Creativity is something that is trending in the PAC-12, just look at the new hires for evidence of that, with two new coaches in the state of Arizona as well as at UCLA. Modeling Chip Kelly’s wide open spread laboratory is now a mainstream practice on the west coast, but the matchup that football strategy junkies everywhere are looking forward to the most has to be Oregon’s Chip Kelly and Mike Leach at Washington State.
Between the two, there is little in common aesthetically, in that Chip hangs his hat on the run, while Leach obviously likes to air the ball out more than a few times a game. Chip is a master of deception; whether the confusion comes from his various formations, motions across the field, the mysterious mesh points in the zone read variations, or his digging through half-decade-old plays; defenses everywhere struggle to stay a step ahead of Kelly’s strategies.
Leach is slightly different, yet parallels can be drawn between the two unique schemes pioneered by two even more unique individuals. His philosophy’s main points can be counted off on one hand, but there is one concept that stands out more than any other in the air-raid: putting the ball, and subsequently athletes, in space. This seemingly simple concept is accomplished by similarly basic plays- using crossing routes, quick developing screens, traditional passing plays, and more ambiguous routes that allow the receiver to read the defense with the quarterback
Fully understanding Leach’s prowess requires one to dive into the “Pirate’s” own little world of eccentric behavior and unbelievable results, easily accomplished by reading his book, “Swing Your Sword.” It is absolutely required-reading for any self-respecting football strategist. You can buy it here. Leach’s unique style, similar to Chip’s different but effective approach, transcends Saturdays, and leaks into the way each respective program operates.
That mark can be seen on something as simple as a passing drill in practice. Instead of having one quarterback throw one pass to one receiver while three or four other receivers run their routes, Leach has all of his quarterbacks throw to different receivers. Simple, but effective; every player now quadruples their reps, something that is absolutely vital in a precise offense based purely off of timing and quick reads.
Now that the players have a perfectly competent amount of repetitions in practice, it no longer matters whether its a five-year senior or a true freshman out on the field, Leach can literally plug-and-play any of his quarterbacks and wide receivers. Sound familiar?
Chip Kelly accomplishes this by running as many reps as his team can within the allotted practice time, getting so many plays in that they often close practice short of the scheduled finish. By practicing at “warp-speed,” the offense can condition itself both physically and mentally for the season, and since the team-managers probably have a little more spring in their step than the PAC-12 referees, the only thing slowing Chip’s offense down is the speed of the officials spotting the ball.
As for the plug-and-play abilities, there was a reason the Duck offense did not miss a beat when Bennett replaced Thomas in the ASU game this season. Bennett was already completely synced up with his offensive line and battery of skill players because of the large amount of practice reps afforded to Bennett that normally are not available for backup quarterbacks. That chemistry that Bennett immediately had is something that many teams fail to accomplish in an entire season, let alone during half-time of a close ball game.
Coaches on every level place a very high priority on using each crucial second allotted on the practice field. To Leach and Kelly, though, that coaching cliché is almost comical. To them, every moment is a calculated event where absolutely no time can be wasted; whether in the way Chip crafts his playlist for the tunes used at a practice, or the seemingly relentless barrage of passes thrown at the swashbuckler’s practices; maximizing repetition and eliminating hesitation is the center of these two coaches’ philosophies.
While it is the genius of the coach that sets the table for success, it is up to the players to “do the dirty work,” so-to-speak. A Duck fan has probably heard about the players “buying in” to the program, but noone has really elaborated on its actual meaning.
At Oregon, for example, the players have “bought in.”
They understand the scheme, they understand why zone blocking is so effective when performed correctly, and they expect their teammates and coaches to do things the right way, every time. If a team can couple that mentality with the tactical mind of a Chip Kelly, a Mike Leach, heck, with any scheme that is being coached the right way; it is setting itself up for success.
So yes, it will be fun to dissect and analyze the development of both Washington State and Oregon’s (it’s still not fully developed) offense, but the underlying principal behind the aesthetically and statistically pleasing schemes is that their respective playbooks are far from “one-stop shops.” Each philosophy drives another part of the program, especially in practice, and getting that extra commitment from your players is the difference between a losing genius and a winning one.