Thursday, September 10, 2009

Snapping to nonquarterback gains yardage and converts

SEC runs wild with 'wildcat' play

MEMPHIS — Every Alabama football coach since the legendary Bear Bryant has created his own "first."

Ray Perkins was the first 'Bama coach to tear down Bryant's coaching tower. Bill Curry was the first to have a brick thrown through his office window.

Gene Stallings was the first (and only) 'Bama coach to win a national title since Bryant. Mike DuBose was the first to admit to an improper relationship with his secretary.

Dennis Francione was the first to leave on his own for a new job (Texas A&M) after two winning seasons. Mike Price was the first to be fired before even coaching his first game. Mike Shula was the first to lose to in-state rival Auburn four straight years.

Current Alabama coach Nick Saban created his own first in last weekend's season-opening 34-24 victory over Virginia Tech. By having tailback Mark Ingram take the Tide's first snap for a 3-yard gain from the shotgun formation, it appeared to be the first time in modern Alabama football history that a Tide quarterback didn't take the game's opening snap.

The Tide ran the play often, usually with Ingram on straight-ahead runs but once on an end-around to receiver Julio Jones. Alabama didn't break any big plays, but the fact Alabama has now added the package, known as the "Wildhog" when Arkansas and Houston Nutt's staff introduced it to the SEC in 2006, is concrete evidence the formation isn't just a fly-by-night gimmick.

"We've learned the last few years playing Arkansas and Ole Miss the problems it presents," said Saban, who probably needs a snappy nickname for the formation like "High Tide." "We always have to work hard to prepare to defend it, so we thought it would be a good thing (to add). I don't think we were prepared last year to use it, but we spent some time investigating it in the offseason so we could implement it with the least amount of adjustments."

More and more SEC coaches have added the direct snap to a nonquarterback, basically an updated version of the old single wing, because of the addition of motioning a man toward the back taking the snap. Ole Miss employs running back/receiver Dexter McCluster as its "Wild Rebel" engineer. South Carolina would like to use defensive back Stephon Gilmore, but hasn't done so. Tennessee used receiver Gerald Jones last year as the formation's triggerman, as did Florida with Percy Harvin.

"It's like any other offensive new trend," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, whose defense gave up a SEC record-tying 321 yards to Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, who was often the Hogs' QB in the Wildhog formation in 2006-07. "If it's working and the other team can't stop it, you keep using it. Obviously, there's a good defense for everything. We all just keep figuring out new things to get the right play called."

Even now as the formation begins its fourth year in the SEC, why does it still work most of the time?

First, it stretches a defense.

"It gives you the wide play, combined with the inside play, and combining that makes it dangerous," LSU coach Les Miles said.

Added Spurrier, "And the misdirection (with the back in motion for a handoff or fake handoff) makes it more difficult."

Secondly, it's basic math.

"It gives you an extra running back, so it's 10-on-11 against the defense, rather than just having nine-on-11 with a quarterback who just hands the ball off," Florida coach Urban Meyer said.

But for the offense to truly be effective, to keep defenses from crowding the line and blitzing, it's a huge bonus for whoever is taking the direct snap to be an adequate passer.

There hasn't been anyone who has run the offense as well as McFadden operated it his last two years at Arkansas, when he completed 13-of-20 passes for 192 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.

"You try to add a few wrinkles here and there to keep people off balance," said Nutt, who likens the formation to a pitcher having a knuckleball in his repertoire. "But what truly makes it a triple threat is to have someone who can run it, hand it and throw it. That offense took off (at Arkansas), because Darren could throw so well."

McCluster, who at 5-8 is 6 inches shorter than McFadden, was 0-of-5 passing last year with two interceptions. But he has been working on his throwing because he knows it's getting tougher to break big plays when defenses aim solely at stopping his running.

"Defenses are starting to catch on to it (the Wild Rebel), because a lot of teams are running it," said McCluster, who ran for 50 yards on nine carries in Sunday's 45-14 season-opening win over Memphis. "But if you have the right people executing, with everybody getting a hat on their man (making blocks), one crease can make the difference."

Saturday's Games

Troy at Florida, 11 a.m. CDT; WLMT (30)

UCLA at Tennessee, 3 p.m. CDT; ESPN

Florida International at Alabama, 6 p.m.

Mississippi State at Auburn, 6 p.m.; FSTN

South Carolina at Georgia, 6 p.m. CDT; ESPN2

Vanderbilt at LSU, 6 p.m.; ESPNU

Knoxville News Sentinel


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