There is a common misconception about the spread offense in college football that it’s more of a finesse scheme that goes completely against the grain of the ground-and-pound offenses of the Big Ten. Spreads tend to use speed to keep defenses on their heels whereas Power formations like you’ll find in the Big Ten tend to wear down defenses with bruising running games. Mining the data a bit deeper, the major difference-in-difference factor are the size of both scheme’s offensive lines. It’s common knowledge that Power-I schools like in the Big Ten will draw the largest offensive linemen because they are used to bulldoze a path for running backs who will get most of the touches on the team. But most people believe that because spread offenses throw the ball more and sacrifice size for speed means they opt for smaller, more mobile lineman. Sure you’ll be hard-pressed to find 6’6″ 330 lbs OL’s across the board in spread systems but just because a football team is tabbed as ‘spread’ doesn’t always equate to being ‘finesse’.
Case in point is Cincinnati. What we as Bearcat fans have witnessed over the past few years is that UC has evolved into more of a run-oriented team despite operating 95% of the time out of the shotgun. The success of this offense all starts with the line and for comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at the size of UC’s offensive linemen over the past 5 seasons:
|Aaron Brown||DB||*** - 80||** - 5.4||-||**|
|Mark Barr Jr.||WR||** - 79||*** - 5.5||*** - 73||**|
|Chris Burton||TE||*** - 84||*** - 5.5||*** - 70||***|
|Tyler Cogswell||QB/TE||*** - 82||*** - 5.7||*** - 79||***|
|Korey Cunningham||DE||*** - 80||** - 5.4||-||***|
|Darren Doston||DB||*** - 82||*** - 5.6||*** - 73||***|
|Ben Flick||OG||** - 76||*** - 5.5||*** - 70||***|
|Javon Harrison||ATH||*** - 80||*** - 5.5||*** - 76||***|
|Terrell Hartsfield||DE||*** - 88||-||** - 69||***|
|Johnny Holton||WR||** - 70||-||-||-|
|Tshumbi Johnson||ATH||*** - 87||*** - 5.6||*** - 74||***|
|Travis Johnson||TE||*** - 89||*** - 5.7||**** - 83||****|
|Rasheen Jones||OLB||*** - 84||*** - 5.7||*** - 75||***|
|Jerrell Jordan||DE||*** - 85||*** - 5.5||*** - 74||****|
|Rodriguez Moore||RB||**** - 90||*** - 5.5||*** - 79||-|
|Brent Stockstill||QB||*** - 83||** - 5.3||*** - 75||**|
|Mike Tyson||S/OLB||*** - 83||*** - 5.5||** - 68||****|
|Howard Wilder||CB||*** - 83||-||*** - 79||***|
|Hosey Williams||RB||*** - 87||-||-||-|
|Mark Wilson||DE||** - 79||** - 5.4||** - 69||-|
The second thing that should jump out at you is the huge drop in size during the 2009 season. To explain this I need to speak about Cincinnati’s offensive line recruiting over the last few years. When Mark Dantonio took over before the 2005 season he brought along the schemes he learned at Ohio State; the I-formation with a tailback getting most of the touches and a fullback plowing the way behind a big offensive line. Dantonio’s offenses were as boring as watching paint dry but the man recruited hard-nosed, burly football players that you see in the Big Ten. In that sense, Brian Kelly greatly benefited from huge offensive linemen when he took over and that explains why UC’s OL were so big in his first two seasons.
But by 2009 most of Dantonio’s players were gone and the offensive linemen playing for Kelly at the time were by-and-large his own recruits or at least coached and trained under one of his assistants. It’s no secret that Kelly opted for smaller, quicker linemen to run his offense that almost exclusively passed the ball. In this sense he proved the naysayers right that smaller offensive linemen were ideal for passing teams, especially considering the kind of success he had at Cincinnati. But while Kelly did a lot of things right as a coach, he neglected recruiting. His recruiting boards lacked depth and when a prospect elected to commit elsewhere Kelly took the easy way out by offering players who he KNEW would become Bearcats while overlooking those that he might have to do a little work to get. In that vein of though if he needed offensive linemen, he would go after kids who played tight end or defensive end in high school but didn’t get an offer to play that in college and converted them to a new role at Cincinnati. Sometimes it worked but most of the time it was like fitting a square peg in a round hole no matter how hard Kelly tried.
Forcing kids to gain 40-50 lbs in order to play offensive line in college took time and, long story short, that is why there is a sharp drop in 2009. Recruiting ‘projects’ as they are called should be synonymous with recruiting at UC under Brian Kelly. Then in 2010, Butch Jones took over. As an interlude to the his philosophy of recruiting let’s look at how his offensive linemen’s measurables compared to Brian Kelly’s between their respective campaigns at Central Michigan and Cincinnati:
Big East Ranking
The idea of recruiting bigger offensive linemen makes sense considering Jones’ offense is a balanced attack of both running and passing the football. This was opposed to the Kelly philosophy of scoring as fast as possible and might be one of the only offenses in the country that wore out its OWN DEFENSE just as much as the other team’s. But even though Jones likes running the ball more than Kelly doesn’t mean he didn’t sling it around as well. Central Michigan ranked 16th, 11th, and 20th in passing yards between 2007 and 2009. They led the MAC in passing in 2007 and came in 2nd the following two years. Having an All-MAC God in Dan LeFevour helps but it goes to show that spreads can have big offensive linemen and still pass the ball very effectively. Once Jones gets a quarterback that fits his system (Coyne, Coney) some experience expect the Bearcats offense to be just as explosive through the air as it was under Kelly.
This is one of the reasons why I am so encouraged about Butch Jones as Cincinnati’s head coach. I’m in the camp that games are won or lost in the trenches and Jones clearly wants to make sure he has the horses to push other teams around on offense. Even though Cincinnati is labelled as a ‘spread’ system, the Bearcats are clearly being built to run it down the throats of other teams just as much as they’ll go deep through the air. Being able to score in a variety of ways only makes UC’s offense that much more dangerous and chewing up clock on that side of the ball, unlike under Brian Kelly, will help preserve the defense later in games. Butch Jones is building a program to stand the test of time and this transition to bigger, stronger offensive linemen is a clear example of the exciting prospect of what is ahead for this football team in the future.