Counts could feel Reid's pain because he had been in the exact situation in 1999, when Fedora took over as offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State and installed the no-huddle, spread offense. Up until then Fedora had been an offensive assistant coach at Baylor and Air Force but had never been an offensive coordinator and given the authority to run the offense he desired. "We had a team (at Middle Tennessee State) that we weren't going to match up with anybody else talent-wise, and I had just come from Air Force," Fedora says. "If you're not going to just be better than somebody, then do something different. It was either going to be run the option (like we did at Air Force) or we were going to spread the field, and multi-tempo it. We didn't have the quarterback (in Counts) to run the option so we decided to spread the field, and it started from there, and we haven't stopped since."
Counts and the Blue Raiders struggled that first season in Fedora's offense – winning just three of 11 games. "We were terrible," Fedora remembers. Counts threw for 2,603 yards and 14 touchdowns but also was intercepted 13 times. He averaged 35 passes per game. The Blue Raiders improved to 6-5 during the 2000 season – Fedora's second year at Middle Tennessee State – with Counts throwing for 1,536 yards and eight touchdowns while attempting nearly 200 fewer passes. The Blue Raiders' no-huddle, spread offense with Counts leading the way was unstoppable in 2001. The Blue Raiders finished 9-2 with Counts throwing for 2,327 yards, 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Counts led the nation in passing efficiency by completing 72.6 percent of his passes and was voted the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, while Middle Tennessee finished as the fifth best offense among Division I schools.
"It was a ball. Offensively, it didn't matter who we played," Counts said recently. "Coach Fedora started a saying that year – ‘It doesn't matter what they do. It's not about them.' He would beat that into our heads. Every meeting, every game, (he stressed) it's not about who's across from us. If the 11 guys on the field did what we could do, then we could go play with anybody. They're going to know that we're there, and we're going to move the ball up and down the field. In 2000, we went to Michigan State, and I think they were eighth defensively in the country and we put up 35 points on them. They had to score 60 in that game – we didn't have a very good defense – but we could move the ball on anybody.
But Counts (and Fedora, too) knows that the transformation from that first season in which the Blue Raiders won just three games to the 9-2 campaign his senior year didn't happen overnight. "I think the difference between the first year and the second year is things were moving so fast for us because that was our first year in (Division) I-A," he says. "We just weren't used to running up to the line and actually waiting for the referee to put the ball in play. That was a lot of our problem the first year ... then you get another spring practice in, another whole summer working out and then another August (of two-a-days) and that's when we really started having the success that we had. Even during that 2000 season most of our wins came in the second half of the year."
Fedora admits that it's a good thing he wasn't big enough to play on the offensive line, or even running back, during his high school playing days in College Station, Texas, or while earning All-American honors as a wide receiver at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Because Fedora's offensive philosophy would probably be different. "I don't think I could ever see myself running a three yards and a cloud of dust offense, but maybe if I was an offensive lineman. I don't know," he says.
Fedora knew early in his life – as a freshman in high school to be exact– that he wanted to be a football coach, and he soon realized that he wanted to be an offensive coach. "I've always been drawn to offense – my whole life. I always liked having the ball in my hands. I always liked scoring touchdowns," he says.
He got plenty of opportunities in the early 1980s at Austin College, where the Kangaroos were a couple of decades ahead of the trend seen across the United States today on high school football fields on Friday nights, in college stadiums on Saturdays and in the NFL on Sundays. "In the early ‘80s we were throwing it before people were really slinging it around, so that was enticing (to a high school wide receiver). I went up there (to Austin College) and got to catch a lot of balls," said Fedora, who earned honorable mention All-American honors as a junior and senior.
Fedora's coaching career began at Austin College as a graduate assistant, and then he spent four years on the staff at Garland (Texas) High School. He broke into the college ranks as an assistant coach at Baylor (where he would meet current OSU head coach Mike Gundy), and befriended former NFL quarterback Cotton Davidson who was on the Baylor staff. "(Davidson) had a lot of influence on my thoughts on the passing game," Fedora says. "Really it was more studying the game, watching different teams, watching different coaches become successful and what got them there. I was never really infatuated with the three yards and a cloud of dust (philosophy). It just wasn't me, my cup of tea."
Fedora spent two years as the passing game and receivers coach at Air Force – which would be similar to being the party coordinator at the Vatican. But the Falcons were preparing to play Washington in the Oahu Bowl in Hawaii in December of 1998 when Fedora got a call asking if he wanted to be an offensive coordinator. "People were like, ‘You're not going to leave Air Force for Middle Tennessee State, are you?' But it was an opportunity for me to run my own offense, and I wanted to see if I could do it," he says.
In three years at Middle Tennessee State – with the help of Counts and running back Dwone Hicks who was named the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2001 – he made a name for himself as the Blue Raiders broke 43 offensive school records. Fedora was hired at Florida where he spent time as the run game coordinator (2002), perimeter game coordinator (2003) and offensive coordinator (2004).
The Cowboys were terrible on offense last season – there's simply no other way to put it. They ranked 114th (out of 119 Division I-A teams) in turnover margin (-1.36 per game), they were No. 92 in total offense, No. 96 in scoring offense and 98th in passing offense. The 43-year-old Fedora (he will turn 44 on Sept. 10) knows the Cowboys must be better offensively to win more than the four games they won a year ago.
"We weren't really a spread offense last year because we really didn't have the personnel to do it. Even though we spread it out some we really weren't a spread offense," he says. "But we'll be closer to it this year, and even closer the next year, and hopefully you eventually get to where you want to be."
Fedora says his philosophy in the no-huddle, spread offense is simple – stretch the defense to give your 11 offensive players an advantage. "The field is 53 and three quarters yards wide, and we want to spread the field and make the defense spread with you," Fedora says. "Any time you spread 11 guys out across there you're going to create bigger seams in the defense, and if you can get them to spread out with you, you're going to be able to run the ball more efficiently also.
"I just wasn't smart enough to line up with all 10 guys in there and figure out how to block all 10 of theirs. You have to have a great running back, you have to have really good linemen who can smash you, so when we really put this offense together we didn't have the people (at Middle Tennessee State) that could do that. We had a quarterback who could throw it a little bit, we had some receivers, the offensive line was just very average, and the running back was a decent kid. So we spread it out and put the ball in people's hands in open spaces where they could make one defender miss and make a big play or get six or seven yards out of it."
Fedora, offensive line coach Joe Wickline (who has spent the last eight years coaching with Fedora), running backs coach Curtis Luper, receivers coach Gunter Brewer and tight ends coach Doug Meacham suffered through last season's struggles together. "Heck yeah, I had to counsel myself," says Fedora. "As a coach you want to win in the worst way. You don't care if it's the first year or the 15th year (at a school), you're wanting to win. You know how much you work and how much effort you put into it. Even though it's going to be the first year, and you know it's going to be tough, you don't work any less. If anything, you work even harder because you're trying to make it work."
Fedora has seen firsthand what Counts was talking about when the former Middle Tennessee State quarterback said the most improvement came following the second year of spring practice, the players working out together over the summer, and another round of two-a-day practices. For that reason – and talented players like Reid at quarterback, Michael Hamilton at running back, D'Juan Woods and Adarius Bowman at wide receivers, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew – the Cowboy offensive coordinator expects major improvement throughout the 2006 season. "I hope it looks a world of difference (from 2005). I hope there's a big change," he says. "I hope we can score some points. I hope that we can take care of the football, and not put our defense in such bad situations, and just be more efficient. Obviously, if we keep crossing white lines (on the field) until you run out of them or score a touchdown ... the main thing is to be efficient. You know as a coach you're not going to score on every series you go out there. But if we can go out there and score, or kick (a field goal) for a score, or maybe kick our opponent inside their own 20 where they've got to go 80 yards (for a touchdown), then we're being more efficient."
Fedora expects better play from Reid, thinks that wide receiver Adarius Bowman will prevent opponents from keying on D'Juan Woods, and is excited about the prospect of tight end Brandon Pettigrew becoming a big-time receiver. Reid, who says he is beginning to feel more comfortable in the offense, is the key to the Cowboys' success. "I think it's tremendously important (that he feels comfortable)," Fedora says. "In this offense you're only going to be as good as your quarterback, basically. The quarterback has to put it in the receiver's hands, so you're only going to go as far as he'll take you. Obviously, they all work together but it's critical that he feels comfortable. There's a reason those guys don't play until their fifth year in (Texas Tech head coach) Mike Leach's system, and all of them do very well after four years of learning it."
Fedora again goes back to Wes Counts and the improvement he made in three years. "He started as a sophomore and was not very good. He got better, much better, his junior year. His senior year, he was very good. Rex Grossman was (at Florida) our first year there, and Chris (Leak) came in as a freshman the next year. From his freshman year to his sophomore year he made unbelievable improvement."
Counts, one of the few who can speak from experience, believes in the no-huddle, spread offense. How could he not be one of its biggest supporters? The 6-1, 185-pound senior engineered the greatest comeback in Middle Tennessee history with 28 fourth-quarter points to beat New Mexico State – completing 13 of 16 passes for 218 yards in the fourth quarter alone. He threw for a school record 459 yards and six touchdowns (also a school record) in a win over Idaho, and his 290.56 passing efficiency rating ranked as the second best single-game performance in 2001. Counts also completed 27 of 36 passes for 308 yards in the school's first ever victory over a Southeastern Conference school (Vanderbilt), and he completed the first 11 passes in a 28-of-35 performance for 274 yards and two touchdowns against Louisiana-Monroe.
Counts warns Cowboy fans to be ready. "For the (Oklahoma State) fans, I would just tell them to hold on because it's probably going to get pretty exciting this year," Counts says. "When (the offense) gets up there and everybody looks back at the sideline it drives the fans nuts. I know even when we were playing the fans would go nuts over that. They hate it. But if they're just patient with it ... it is unusual but if it was successful for Middle Tennessee then it can be successful for Oklahoma State, because they're working with a lot better players than we ever thought about having."
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