High-powered offense is spreading
Big Ten programs following lead of Midwest high schools by running the spread
Three yards and a shoestring tackle.
Could that be the Big Ten's new motto? It's become the motto for nearly all of college football over the past decade with the advent of the spread offense.
Rich Rodriguez tried it at Michigan. Urban Meyer is bringing his to Ohio State. Penn State had its "HD Offense."
The Big Ten is no longer just a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust league. But it is nothing new for some of the high schools in the Midwest.
Rocky Pentello has been coaching at Westerville South in Ohio since 1991. He estimates his team has been running the spread offense for close to 15 years now. While Ohio and the Midwest are known for producing linemen, not every program is blessed with the horses up front year after year. Pentello and his staff began incorporating the shotgun-based spread to even the playing field.
Pentello implemented zone-blocking schemes for his offensive line, which, in its simplest terms, is predicated on blocking an area instead of just a man.
"When your linemen aren't as talented you want to use zone blocking, you use the momentum of the defense against them," Pentello said. "It's how you can hang in against bigger teams."
Much like Pentello, first-year Springfield, Ohio, coach Eric Gillespie incorporated the spread offense into his philosophies from the old split-back veer option offense from under center. Gillespie saw what Rodriguez was doing at West Virginia several years ago and realized it would be an easy transition from the veer to the spread option.
"It took the onus off the offensive line and put it on the moneymaker: the tailback," Gillespie said. "You bend it, bounce it or bang it; that's what they teach all zone backs. You put the onus on the back to have great vision."
In his second year as coach at Richmond, Ind., Gillespie backed his quarterback up five yards and into the shotgun and added more passing plays. The results were drastic and almost immediate.
"We went from 1-9 to a winning record and even won a sectional game," Gillepsie said. "The second year we were leading the whole state in passing. We were a spread team that still had option concepts, zone read and counter reads, and in some cases, triple options."
This coming season at Springfield, Gillespie will run a spread wishbone from the shotgun. The offense allows for Gillespie to change the offense without changing personnel.
Few programs in the country are lucky to have BCS athletes continually replenish the ranks. What most have are a litany of players who fit the mold of a slot back or receiver: 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds. Depending on the formation, Gillespie can interchange those types of players between a slot back and slot receiver.
"You can always find slots," Gillespie said.
Matt Alviti has a number of slot options at Maine South in Park Ridge, Ill. The ESPN 300 quarterback and No. 4 dual threat nationally might not have a big-time BCS receiver on the roster, but he fits perfectly into what Maine South wants to do offensively.
Charlie Bliss is Alviti's quarterbacks coach and has coached almost a dozen future college and all-state quarterbacks while at Maine South. He said they have run a spread look at Maine South for the past 12 or 13 years, and this season it will be a bit more of a wide-open spread.
While the running back in Gillespie's offense might make it go, Maine South's spread is predicated on the quarterback.
"We run an offense where the quarterback has got to be hot," Bliss said. "And if you don't have that, you can't be successful running the spread."
Maine South went to the spread out of necessity, Bliss said, back in the 1990s. Maine South did not have the strength up front to keep up with other schools playing in Illinois' biggest division, 8A. At that time, Bliss said they saw no other program running it, and the result was opposing defenses that could not get lined up properly and constantly allowed the big play.
More than a decade later, Maine South has won the state championship five times and has a very good chance at No. 6 this fall.
Bliss said it's the same reason a number of MAC programs run the spread, too. Toledo nearly upset Ohio State in the Horseshoe last September with the spread, and Appalachian State's spread gave Michigan fits -- and college football arguably its biggest upset ever.
"Very seldom can (mid-majors) compete man-on-man and big-on-big. When teams went to the spread, it gave them an opportunity to compete and a chance to win and you've seen a lot of that," Bliss said. "Teams can't go blow for blow so they'll come out in the spread because it's their only chance."
Both Toledo and Appalachian State played Ohio State and Michigan at the beginning of the season, though. Many, including Bliss, are skeptical that the spread can work in the Big Ten in late October and November.
"It's always been big-on-big, tight end, I-backfield," Bliss said.
Pentello acknowledges the same concerns.
"It's tough because it's a cold-weather state in late November," he said.
With Big Ten teams going to the spread, Pentello believes there are a number of players in the Midwest that fit the spread mold.
"There's fast kids in Ohio. It's one of the top three states in the United States for recruiting. There's good skill kids here," Pentello said.
But Bliss disagrees. After watching members of his team compete in a 7-on-7 tournament in Hoover, Ala., this summer, Bliss believes if the Big Ten wants to be successful on a national level running the spread (*cough* beat the SEC *cough*), it will have to look down South.
"Texas, the Deep South, they have better receivers. You have to go to Florida, Mississippi. I'm not saying we can't supply some teams with the spread offense, but not all of them.
"From what I've seen from down there, we're not at that level," Bliss said. "No way."