Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rich Rodriguez: Twice a Pioneer?

It is well-documented that Rich Rodriguez is the pioneer, or "Godfather," of the spread option. The last two weeks, it appears as if he is pioneering "Spread Option v.2:" this time with an elite athlete behind center.

For years, conventional "wisdom" has held that quarterbacks have to be big. Big enough to stand in the pocket and see passing lanes. Big enough to absorb punishment. Even in college football, at least on an elite level, quarterbacks under 6-2 have been the exception and not the rule, and the preference has been at least 6-4, with 6-5 or 6-6 being "ideal." It's almost as though there has been a de facto "rule" against using a QB under six feet tall since the demise of the triple option attack.

Quarterbacks have been used to distribute the ball, whether through the air, or by simply handing it to a running back, but they have not been encouraged to run the ball for fear of injury. This has made it easier for defenses because the QB is no longer a threat to run, so they don't really have to account for him. This has given defenses a numerical advantage over offenses.

When Rich Rodriguez invented the spread option, he basically combined the old triple option offense with the run and shoot. For fans, such as myself, who used to wonder what would happen if option QB's actually passed once in awhile, it has been very refreshing. For those who remember how much space the run and shoot gave Barry Sanders, it has also been great to watch.

RR's use of Pat White was an eye-opener. He didn't have the best arm when he started, but developed into a servicable passer by his junior year. As his recent failure to crack an NFL rotation showed, White doesn't have an NFL arm and his athleticism isn't considered to be so elite as to force them to give him an opportunity at another position, but he was able to pass for 6,051 yards and 56 touchdowns in four seasons while rushing for 4,480 yards and 47 touchdowns. This works out to 10,531 yards of total offense and 103 touchdowns in four years.

White was very close to what RR has today; he is a close-to-elite athlete with a decent arm and above-average speed. White, even though he was seen by most schools primarily as a safety, could be better described as a bridge between a conventional QB and what RR has now at Michigan. Enter Denard Robinson.

Denard has world class speed, and is a truly elite athlete. He was recruited by most schools as a CB or reciever, but was promised by RR a chance to compete at QB. Denard is generously listed as six feet tall, and doesn't fit into what scouts or coaches usually seek as "prototypical QB's," but was given the opportunity promised by RR: he was allowed to compete for the QB position.

As we have all seen the first two games, Denard has been successful. He has rushed for 455 yards and passed for 430 for 885 yards of total offense against two D-1 opponents projected to play in bowls this season. He has rushed for three TD's, including one for 87 yards against Notre Dame, and passed for two.

I know that projections based on a sample like this one are regression fallacies, but I will do it anyway for the fun of it. If Denard were to somehow sustain this level of performance, it would work out to 2,730 yards rushing with 18 touchdowns, and 2,580 yards passing with 12 touchdowns, for a total offense of 5,210 yards and 30 touchdowns. The most amazing feature of Denard's stats so far is that he has gotten all of them within the flow of RR's offense. There hasn't been any "gimmickry" such as Tim Tebow's status as main option in the goal line offense.

I'm not in any way predicting that Denard will actually amass these kind of statistics over twelve games, but I am pretty sure that he will look quite good by the end of the season. Most of all, the team will look a lot better at the end of the season than it has the last three.

Denard has earned all of this with his own work ethic, talent, speed, ability to grasp the offense, ability to manage a game, and ability to put it all together on gameday, but it was RR who gave him a chance when no other elite team would. RR has challanged a lot of "conventional wisdom with Denard." If RR were part of the herd instead of a pioneer, he may have listened to "pearls of wisdom" such as these:

A player as fast as Denard should be a CB, RB, or reciever.
A QB under six feet won't get the job done.
QB's are fragile, and should carry the ball as seldom as possible to prevent injuries.

Instead, RR has given Denard the "green light" to make his own decisions once the play has started. So far, the results are staggering. This version of the spread option may be RR's most successful version yet.

What are possible future implications if what could be known in retrospect as "The Denard Experiment" yields a National Championship and a Heisman? I will cover that tomorrow.

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