and evolve was put on display before a national television audience in Baton Rouge. When the offense isn't run right, it can get downright ugly, and ugly it was Saturday.

Some old timers who have been around Florida football for a few decades say that what Meyer is trying to do with the personnel he inherited from Ron Zook is not much different than what happened in 1970 when Doug Dickey took over for Ray Graves. The 1969 Gators were the nation's second best offense with a pro-style attack that featured John Reaves throwing the ball all over the yard to Carlos Alvarez. Dickey felt the Gators weren't tough enough and he felt they threw the ball far too much to ever win big so he tried to reshape Florida in the mold of his Tennessee teams. Trying to make John Reaves, a pure dropback passer, into a split back veer option quarterback was the proverbial square peg into the round hole.

Meyer has indeed tried to adapt his personnel to fit into his offensive scheme and if anything is obvious, it is that this adjustment has taken far longer than either Meyer or Leak envisioned. Unlike the situation with Reaves adapting to the Dickey offense in 1970, however, Leak has shown signs of adaptability. There have been occasions when it seemed like he was on the verge of taking total command of the spread option but then there have been those road trips to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. After Saturday's showing, Meyer appears to have a quarterback with a confidence problem on his hands.

Meyer's formula for success worked at Bowling Green and Utah where he didn't have near as much talent as he inherited at Florida. There was a period of adjustment at both schools and some times when Josh Harris (Bowling Green) and Alex Smith (Utah) struggled to make the offense work. Harris and Smith had the advantage of riding the pines before Meyer arrived. Leak was already an established and successful quarterback in the SEC, a thrower of note and not a runner by any stretch of the imagination.

Meyer has said all along that Leak could run the offense and that the offense would adjust to his particular talents. He's struggling with the adjustment to a new offense and new requirements of his abilities but it is far too easy to blame the quarterback for the failures of the entire unit. Unfortunately, because the quarterback is the visible triggerman of the offensive attack, he is blamed unfairly for everything that goes wrong.

Just as it is unfair to blame all the problems on Leak, it is also unfair to declare the spread option a total bust. Restless fans are calling for immediate implementation of something new and placing the spread option on the scrap heap but that's not the answer for the long haul.

Scrapping the offense isn't going to happen, but there are adjustments and tweaks that have to be made or else Florida is going to have to win with defense and special teams the rest of the way. Here are my own observations through seven games about what's going on, why it isn't working and what could be done.

1. HERE COMES THE BLITZ: The blitz should NOT cause an inordinate amount of problems for this offense. In fact, if the offense is being run properly, the blitz should be an invitation for one big play after another. Why? Because if teams are blitzing there is little or no safety help and that usually means it's one-on-one with the wide receivers. The offense is designed to force match-up problems and create one-on-one situations. There is a combination of reasons why the offense is sputtering every time there is a blitz. The offensive line can only take so much of the credit since teams are generally blitzing more people than there are linemen. You can't hold five linemen accountable for blocking six or seven rushers. A portion of the credit has to go to the quarterback who has about two seconds to make his decision what to do once the ball is snapped. Either he has to locate a receiver and unload the ball quickly or else he's got to find a gap and run through it. Right now, it seems the blitz has brought total paralysis to the offense and you can bet blitz-happy Willie Martinez, the Georgia defensive coordinator, is just licking his chops in anticipation of October 29. 2. GET RID OF THE FOOTBALL: Chris Leak has been sacked 21 times in seven games, and while there is justifiable concern with the offensive line play, at least half of the sacks are coverage sacks. That means the offensive line gave the quarterback adequate time to find a receiver. You can't realistically expect the offensive line to hold off the pass rush forever. Coverage sacks aren't completely the fault of the quarterback, either. The receivers have a responsibility to find a way to get open and it's obvious, they have to do a better job there. Leak has to get better at recognizing that when no one is open, it's time to tuck the ball and make what yardage he can out of the play with his feet. Second and six is a far better situation than second and 10 if he throws it away or second and 16 if he gets sacked.

3. MAKE THE DEFENSE ACCOUNTABLE FOR THE QUARTERBACK: For the offense to run properly, the defense has to be accountable for the quarterback on every play. That means the quarterback has to be enough of a running presence that the linebackers are hesitant to drop in coverage or come on the blitz. It is not only about scrambling when the pass protection breaks down, either. If the receivers are covered and he's got a chance to make positive yards, he has to take the yards. He hasn't gotten to that point where he automatically takes the opening when he sees it. The offense is about moving the chains and putting the team in manageable second and third down situations. Because there is the option element, Leak has to figure out that he only needs to tuck the ball and head upfield on the option two or three times every game to establish that threat. Once he's established himself as a threat the linebackers can no longer ignore him as a runner and head straight for the pitch man. n the line on the option they totally ignore him as a runner and head straight for the pitch man. For Leak to establish himself as a running presence, he's got to somehow grow into a decisive quarterback very quickly. Since he is not a natural runner, he needs to concentrate on staying more north and south, getting positive yards and then hitting the deck before he takes a big hit. He doesn't need to run for big yards, just enough yards to make the defense respect him.

4. SPREAD THE BALL AROUND: The five-wide receiver sets can and will work. The chief reason they aren't working is because there are only two receivers who are getting the football. I'm not sure if this is pre-determed by the play calls or a lack of confidence that Leak has in Kyle Morgan, Gavin Dickey, Tate Casey and Kenneth Tookes. When those four are in the game, absolutely no one on the defense respects them as pass catchers. Their presence is a total and complete waste if they don't get the ball thrown their way at least a few times, enough to make the defense acknowledge that they are a potential threat. Granted, none of them have the playmaking abilities of Dallas Baker, Chad Jackson or Jemalle Cornelius, but they can catch the football and with all the attention being paid to Jackson and Baker, it would be hard to imagine that they cannot get open. If you watch the replays, you'll generally see that at least one of them is running free in the secondary. This situation is akin to the quarterback running the option. Just as the quarterback only needs to run the ball a couple of times each game to establish the threat, Leak only needs to throw the ball in the direction of Morgan, Dickey, Casey and Tookes to get the attention of the defense. Who knows? Maybe they'll actually catch the ball and positive yards can be gained. It's a waste to go five wide if everyone in the ball yard knows that three of these guys aren't going to get the football. Florida proved in 2001 that you can have a record setting offense running two wide receivers 85 percent of the time. But if you're not going to throw the ball to more than two receivers then these guys should be pulled in to max protect.

5. BETTER PLAY SELECTION: At LSU and two weeks before at Alabama, the Gators were far too predictable. Saturday, the Gators kept going to the screen passes that LSU obviously had scouted perfectly. LSU jumped every single screen pass which means either Florida is that predictable or else they had something that tipped off what was coming their way. Another example of predictability is how Tate Casey is being used. Every time Casey went in motion, LSU expected the crack back block. When Casey lined up in a bunch formation, LSU knew the toss sweep was coming. Throughout the season we've seen the Gators determined to run certain plays even when they aren't working. Meanwhile, there are certain plays that have apparently been shelved, such as the reverse. The reverse has usually worked for yardage and it's pretty much disappeared. Granted, the best threat on the reverse is Bubba Caldwell, who's out for the season, but there are other players who can run it. When Meyer was at Utah, the Utes ran pass plays off the reverse. With Gavin Dickey in the lineup, why not give plays like that a shot? Something, anything to shake things up and put an end to the predictability.

6. STARTING OFF IN THE HOLE: The Gators have been downright pathetic on their opening drives, unable to move the ball consistently. Florida has yet to score on an opening drive this season. With the defense playing as well as it has, what a boost they would get if the Gators would take an opening kickoff and move the ball methodically downfield for some kind of score. Even a field goal would be nice at this point. Seven games into the season, however, Florida is scoreless on the opening drive and pretty much a slow starter offensively which the first quarter numbers for the season will bear out. Florida's opening drives have shown very little imagination or flair. Since the Gators really need a jumpstart, why not use the opening drive to run at least one unique play that has a chance to catch the defense with its pants down? That may not be the answer, but someone needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat with something that will work.


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