For every offensive trend that has settled itself into the fabric of college football over the years, there have been plenty of detractors eager to point out its shortcomings.
The spread offense, of course, is no exception. One argument its critics like to present is the spread is ill-equipped to produce results at the goal line, where conventional wisdom says a powerful offensive line and big running backs who can win the battle of inches are the most successful ingredients near the end zone.
Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown isn’t buying it.
“I think that’s one of the fallacies of the spread offense,” Brown said. “People who don’t like the spread will say (spread teams) really struggle in the red zone. But if you look at teams that are good spread offenses, we’ve been really good, really efficient, in the red zone.”
Brown’s team, and others in the Big 12, have provided evidence to back his theory. The Red Raiders were one of four Big 12 teams to finish in the top 15 in red-zone efficiency last season, and of those four — Texas A&M (No. 2), Missouri (No. 11), Oklahoma State (No. 14) and Tech (No. 15) — only A&M didn’t run some form of the spread. A&M and Missouri have since departed to become new members of the Southeastern Conference.
Kent State, Toledo and Louisiana-Lafayette, three teams that also run the spread, were in the upper echelon of red-zone offenses last season, too.
Brown said the advantage his offense — and others like it — has near the goal line is the mismatches it can create.
“I think what it does is, it’s harder for the defense because they’ve still got to cover,” Brown said. “You’re in tighter ground, but you’ve still got to cover five eligible (receivers), and you’ve got a lot of gaps when you spread them out.”
Whereas top red-zone teams like Wisconsin (No. 3 in 2011) and LSU (No. 4) prefer the ground game when nearing paydirt — the two teams combined for 70 rushing touchdowns inside the 20 last season — Tech prefers the pass. The Red Raiders’ 23 red-zone touchdown tosses in 2011 were eighth-most in the country.
“It’s a challenge when you play our offense,” Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said, “because if you put nine guys in the box to stop the run, you play one-on-one (on the outside), and you know what we’re going to do. It’s pretty simple, and we’re pretty good at throwing that ball out there.”
The corner fade route, the play Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon pulled off with deadly precision the last few seasons, has been a particularly effective weapon for Tech. Tech quarterback Seth Doege might not have a specimen like Blackmon at his disposal to play jump-ball near the goal line, but he does have a versatile stable of receivers who can execute the play.
“The fade is definitely a big part of our offense,” running back Eric Stephens said. “With the defense on its heels, we have a couple of big guys in Marcus (Kennard), Darrin Moore and even Javon (Bell) who can go up and get the ball. And Derreck Edwards can jump, as well. With those guys out there able to catch the fade ball, it opens the run game up a little more.”
Alas, even teams with quarterback-and-receiver combinations as talented as Tech’s have to find ways to run strong close to the end zone when favorable matchups on the outside don’t present themselves. Brown said the team is better equipped to succeed in big sets than at any time in his three-year tenure at Tech because of the emergence of tight end Jace Amaro, fullback Omar Ontiveros and recently converted hybrid player Chris Knighton, big bodies who can open up lanes in tight spaces.
“We’ve got some depth at running back, and our tight ends and fullbacks are better than they’ve ever been from a size and strength standpoint,” Brown said, “so I feel a lot more comfortable getting in those things.”
Brown and Tuberville both believe sophomore Kenny Williams will develop into a big-time running back, and his 5-foot-9, 220-pound frame make him tough to bring down inside. But he also has to learn that plowing defenders over isn’t always the best way to sniff the end zone.
“Our best short-yardage runner right now is SaDale Foster, and he’s our smallest back,” Brown said of the 5-7, 187-pound junior. “The reason is he has great patience. You’ve got to have patience. Kenny is a load to tackle, and he does a good job finishing runs, but he’s got to be a little more patient in those situations.”
Stephens, who has 16 career rushing touchdowns, knows that patience can be a difficult trait to learn. The closer a running back gets to the end zone, the bigger his eyes get, and that can make it easy to ignore the proper process.
“It’s very easy as a running back when you get on that goal line, near the 2- or 3-yard line, to forget your reads and just try to plunge in there,” Stephens said. “But really where you score touchdowns is when you stay patient and stay true to your reads.”
To comment on this story: