Spread Out, Plugged In

In light of NU losing just about all of its skill position players from a year ago, Purple Reign asked offensive coordinator Mick McCall about the spread offense's ability to help with the transition. Inside, see why McCall doesn't think the offense will miss a beat.

If it sounds like Mick McCall talks about his players as though they're mere pieces – little more than interchangeable parts as opposed to individuals with nuanced responsibilities and skills – well, he doesn't mean anything by it.

It's not a knock, a dis, a slam. It's just the way the system works.

More than that, it's why the system works.

McCall, Northwestern's offensive coordinator, is tasked this season with orchestrating an offense that lost pretty much its entire troop of skill position players from a year ago.

A daunting task, sure. But according to McCall, the transition will be made easier by the fact that Northwestern's offense is designed in such a way that the parts – er, players – are interchangeable.

"You just plug guys into the situation," McCall said in an interview with Purple Reign.

So with NU's spread offense, it's not just a pun to say the responsibility and workload are indeed spread out. And that's one of the reasons McCall doesn't see the departure of last season's QB, running back and top three receivers being a problem.

"Whatever kind of throws you're going to make, you just work guys into the holes wherever those are going to be," McCall said. "So you just get the guys who feel good about doing certain routes and you just plug them into those spots and you make it work."

The running game, too, is a matter of plugging in the right pieces.

"(Our spread) lends to running the football with the quarterback – you can run the zone play, you can run the option, you can block the backside and then hand it off," McCall said. "It gives you flexibility within the system. It's not like you have to have a tailback who can run downhill, or you have to have a fullback who can iso block."

This season especially, flexibility is a good thing. The Cats will be plugging in some new guys with limited experience starting at the Div. I level. Junior running back Stephen Simmons has only 66 career carries, and 58 of those came in a three-week span last season when Simmons spelled injured starter Tyrell Sutton.

Presumably backing up Simmons will be Jeravin Matthews and Alex Daniel, who make Simmons look like a grizzled veteran; they have zero carries between them.

At receiver, the quartet of Zeke Markshausen, Jeremy Ebert, Andrew Brewer and Sidney Stewart is projected to step in for the top three receivers from 2008, all of whom have departed. (The fourth-leading receiver was Sutton.) What could be considered an ominous stat: The four new wideouts have only 52 combined career catches.

Again, though, with the Wildcats' spread, McCall will simply be plugging pieces into the puzzle, not riding one guy to a win. And while the new faces are just that – new – McCall is confident that they can fulfill their roles in the spread.

"Every year – that's the beauty of college football," McCall said. "Every year something is going to be different, even if it's just one or two guys. We're always going to be different with the chemistry and how people fit into the whole thing."

Though this is just his second season at NU, McCall has already seen up-close the spread's ability to accommodate a change of faces. While at Bowling Green, McCall saw one record-setting quarterback leave for the NFL, only to have a new QB step in the next season and set his own records.

In 2003, with McCall coaching the quarterbacks at Bowling Green, Josh Harris threw for more than 3,800 yards. After the season, Harris bolted for the NFL, handing over the team to Omar Jacobs, who to that point had attempted 28 career passes.

All Jacobs did was come out in 2004 and throw for 4,002 yards and an astonishing 41-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio. So McCall knows from experience that the spread can make personnel changes a little smoother. (And neither Harris nor Jacobs have attempted a pass in the NFL, so it's not as though they are world-beaters.)

Now, a few years later, McCall faces the same sort of challenge – using the spread to mask inexperience and meld players together in such a way that they make the system work.

Fortunately for NU, the system should help the players work as well.

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