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Understanding the New Washington Huskies Offense: A Syllabus

There are some great resources on the web that are available to help fans who are interested understand football concepts and tactics better. Here are some that apply to some of the new directions the Washington offense is taking.

Jaydon Mickens gives Sark flexibility in his HUNH attack
Jaydon Mickens gives Sark flexibility in his HUNH attack
Otto Greule Jr

The lazy meme among fans and some commentators about Washington's new offense is that the Huskies have copied Oregon's offense. In truth there are some things that the Huskies showed on Saturday against Boise State that are similar to what Oregon does, but plenty of things that were different as well. A corollary is that a lot of what Oregon does isn't particularly unique, it is just very well executed.

On the other end of the spectrum is another bit of misinformation that has been floated by Steve Sarkisian himself and repeated by those that repeat things professionally (i.e. the mainstream sports media): that the offense isn't "new" at all, it is just the same old stuff, run faster. I tend to disagree with that characterization and have to wonder if that wasn't a bit of gamesmanship on Sark's part in order to catch the Boise State coaching staff off guard. If it was, it seemed to work.

So if the Huskies aren't running a wholesale copy of Oregon's offense and aren't just running the same offense Sark brought with him from USC faster, what are they doing? I have some preliminary observations, with a significant caveat that some of what we all saw Saturday night may have been gameplan specific. I suspect the offense will look a bit different with Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the line-up and that each week the gameplan may evolve a bit, but, with that said, there are some broader conclusions that probably can be safely drawn.

Is this a "Spread" Offense?

I'm not really a fan of descriptors like "spread" and "pro-style" because they are often used in such a lazy way that they don't generally enhance anybody's understanding. It is a fact that football strategy and tactics are ever evolving, mostly derivative, and deeply cyclical. That makes them a moving target composed of near infinite, mostly self-referential, variations. The run heavy pro-style offense of the 1970s didn't look much like the heavily West Coast offense derived pro-style offense of the 1990s. And today's generic pro-style offense looks a lot like the college one-back offenses of the 1990s, which were themselves derived from the college one-back spread offenses that were pioneered by the Snohomish County coaching mafia (Dennis Erickson, Mike Price, Keith Gilbertson) in the Big Sky conference in the late-1980s.

As far as the spread moniker goes, people use that term to describe a wide variety of offenses that actually have less in common than you might think. The main requirement seems to be that if the base personnel grouping includes three or more wide receivers, people call it a spread. Nevermind that the Run-and-Shoot is fundamentally different from the Air Raid and the mostly zone-based spread-to-run offense that Chip Kelly ran at Oregon is massively different from both of those.

Sorry, for the extended soapbox moment on terminology. With all of that off my chest, it is probably fair to say that the offense the Huskies showed on Saturday night can be called a spread offense, as that term is commonly understood. Neither Keith Price nor Cyler Miles took a single snap from under center. The vast majority of plays featured personnel grouping with at least three wide receivers. The few times there were fewer than three receivers, there was a tight end lined up flexed or in the slot, such that they were used more like wide receivers.

The bottom line is that both the personnel grouping and formations the Huskies used were designed to force Boise State to pick its poison and to further force the defense to declare which fate it had chosen before the ball was even snapped. The combination of the personnel groupings, formations, and pace of play (covered below) gave Boise very little opportunity to try to confuse Price with different looks or pre-snap shifts. That's the way it is supposed to work.

From my perspective, what the Huskies were doing Saturday night looked an awful lot like what Noel Mazzone's offenses at UCLA and Arizona State did (or sought to do with varying success). Here is a great article on Noel Mazzone's offensive philosophy.  I also saw things that reminded me of the offense that tormented our old pal Nick Holt in the Alamo Bowl...sorry for bringing up painful memories.

What is this Hurry Up No Huddle (HUNH) thing all about?

While you'd have to be pretty unaware of the world around you to not have noticed that proliferation of hurry up offenses across college football, a lot of people still don't really understand what they are all about.  The key thing, from my perspective, is the difference between using the HUNH as a tactic (as in the classic two minute drill) and adopting it as a core philosophy. From all appearances, Sark has done the latter.

The advantages of the HUNH are multi-faceted. Casual fans and commentators tend to focus solely on the pressure it puts on a defense from a conditioning standpoint. While this is certainly important, it only scratches the surface, in my opinion. Read more about the philosophy here and here (and also here and here).

Running game - Hello Inside Zone

The Huskies rushed the ball 53 times against Boise State and averaged 5.2 yards per carry (excluding Price's sack at the end of the first half) . Bishop Sankey averaged over a yard better than that. And they did it all while running basically the same play over and over again. Out of those 53 run calls, I think at least 30-35 of them were Inside Zones.

Zone blocking isn't new, of course. It rose to prominence during the 1990s in the NFL, after having been refined by Howard Mudd and Alex Gibbs (both of whom coached the Seahawks O-line at different times, though Gibbs only briefly) from concepts that were introduced by the Man himself.

The thing that makes zone blocking especially powerful for college teams is the synergy that it creates when it is combined with shotgun and pistol spread formations and a HUNH philosophy. Obviously it enables the zone read, which is probably one of the most important and truly new ideas to come along in football in some time. That topic has absolutely been done to death, but if you really want to learn everything there is to know about the zone read, go here (but take a shower afterward).

Beyond the zone read, the other reasons zone blocking schemes are so wonderfully matched to a HUNH spread philosophy are the following:

1. Athletic and slightly leaner o-linemen thrive in zone blocking schemes. Their body types and conditioning levels are also better suited to playing at a fast pace.

2. Becoming a good zone blocking team is very repetition intensive. Programs that fully buy into the HUNH and practice the right way get more reps (many more reps) than under traditional college practice methods.

3. KISS factor (as in Keep it Simple Stupid). Many NFL teams and some college teams only have two running plays, inside zone and outside zone. A team that is fully committed to it can have an awesome running attack with only those two plays. That simplicity dovetails nicely with the imperative to simplify an offense in order to run it at a break-neck speed. Properly executed zone blocking also requires very little in the way of pre-snap adjustments to account for zone blitzes, stunts and slants. That also fits nicely with the HUNH.

There is a mountain of material available on the interwebz on the ZBS (zone blocking scheme), but you don't have to Google it for yourself. Here is a short video by football nerd/hipster/savant Scott Gerlach that is very informative and here is a pretty clear article from the always excellent Chris Brown.

Cutting Edge Stuff: Packaged Plays

Packaged plays are the other truly new development in football tactics that have come along recently. Compared to the zone read, they are still pretty nascent and cutting edge. By their very nature, they are difficult to identify on film, but based on having watched all of the offensive snaps the Huskies ran the other night multiple times, I have a strong hunch that a number of packaged concepts are part of the new Washington offense.

Once again, this fits hand in glove with the spread formations and HUNH pace that the UW is using this season. Packaged plays allow a simple call from the sidelines to result in a play that can be executed a number of ways based upon the quarterback's read of the defensive alignment, without the use of complex and time-consuming audibles or adjustments. My sense is that a number of the quick bubble screens and smoke routes that Price threw to Jaydon Mickens came on packaged plays.

If you want to learn more about packaged plays, have a look at thisthis and this.