From Least to Weist: Part Deux

US PRESSWIRE

The devil is in the details

Today we'll break down some film to get a better understanding of our new OC's style and what we can expect to see on the field this year and beyond.

First and foremost, Weist realizes, as all good coaches do, that at the core of his profession is teaching, and the best way to teach something new is relate it to what your students already know. Previously, the Huskies on the offensive side of the ball learned a conservative attack, full of pre-snap shifts and multiple post-snap run and pass concepts that fit under the heading of a "pro-style offense". However, the team did dabble in a multitude of different styles here and there, with the most obvious example being the wildly popular Wildcat package.

But on any given play, here is what you likely saw: a personnel grouping that featured no more than a couple wide receivers; a formation that usually placed Whitmer under center and an end result that hardly ever included a big shot downfield (though, please don’t take this brief, very general description to constitute what "pro-style" means. That is another 3,000 word article for another day).

Oh, and there were more runs called on first down than there has ever been questions asked on a first date.

In response, Weist has, as told by players, simplified their approach. In addition, he’s taken terminology from the old playbook and put it in his own for this upcoming season. The team is going to take a fewer amount of concepts and practice them at a higher rate to become more proficient, instead spending their time sampling many styles of play. Given that these route concepts were amongst the most used by DeLeone a year ago, you can bet 2013 will bring Spot and Levels route combinations (pictured below) again:

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By working with what the Huskies already know and simplifying the old approach, Weist lessens the learning curve of a new offense a great deal. This then allows the Huskies to get right into what players always want more of: reps. Interestingly enough, taking a simpler approach (despite the fact this presently involves stealing from the old, complex playbook) is a philosophical pillar of the new style brought in by Weist: a form of the one-back, spread offense.

But, how could a disciple of this modern attack incorporate these foreign concepts into his offense and then teach them?

Well, for better or for worse, I’d bet you season tickets for the next decade that outside of the spread style he favors, one of the biggest reasons Weist was hired by Pasqualoni was because of his past experience teaching pro-style concepts. Yes, he’s been coaching in a spread system for longer than a decade and that’s all we’ve heard about. But, it wasn’t always like that.

Like any tenured person in art or music, you can always trace a football coach’s philosophy or style to some form of early influences. A native of Bay City, MI, high school wide receiver TJ Weist did not stay to play for Big Blue or Sparty, but instead the Crimson Tide as a walk-on at Alabama. Following a successful career on the gridiorn, Weist then moved to the sidelines where his coaching mind was first shaped under offensive coordinator Homer Smith— a football man unlike any other.

The late, 39-year coaching veteran owned two Ivy League degrees and another from Stanford. His career brought him from coast-to-coast, included writing a multitude of books and pieces and teaching a seemingly even greater number of offensive styles. Weist coached for Smith at his old position from 1988-89. ‘Bama largely ran a pro style system with option wrinkles, but the first six pages of the playbook dedicated to passing all spoke to the same thing—altering routes mid-play based on defensive coverages.

While this was not a revolutionary idea at the time, the tactic has become far more complex today and also serves as a hallmark of the spread attack Weist will bring to UConn.

Then, the young football coach came home to Michigan, where he taught how to live on the edge for four more years. Here, still as a volunteer/grad assistant, Weist tutored wide receivers with Cam Cameron, the current offensive coordinator at LSU who previously made stops coordinating for the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers. Michigan at that time was run by head coach Gary Moeller, who preferred a conservative offensive approach with multiple tight end sets that could be described as pro-style.

Weist left Ann Arbor for his first full-time position at Northern Illinois and then for a year to coach at Tulsa, before he reunited with Cameron in 1997.

Cameron had taken the head job at Indiana and utilized a multiple offense due to the explosive, varied talents of then-quarterback Antwaan Randle El. However, the core of Cameron’s philosophy and playbook was pro-style. You can see Cameron running a similar style attack to this day. While Weist was again coaching the receivers, it is of note here that the first runs listed in Cameron’s last IU playbook in 2001 called for zone blocking. These were the first taught, the ones most often hit upon.

This scheme is the same run-blocking style that Weist has worked with almost exclusively since those days. Essentially, the only run plays used at Cincinnati in recent years, albeit due to the decision of head coach Butch Jones, were inside zone, outside zone, zone reads and the occasional counter.

The last stop Weist made before going to the Queen City was a long stay just across the Ohio River at Division-II Western Kentucky. A national championship-winning season in 2002 spent under Jack Harbaugh (the father of current NFL coaches John and Jim) then gave way to six seasons working for Dave Elson. Elson, a defensive coach by nature, handed the offensive reins to Weist as they brought the program to FBS.

As coordinator from 2003-2006, Weist gradually introduced balance and explosion to the Hilltoppers offense, which resulted in their first 2,000 yard passing season in nearly two decades. In his first years, Western Kentucky was run heavy because they featured an excellent back by the name of Lerron Moore.

And that was about it.

Later, he was able to grow the passing game by grooming quarterback Justin Haddix and receiver Curtis Hamilton, who re-wrote the WKU record books by the time they left in 2007. Before his tenure as offensive coordinator was over, the Hilltoppers had broken into the nation’s top-25 teams for total offense and top-20 in passing efficiency. Over his four years at the helm, they averaged better than 30 points and nearly 400 yards per game.

Weist moved to associate head coach for his last three years at Western Kentucky, where he would remain until he was fired with the entire WKU staff in 2009. In this final role, Weist maintained a strong influence on the offense and stayed on as wide receivers coach. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this was Jake Gaebler, who served as the team’s new s no. 1 wide and re-wrote the Hilltopper record books like his predecessor Hamilton.

Finally, not much changed during the coach’s three-year stint at Cincinnati. He mentored multiple all-conference wideouts, helped engineer highly successful spread offenses and acted as offensive coordinator in the Bearcats’ last bowl game against Duke.

At this point, we can now see how Weist’s extensive experience will allow for the marrying of the Huskies old offense with the new, spread attack.

And while it is imperative to acknowledge that all Weist’s past work will influence his second go-round as coordinator, it is an examination of his first time on the job that will glean the most information. Here are two key things to take away from his last stint running an offense.

First, the Hilltoppers’ overall improvement over his time as coordinator obviously demonstrates a keen ability to coach well, but the improved balance shows he can shape his system to the strengths of personnel effectively (there’s a reason why we all thought DeLeone was gone after last season— the failure to do this was partly behind it).

So, what was that system?

The second takeaway: Weist’s offense was an up-tempo, one-back spread attack that was all predicated on a few smart concepts. This style is exactly what Cincinnati has run the last few years, albeit with slight tweaking, and what UConn fans should expect to see in 2013. But before we get to those concepts, let’s dispel some possible misconceptions.

This system is not the lightning-fast spread offense you see at Oregon. It is not the pass-happy Air Raid attack used throughout the Big 12. Weist’s spread is also most definitely is not the run-first spread used by the old national title Florida teams and new Urban Meyer-led squads at Ohio State.

This is a refined, slightly altered version of the original one-back spread that really took flight in the late 90s thanks to coaches like Dennis Erickson and Noel Mazzone. Yet, through the years and all types of variations made by coaches everywhere, the core concepts remain relatively the same.

These ideas are as follows:

First, the system is dedicated to using one-back sets and thus, sticking with simplicity. The Huskies’ new system won’t feature a bazillion formations, plays or styles. UConn will have some primary playcalls, counters to those favorite calls, a handful of trick plays up their sleeves and that’s it. The overarching idea with the one-back is simplicity and beating your opponents by out-executing them.

Yes, this team will be multiple in its formations to a degree, attack in different ways and keep defenses on edge with these counters and the no-huddle. But, only as much as they have to. The diversity and variance of this system is in details of the play designs— not the sheer number of plays themselves.

Husky fans will see this in the second concept: a passing game largely built on option routes. As discussed earlier in the offenses Weist learned under Homer Smith (though the option-route was around long before), UConn receivers will alter their routes based on the coverages that defenses throw at them. This allows for any individual play in Weist’s playbook to be run multiple ways depending on the look they get. This built-in variance also theoretically allows for the best possible version of any play to be run in a given situation against any given defense.

Now, not all plays or routes will be completely dependent on the calls made by the opposing defensive coordinator. There will be some go-to passing concepts (like the ones pictured high above) the Huskies will go to when in need of a first down. In addition to the pro-style route combinations, Weist is likely to take some of these, commonly found in one-back, spread systems:

Shallow Cross

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Deep Cross

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Below is a look at an 18-yard pass made on a deep cross called for by Weist in last year’s Belk Bowl. The design is almost identical to the second drawing above.

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Other route combinations will include bubble screens, hitches and rub or pick plays designed to hamper man coverage in small areas. If you look close enough, you should see these designs, or some variation of them, on almost every pass play this season.

The third system concept concerns the running game and suggests the Huskies will use predominantly zone blocking. Like the overall structure of the offense and passing game, the design here is simple with some inherent variance. At is most basic level, zone blocking involves all lineman moving in the same direction looking to occupy a space rather than a specific man. This allows the runner to run relatively parallel to the line, read where the widest opening has been created by the line and cut to that area.

As mentioned earlier, Weist coached this technique as far back as his years at Indiana with Cam Cameron, and he has utilized it every season since. As with Cincinnati in years past, the run playcalls for UConn should consist of inside zones, outside zones with occasional power and counter plays.

And again, that’s about it.

Below is an inside zone run by the Western Kentucky in 2006:

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Here you can see all linemen sliding towards their area of responsibility upon the hiking of the ball— the most basic component of zone blocking.

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The next step is the double-teaming at the point of the attack. Here the left guard pins down and combines with the tackle to nullify the right end in Murray State’s 3-4 alignment. This, in addition to the efforts of the center and right guard, clears space on the interior, which is exactly what WKU wants when running their inside zone.

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At last, we have an almost a perfectly cleared path to paydirt.

Here’s a look at another inside zone. This time we go back to the Belk Bowl with Cincinnati knocking on the door at the opening of the third quarter. The alignment used here is likely one Husky fans will see, as it uses a personnel grouping (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) more popular with coaching staffs that favor pro style attacks (Pasqualoni and DeLeone lead that list). In addition, you’ll see #18 Travis Kelce cross the formation for a "wham" block, a wrinkle of man-blocking, which is used predominantly in pro-style schemes

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The only question mark here is that UConn offensive linemen are rather unsuited for a scheme fully committed to zone blocking. A zone-running team typically employs smaller, more athletic lineman who can get on the move in a hurry. The Huskies have a returning five that averages 6’ 5” and 305 lbs. This leads me to believe that similar to the passing game, their running scheme will be a bit of mix old man-schemes and new.

And there is the new UConn offense in a nutshell— question marks in abundance, plenty of good experience but lacks of athleticism and true fit with the new schemes. Thus, the Huskies will still practice some old concepts within their new, aggressive spread system, whose hallmarks are a no-huddle approach, simplicity, option-route passing and zone running.

Now, I need one last favor.

Put everything you knew, think you knew or ever ventured to assume about the UConn offense the last two years from your mind, before we end our discussion.

Dispel past frustrations, and come along for the ride in 2013. Sure, no one knows how things will work out as the Huskies face their toughest schedule in school history. But, this year’s trip promises to at least be a lot more exciting, as the Huskies go from least to Weist.

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