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The case for UConn football to run the triple option

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UConn football has struggled for a while. A drastic change like this could be what it needs.

Photos-FB: UConn Huskies @ Navy Midshipmen - 9/10/16 Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn football is in a deep, dark hole. Since the end of the 2010 season, three coaches have failed to end a season with a winning record and a coaching search for a new head coach is currently underway. First as a member of the AAC, and now as an independent, the program’s ability to succeed at all is coming into question.

UConn isn’t in the Big East anymore. Since that departure, the recruiting landscape has changed, but no UConn coach has been able to find a strategy that works.

What if the solution back to decency has been sitting under our noses the whole time? Multiple programs with recruiting disadvantages have used it with great success in the recent past and present, including some that are close by.

Now is the time, more than ever, to consider the triple option, a scheme — really a category of schemes — that could instantly raise the floor for UConn football.

For service academies, the decision to run it is a bit more simple. Army, Navy, and Air Force have admission standards and physical limitations for their athletes that amount to a self-imposed talent disadvantage. The artificial man-advantage that the triple option creates at or near the line of scrimmage allows them to make up that deficit and compete with the big boys.

Army and Navy have been thriving since hiring their respective option gurus. Ken Niumatololo is 102-68 all-time with Navy, making a bowl game in 11 out of his 15 seasons in charge. Jeff Monken took over an Army program that was struggling heavily and took them to four bowl games in five years starting in 2016, beating Navy for the first time in 13 years in 2015. Army is particularly relevant to UConn’s situation.

As a fellow FBS independent, Army is one of six schools in the same boat as the Huskies, and their campus is just 90 minutes down I-84 in West Point, New York. The triple has allowed them to take some impressive victories over the years, including Houston in 2018, Duke in 2017, and Wake Forest in 2016, and overtime scares for Oklahoma in 2018 and Michigan in 2019 that ended up being close losses.

At Georgia Tech, Paul Johnson had four 9-plus win seasons on his way to an 83-60 mark for the Yellow Jackets, proving that it can be done outside of the service academies as well. But Johnson is a big reason why the offensive scheme is an immediate turn-off for fans across the country. Johnson was zealously loyal to the triple, almost to a fault, and his gruff demeanor didn’t win him any favors with the national media either.

The system has been around since 1941, when Don Faurot used his background as a basketball coach to model a football play after a two-on-one fast break. Foundationally it uses clock control and long, plodding drives to wear down opposing defenses. It requires a very specific skillset from its players, and the traditional flexbone that Johnson ran turned off some recruits, who were convinced that it wouldn’t help them in their aspirations of pro football.

Most of the coaches that run the triple option come from the Johnson coaching tree, and this is a big reason why. Although the triple is a popular suggestion from the college football internet every time a lower-tier program has an opening, none have ever taken the plunge.

Niumatololo was rumored to be a candidate for the open Kansas job in 2020, but the job ended up going to Buffalo’s Lance Leipold.

“A lot of their influential people don’t want to run the triple option,” a source told Steven Godfrey when he inquired on the situation in February.

The Navy head coach was previously a candidate at Arizona in 2018, but the school’s star quarterback Khalil Tate publicly torpedoed Niumatololo’s hiring before it was even official. Arizona would go on to hire Kevin Sumlin and fire him three years later after going 9-20 overall.

That brings up the biggest misconceptions about the triple-option offense: that it’s an old, outdated scheme that can’t be adapted for today. Navy, in particular, is known for changing up its scheme based on its opponent. The extreme version of this is demonstrated every November in the Army-Navy game. The two opponents know each other so well, that they pull out all sorts of stops, dipping into the passing game to get one over on their rivals.

Neither team runs the pure flexbone anymore. Army runs wishbone and speed option concepts almost as often as the traditional flexbone, while Navy mixes up the speed option with passes out of the pistol.

If you don’t buy that the service academies have taken the triple into a new era, other programs have done just as good of a job at proving that point. Willie Fritz pioneered the “gun option,” running triple option concepts out of the shotgun formation at Tulane, while Coastal Carolina ascended to an undefeated regular season with a high-flying speed option offense, where the quarterback reads the defensive end on a zone-blocking scheme, with a fullback dive option and the halfback trailing playside. There’s also a good argument that the run-pass option (RPO) that is all the rage lately is just a modern update to the triple option.

So now that I’ve successfully convinced you that the option can work for UConn, and that the offense can be entertaining and efficient, what options are out there for UConn in its current coaching search?

Ivin Jasper should be top of the list for any school looking to incorporate triple-option tactics. Jasper was the offensive coordinator under Ken Niumatololo for nearly 20 years until this season, when an overall messy situation at Navy developed that saw him fired, then return as a quarterbacks coach. If there was ever a time that UConn could pry him away from Navy, it would be this offseason.

Bill Durkin, the offensive line coach at Coastal Carolina, would be an intriguing option. The worst thing you can say about him is that the jump from offensive line coach to head coach would be a big jump, but his resume in Myrtle Beach is hard to ignore. He’s got loads of experience, and his position group was the root of a top 10 offense in SP+ in 2020. Durkin went to school at UMass and played for the New England Patriots, so he has knowledge of the region, but has coached all over, with stints at Richmond, Bowling Green, and Hofstra before joining the Chanticleers.

Kevin Daft, the offensive coordinator at Dartmouth, would be another interesting hire. Dartmouth has been running a hybrid option offense with huge success in recent years. They’ve won the hotly contested Ivy League title twice in the past five years, with a combined 64-25 record over the past decade.

As long as the traditional triple option is married with football concepts originating in the latter half of the 20th century, UConn would be able to raise the floor of the program and work steadily towards bowl eligibility, while playing an attractive brand of football and maintaining a reasonable recruiting standard. Wouldn’t that be nice?