Posted by Kevin Scarbinsky -- Birmingham News August 01, 2009 1:43 PM
This story appeared in the Saturday, August 1, edition of The Birmingham News.
Urban Meyer remembers two things in particular from his first road trip to Alabama in his first season at Florida.
Before and after that visit to Bryant-Denny Stadium, he heard voices.
During warm-ups, he said, "I'm standing near the goal post. They flip that scoreboard on. Bear Bryant is right there talking to me. I'll never forget that."
But that pregame blast from the past didn't speak as loudly as the postgame critics. They saw Alabama 31, Florida 3 as a sign that Meyer wasn't going to change the future of the SEC.
At least not with his newfangled offense. It looked like the spread was dead on arrival.
"I was very concerned," Meyer said. "I started believing what I was hearing."
Four years, two SEC championships and two BCS titles later, seeing is believing. It hasn't turned the SEC into the Big 12, and it hasn't happened as fast as the legend of Tim Tebow, but the spread has begun to spread from Gainesville throughout the conference.
"There certainly is some gratification in that," Meyer said.
Three SEC schools hired new head coaches after last season. Two of them will run a version of the spread offense.
Mississippi State hired Dan Mullen, Meyer's long-time offensive coordinator, as its new head coach even before Florida won its second national title in three years.
The Bulldogs traded Sylvester Croom's failed West Coast offense for the Meyer-Mullen spread they started together at Bowling Green, took to Utah and brought to Florida.
"I don't know if we're spread option, spread passing, spread running or just spread," Mullen said. "To me, we're a multiple spread team. I want to make sure the defense has to defend the field sideline to sideline."
Auburn swapped one kind of spread for another when new head coach Gene Chizik hired Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator.
That brings the number of true spread teams in the SEC to three, but others will feature some spread principles.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said his Razorbacks "use some of the different personnel groups that are aspects of the spread offense."
While at Arkansas, current Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt -- with Malzahn as his offensive coordinator -- popularized a spread-like set with someone other than the quarterback taking direct snaps and running or throwing.
The Wild Hog in Fayetteville has become the Wild Rebel in Oxford, with wideout Dexter McCluster the primary trigger man.
"That gives us a chance to throw a little knuckleball in there," Nutt said.
Chizik made it clear that not all spread offenses are created equal.
"I get asked all the time about the spread offense," he said. "My question back to the people who ask me about the spread offense is: Please tell me what kind of spread offense you're talking about because there's so many different variations about what people want to call the spread."
The Tony Franklin spread Auburn employed in 2008 -- at least until Tommy Tuberville fired Franklin after six games -- looked a lot different than the spread Malzahn will use this season.
"We want to run the football, but we also want to be able to have a very balanced passing attack too," Chizik said. "Everybody wants to have a balanced attack."
High school trend, too
The spread already had spread to high schools. Malzahn won multiple state championships with it as a prep head coach in Arkansas. Former Hoover coach Rush Propst did the same in Alabama.
That has changed college recruiting, especially at quarterback, Petrino said. Because so many high school teams run the spread, with the quarterback in the shotgun, it's hard to find a signal-caller who takes snaps under center. Or even huddles.
"That's something that's holding Tyler Wilson back a little bit right now," Petrino said of his highly touted redshirt freshman from Greenville, Ark., who enters fall camp as the backup to Ryan Mallett.
"He was a very good high school player, but since eighth grade, he took every snap no-huddle shotgun. Didn't even step in a huddle and call a play. Didn't get underneath the center and learn how to make a handoff."
The spread hasn't spread to the NFL, except in limited cases, such as former Auburn tailback Ronnie Brown taking direct snaps for the Miami Dolphins.
But the spread has given NFL scouts and coaches headaches as they try to evaluate players who run that system in college.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said an NFL general manager wrote asking how he looks at quarterbacks because the GM admitted "having a more difficult time evaluating players that play in that offense."
Tebow will be an interesting case study there. As a consensus builds that the Florida quarterback is one of the best players in college history, opinions of his ability to play that position in the NFL vary wildly.
"I think he'll be a winner in the NFL," Saban said. "But I think everybody needs to understand that the NFL struggles to evaluate people who don't do in college what they look for guys to do in the pros.
"I think Florida has a great offense. I think it's very difficult to defend. So I'm not being critical. But it is different."
Saban should know.
His Alabama defense was dominant last season as the Crimson Tide rolled through the regular season 12-0. Then it faced two of the most prominent proponents of the spread offense, Florida in the SEC Championship Game and Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama surrendered a season-high 31 points to both the Gators and the Utes and lost both games.
"The concept of the spread offense is outstanding because it makes the quarterback an 11th gap on defense," Saban said. "If you only had to defend that all the time, I think we could all get a little better at it. It's the multiple of the different things you see throughout the season that make it more difficult."
So the good news for SEC defenses is they'll see the spread more than ever. But that also could be bad news, at least for the defenses that have to figure a way to slow Tebow and Florida.
As much as he likes the scheme, Meyer, the spread's pied piper, said it still comes down to the players running it, not the coaches drawing it up.
Meyer remembered that the 2005 loss at Alabama came during a four-week stretch in which his offense was "probably the worst since I've been head coach." Key injuries contributed, as did the growing pains of getting older players such as then-Florida quarterback Chris Leak to adjust to the system and getting the system to adapt to the talents of Leak and his teammates.
"It's all personnel-based," Meyer said. "If you have very good players, it's going to be a very good offense."
DEFINING THE SPREAD
>> The spread is a label for several variations of the wide-open offenses now prevalent in college football. There's Rich Rodriguez's zone-read option, Florida's version of the single-wing with Tim Tebow, and Texas Tech's pass-happy Air Raid, to name just a few.
>> Most spread offenses contain no huddle, a shotgun snap, four or five receivers, and no more than one running back. Some spreads work at a fast pace to wear down defenses, and others wait at the line for a play call to match the defense.
>> The spread is all about matchups. The goal is to spread defenders across the width of the field, leaving one-on-one matchups for running backs and receivers. The spread can also recognize blitzes better because spreadout defenders can tip themselves off when they intend to blitz.
>> The quarterback is the most critical component in the spread. He must make plays on the run, both out of design and necessity when plays break down. And he better have a backup because a spread quarterback will get hit. Receivers need to read defenses and adjust routes. Tailbacks must pose receiving threats out of the backfield. Offensive linemen often play in a standing position.