With the introduction of Paul Johnson's offense into the ACC, this year's addition of the spread option at Virginia, and a few new coordinators in the league, the subject of schemes and X's and O's, came up over and over again. Randy Shannon of Miami was a little dismissive of the idea that a change in offensive coordinators in Coral Cables would produce a learning curve for his offense.
"Offenses and defenses don't really change, except for when you play Georgia Tech – their offense," Shannon said. "Everybody runs a zone play, everybody runs an ‘iso' play, everybody runs play-action passes – it's jut the verbiage that's different. I think what Coach (Mark) Whipple did this spring, and the players picked it up like it wasn't anything … it's an NFL offense, and they picked up everything like it was normal. They're football junkies."
Virginia's spring game was a pass-fest, with three different quarterbacks throwing the ball all around Scott Stadium, but Al Groh seemed to find it fascinating that the idea that passing the football is something new for his teams.
"We've been three-wide receivers a good bit of the last few years, and that was while our tight end was a viable threat – whether it was Miller, Santi, Phillips – they were split out wide, they were catch-the-ball tight ends, they weren't one of these tight ends that caught 11 passes, " Groh said. "Whether they were wide receivers, we operated with four legitimate receivers in the game a lot. So the idea that we're open here to throw the ball, this is not a novel concept on what we've been willing to do."
Groh acknowledged, however, the increased risk of injury as the new offense in Virginia will expose his quarterbacks more, but he believes Virginia is in good shape, personnel-wise, to adopt a new offensive scheme.
"One of the reasons we practice pass protections is to keep our quarterback from getting hit," Groh said. "If you suddenly turn around and you yourself encourage him to get hit and he's not a particularly big player, then clearly, you're rolling the dice, and then your whole team falls apart," Groh said. "This particular year, we look like we have enough players that if something happens to any one of the three, we're still going to have two legitimate guys to put in the game."
It was curious that the head coaches of teams that traditionally have done well along the recruiting trail, like Miami and Clemson, seem less impressed with the importance of schemes and tactics.
"I mean, they're important," new Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. "You can't be the ‘Village Idiot.' They're important, but if they were ‘the' thing, then me and Paul (Johnson) would meet at the field and there'd be some referees and they'd go ‘ooh, and ahh,' and they'd look at those X's and O's and go ‘you win.' It comes down to players." Swinney acknowledged he would have some input on offense, but has confidence in Billy Napier at offensive coordinator, though it's the first time Napier will have coordinated an offense at this level.
For another first-time head coach, Boston College's Frank Spaziani, the type of offense run has less to do with success than the mind of the person running it. Spaziani had high praise for his choice at offensive coordinator, Gary Tranquill, who he has known, coached with and against, for many years.
"I like coaching with him better than against him," Spaziani said. "You knew Gary was going to have a plan for you, and he was going to make you figure it out, he was going to know the weaknesses, the strengths, personnel. You just know what type of coach he is and you better be prepared for things you're not anticipating, because he's a step ahead of you. He knows his offense better than most people know their defense."
With all the talk of offense and the success of Georgia Tech last season, does head coach Paul Johnson think that some other ACC team will attempt to implement a "flexbone" offense like his? In a word, no.
"There's a saying that perception is reality - the perception is that running the football is three-yards and a cloud of dust," Johnson said, suggesting that athletic directors would be uneasy about bringing in an offense perceived to be "boring."
At the same time, Johnson acknowledged the value of personnel; that it's not just abut the X's and O's. "Physical superiority will cancel all theory," Johnson said, though adding in a third concept – execution. "Schemes have something to do with it, but the team that executes the best wins."
With so many teams returning quarterbacks with starting experience, in some cases several years, and with so many good young running backs in the league, offenses look to be much improved, unless it is a down year for wide receivers. No coach appeared ready to concede that their wide receivers would be less than sufficient.
"I think we're better as a group at receiver than we were a year ago," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I don't think there is any question. Overall, more speed. Eron (Riley) is a great loss, he was a big play guy, but we'll have a faster, more athletic unit at receiver."
Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said, "What's different this year is this receiving corps is the by far the fastest group since we've been at Wake Forest." And while acknowledging that some in Wake's receiver corps have had durability issues, he insisted, "From a talent perspective, Riley (Skinner's) got a little bit more speed and a little bit more talent to throw to."
Still with all the talk of X's and O's on offense, and the potential for increased productivity of ACC offenses in 2009, at least one ACC coach remained skeptical that offenses would gain ground on ACC defenses next season.
"This is a year where you should see more offensive production out of a lot of teams in the league, but I think there are still some great defenders out there," Grobe said. "It's going to be tough sledding. Ever since I've been at Wake Forest, it's been a very impressive defensive football league. Every Saturday you struggle to find ways to make first downs, much less score points, just try to find a way to keep your offense out there and make first downs.
"On paper, it looks like, especially with more than half the teams bringing back pretty good quarterbacks, that there could be a move on the offensive side. I'm not confident that will happen, but we'll see."