Jim McElwain’s Florida plan is simple: Get the ball to the studs. Then do it again.
The new head coach has a lot of ways to get his best players the ball, and with time, the offense should click. Now how about stocking and planning the defense?
Working as an assistant under Nick Saban is worth a fortune on the resume. After attempting to replicate the Alabama model with the hire of former Saban defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, Florida’s AD Jeremy Foley apparently concluded the real key is to grab a former Saban offensive coordinator, as rival Florida State had done with Jimbo Fisher.
What Florida and other schools chasing Saban and his assistants are after is Saban’s organizational system. His schemes are no longer cutting edge — in fact, Lane Kiffin was brought aboard to update the Bama offense — but his gift for overseeing an efficient organization is miles beyond most.
Florida is hoping it’s purchased the rights to start a Saban franchise in Gainesville, with Jim McElwain’s tweaks on the formula. Although Saban’s embraced the possibilities of the no-huddle offense in order to bludgeon Alabama opponents, he is a defensive-minded coach. McElwain is going to bring a similar approach, building around his side of the ball to restore the brand established by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
Jim McElwain’s offense
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In his introductory press conference, McElwain suggested his offense be described as “the Humane Society” after calling himself a “mutt” with diverse influences that he seeks to update every offseason.
At Alabama, his offense was labeled pro-style, because his QBs lined up under center in formations featuring tight ends and H-backs. At Colorado State, it was sometimes described as a spread system, due to the Rams often playing in the shotgun with three wide receivers.
At both, his offense relied on TEs and H-backs who act as mobile blocking surfaces across the formation. Much like Mike Riley’s offense at Nebraska, the Gators will run a good deal of zone schemes with the H-back moving around like a fullback, mixing in power concepts.
Most of the nation’s best running teams rely on a mix of inside zone and power, with motioning H-backs and QB option reads. An enormous part of the Mac playbook is variations on inside zone, outside zone, and power, with endless types of play action and window dressing.
Watch some clips of Trent Richardson at Alabama. You’ll see clip after clip of him cutting upfield on zone. Put on some tape of Rams running back Dee Hart. You’ll see him making zone cuts upfield behind a slice block by the H-back on run after run after run.
McElwain’s system follows the constraint theory of offense like Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State, creating a passing game with simpler reads that punishes a defense for loading up to stop the run.
Saban’s influence on McElwain’s offense is seen in his adherence to running a bell cow offense, one in which the best players are fed the ball until they are stuffed. In 2014 at Colorado State, the bell cow was wide receiver Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins, whom McElwain was able to deliver the ball to 89 times for 1,640 yards and 17 touchdowns. The previous season it was running back Kapri Bibbs, who carried the load with 281 carries for 1,741 yards. At Alabama, Mark Ingram and Richardson topped 1,600 yards in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
Featuring a bell cow in the passing game is simple in a run-based offense. The guy you want to get the ball to? Make him the featured target in the screen pass, play action bomb, or one-read passing concept you attach to the run.
In essence, Florida signed a man who will have a Muschamp-like focus for pounding the ball on the ground. He may not approach that too dissimilarly from Kurt Roper or Brent Pease. However, the devil is in the detail. McElwain brings a record of identifying the players who will allow a simple approach to work, developing them, and then getting them the dang ball. Florida receiver Demarcus Robinson should be ecstatic.
Crootin’ the Sunshine State
That McElwain runs a bell cow offense is apparent in the fact that, since being introduced, he has eschewed staff appointments in order to travel the state, looking to load up the 2015 recruiting class with talent.
Recruiting at Florida seems simple. The one-stop-shop state is loaded. Miami-Dade County features a violent and blazing brand of football. The rest of the state is as loaded as any other region in the Southeast. Gainesville is between the northern strip of Florida (also fairly populous and talented) and the I-4 corridor, meaning Miami and the fertile plains of Georgia are each within easy distance.
Meyer played to the speed available in the region and took as many track stars as possible. But McElwain’s offensive system will field two or three home run threats at a time. Spread schools like West Virginia that mine the state for speed needn’t fear just yet.
At the TE/H-back spots, McElwain’s organizational foresight is evident. It can be a difficult position at which to find players, but the offense can adjust to a three-receiver set with a fullback-type player at the H position. That player doesn’t have to be a big part of the passing game, making the offense functional without a dual-threat TE who can both stretch the seam and pancake a defensive end.
At Colorado State, McElwain devoted real numbers to the position, taking two tight ends in the 2011 class, five in 2012, and three in 2014. Some of these numbers came at the expense of the offensive line, but a TE who doesn’t pan out can often eat his way into becoming an athletic lineman. See that efficient Saban-think at work?
McElwain’s challenge may be in building the wide-bodied offensive line that defined his Alabama run game. They executed a style of zone blocking that used massive linemen, shooting uncovered OL to the second level to take out linebackers. This means that each lineman needs to be long and heavy enough to control a defensive lineman by his lonesome.
Florida State has found this to be somewhat challenging. Muschamp’s Gators only had one season, 2012, in which their OL could really dominate games.
Any players McElwain could want who aren’t in Florida should be available in nearby lands. But he’ll have to work for it. Gator fans will have to show patience while he builds up an upperclassman offensive line of maulers, finds some tight ends/H-backs, and trains up some young QB to carefully get the dang ball in the hands of the playmaker.
The other side of the ball?
Florida schools have often embraced the pro-style offense, because players in the region are easily sold on programs that prep them to go pro. Floridian speed has really been unleashed in the region on defense.
It’s hard to play great defense without great athletes, and speed schemes like the Miami 4-3 over and Tampa 2 have deep roots in the state. Fisher brought an Alabama mindset to Tallahassee and hired Saban assistant Jeremy Pruitt to bring more Bama in 2013, but the Seminoles’ championship defense and 2014 unit have been defined not by Saban’s massive fronts, but by a nickel package with star players like LaMarcus Joyner and Jalen Ramsey.
The 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 are some of the easier ways to use South Florida’s explosive defenders, since they allow you to play at least five of them at all times.
Colorado State used a 3-3-5 alignment. McElwain would be wise to hire a coach with a similar system. The last two championship teams from the state (2013 FSU and 2008 Florida) were both keyed by nickel packages and secondaries littered with future pro defensive backs.
McElwain has demonstrated he’s capable of the oversight that makes Saban assistants. If he makes a hire on defense who can do likewise, then the future is bright in Gainesville.
If not, they can get another apple from the Saban tree in four years and hope it lands a little closer to Tuscaloosa.