CRAWFORD: Previewing the U of L offense -- by the book - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD: Previewing the U of L offense -- by the book

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LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- University of Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has been throwing the book at his players this training camp. The playbook.

He told them the West Coast-principled tweaks he made from week-to-week after taking over play calling last season a "bootleg version" of what he hoped to do with the offense. This summer, they got the real deal.

"We were all as players excited to get the full spectrum of what (Watson) had to offer," senior center Mario Benavides said. "The major difference is tempo. There's just a lot more to it. Last year, as far as a college football playbook goes, it was very simplified, and it had to be, both because he took over in the middle of the season, and because we were so young as an offense. So it's a lot more complicated, but it's nothing that we can't handle. We're having a lot easier time taking in the playbook this year in camp, even though there's a lot more in it."

What's in it? Nobody's going to give that up. But what it will look like certainly is a matter of curiosity, particularly after the first scrimmage last week, in which the offense was said by coaches to have gotten the better of the defense and broken off several big plays. (Public and media are not allowed to view scrimmages or practices.)

The term "West Coast" has become so broad in offensive football that it almost has no specific meaning anymore, but there are principles you can expect with any West Coast style.

It's based on having at least five eligible receivers -- who have the skills to be receiving threats -- on the field just about all the time, running backs, tight ends, wideouts, in varying combinations. It is multiple in formations, with shifts and motion designed to create matchup advantages prior to the snap.

The passing game is generally a quick-play proposition, with mostly three- and five-step drops by a quarterback who has to be solid with his footwork and quick with his head, because he's reading a defense and choosing between at least five targets in a quick-hitting situation. The passing game in the West Coast offense is very much based on timing.

While short and possession passing -- and throwing to running backs -- have been a staple of West Coast offenses, many have evolved to include inside and outside zone running plays and both Charlie Strong and Watson have referred to a desire for a power running game, using the team's deep stable of running backs.

Tempo is important in the West Coast game, and there's a premium on both quarterback and receivers reading what they see from the defense and, in many cases, taking what it gives while trying to turn it into something more. U of L's offensive coaches have emphasized turning medium gains into long ones.

Watson described what he hopes to see on offense like this: "I would like to see us offensively play in rhythm. Playing in rhythm is playing clean football, in and out up and down in the huddle, we initiate the tempo of the game, we convert drives, stay on the field and eat up clock. That is huge in today's game. And yet at the same time we can blow an explosion play up at any time."

The key, of course, is how the personnel fits to the offense. In Watson's West Coast scheme in his latter years at Nebraska, the personnel wasn't always ideal for the scheme.

The quarterback has a lot to take in, but if a fundamentally skilled QB can get a good grasp of the offense, it is very much a passer friendly system. U of L sophomore Teddy Bridgewater says that's been his experience, not only with the reads he needs to make, but with some downfield passing that Watson has worked into the attack.

"I love it," Bridgewater said. "It allows us to play faster. Coach Wats has put in a lot of stuff we didn't have last year. I think you'll see a lot more completions, and a lot more down the field."

In skeleton drills in the season's first two practices, which were open to the public and media, U of L not only had video cameras at all the usual elevated stations, but had a videographer right in the middle of the play, shooting forward down the field with a wide-angle lens, seeing exactly what the quarterback would see. It allows coaches to get a view of what the QB is looking at, and to evaluate the rather precise routes required of receivers.

Because of the timing nature of the offense, with Bridgewater often throwing to spaces he expects wideouts to be, precision and communication is at a premium. That's one of the things Watson liked most about what he saw in early practices.

"The biggest improvement we'll make is from the communication aspect of it, getting everybody on the same page, which right now I feel really good about because if you come to practice and stand out where I stand, the thing that I love the most about what is going on is the communication," Watson said. "It sounds like a football team that is on a mission. We're calling off combinations and making the right line calls and it sounds like a big-time football team is supposed to sound."

As much as the x-and-o aspect of route running and reading progression, the "connection" between QB and receiver is often talked about when speaking of West Coast and spread offensive styles. It's one reason the loss of Michaelee Harris to a knee injury is such a big deal for this offense. Bridgewater clearly had such a connection with Harris, the Cards' leading receiver from a year ago, who has played with Bridgewater since before their high school days.

At the same time, Bridgewater also has played with Eli Rogers since their high school days, and appears to have developed a meeting of the minds with Louisville Ballard product DeVante Parker.

"Definitely," Bridgewater said when asked about his connection with Parker. "You know, when we're on the sidelines, I walk to him and tell him, give me a hint when you want the ball. Or I'll give him a hint when I'm about to throw to him."

While the West Coast Offense generally implies a short passing game, Bridgewater said Watson has built a significant downfield element into the Cardinals' attack, and wide receiver Scott Radcliff said coaches have stressed something else that is designed to lead to big plays.

"We're really working on receivers rallying to the ball and make blocks," he said. "That can turn a short gain to a long one."

The Cardinals also moved speedster Charles Gaines back to the wideout spot, which not only has added another big-play threat to the offense, but ratcheted up the competition at wideout with the goal of sharpening the whole group.

Watson called tight end, "a spot we need to recruit to," but also called it the most improved position on the offense coming out of spring practice, and senior Nate Nord was a big part of that.

Nord was ready to quit after last season. He came to U of L with high hopes and has dealt with a flurry of injuries to the point where he came to Strong frustrated and ready to walk away. Strong wouldn't let him -- which in itself is testament to what Nord means to the offense.

"I said, 'Whoa, Nord, you're not quitting,'" Strong said. He sat down with Nord and called his parents and called in the training staff and came up with a plan to keep Nord in the complex. That move has paid off as Nord turned in a solid spring and has worked himself to the top of the tight end depth chart.

"Nate Nord came through this spring and answered for us," Watson said. "I always thought when I first got here he had a skill set that I said I'd recruit that guy anywhere I've been. . . . Now he's getting to play to that."

U of L coaches also are excited about junior college transfer tight end Ryan Hubbell, who came to the program with promise as a receiver but has been a better blocker than they expected. And they've been working with Chris White, who stepped into the position as a freshman last season and made  valuable contribution. They're also hoping to get freshman Hunter Bowles up to speed.

"We want to run the football," Strong said. "So we need to get that fourth tight end."

No matter how much West Coast talk you hear, Watson and Strong repeatedly have said the running game remains the first priority.

"You really want that, and we had a strong run game last year," Radcliff said. "That just opens things up. They can't play two high safeties if we're pounding the ball down the field, and if they go to man coverage, as receivers we view that as, 'That's our turn.'"

Watson said, "Championships are won by rushing the football. That's where we're going to start. . . . where it all begins."

As far as personnel, the Cardinals have plenty of options. Dominique Brown has added muscle and said he aims to push for playing time by being the team's most physical runner. Senorise Perry and Corvin Lamb bring an extra dimension of speed. Jeremy Wright has great versatility, a good mix of speed and power, and brings experience to the position. Then there's freshman Brandon Radcliff, something of a wild card.

While there are all kinds of variations of the West Coast offense that feature one-back looks, expect the Cards to show plenty of two-back formations both because coaches would like to establish a straight-up running game, and because they seem to have a group of running backs who fit the system.

Running backs coach Kenny Carter said of this group, "They can all do everything. Run, protect, catch the ball."

No single leader has emerged yet, though for the multiplicity of the offense, maybe none needs to.

"You'd love to have a guy like Bilal Powell emerge," Benavides said. "But even if we don't, I don't think that's a negative. It just means we've got a bunch of really talented backs. Dominique is a guy I enjoy blocking for. He's an offensive lineman's type of guy -- tough, gritty. And that's crazy to say, because he was a quarterback. Senorise brings a whole new level of speed. Corvin is so talented and explosive -- he can take it to the house on any play. And Jeremy is probably the most complete back out of the group. He's the one I've played with the most, has the build, the physique, he's strong, he's fast, he can do it all."

How the running game will work with the quick, timing-based, West Coast passing system is probably the biggest question surrounding this offense.

Up front, U of L welcomes the return of Benavides from injury, who with left tackle Alex Kupper will form the foundation of a line that is young but still has experience. Jake Smith at right guard, Jamon Brown at right tackle and John Miller at left guard are all sophomores who got lots of playing time last season.

"Mario is the thump in our voice offensively," Watson said. "If something needs to get fixed, Mario will fix it, Alex Kupper will fix it. That's a huge thing for us with a young offense. Mario has exemplified throughout the whole summer the work ethic for those guys. He's gotten the offense together and had film studies. He's been accountable."

Benavides said that the line that was in learning mode all last season has gotten to a place where it now is focused on playing the game instead of learning the playbook, and that while there have been changes, Watson's expanded system doesn't bring fundamental change to the front.

"I think when you're talking football, it's all the same as far as concepts, everybody just uses different language," Benavides said. " . . . There are plenty of runs and plenty of pass protections, and the playbook is pretty big, but football is football. I think what you eliminate when you have guys who understand the playbook a little better is you eliminate slow play. Guys can just let loose now because they're not second-guessing themselves."

Depth along the line remains a point of concentration in preseason camp. But this is an offense with depth just about everywhere else -- and at least on paper, its book value appears to be on the rise.

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