In Michael Lewis' "The Blind Side" there's a telling section on then HS coach Hugh Freeze as he worked to tap into the prodigious talent he had in Michael Oher. As a crafty offensive coach with a massive playbook full of trick plays, misdirection, and option, he wasn't given to attempting to beat opponents by simply lining up and knocking them over.
Finally before playing a particularly tough opponent, Freeze gives in and announces the game plan to his players in the locker room. Namely, to just run off-tackle behind Oher over and over again. Success follows, attention comes, and the plot thickens.
However, at Ole Miss Freeze has still tended towards building offenses around finesse rather than physicality. This hurt the Rebels in 2014 when, in the midst of a run at the national championship, they had the fewest red zone TDs in the SEC and the most negative or no-gain running plays.
The lead rusher for the Rebels was running back Jaylen Walton, but he only carried the ball 106 times for 586 yards while Bo Wallace added 86 carries for 355 yards at 4.1 yards per carry (excluding sack yardage).
Dr. Bo is finally moving on and whether his replacement will be his back-up Ryan Buchanan, troubled but talented JUCO transfer Chad Kelly, or athletic sophomore Devante Kincade remains to be seen. However, with all five starters returning along the offensive line, star receivers Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram back, and mega-back Jeremy Liggins returning, the time has come for Ole Miss to add some smashmouth elements to their spread offense if they want to finally claim the SEC western crown.
The 2014 Rebel run game
Like many smashmouth spread teams, the foundational scheme for Ole Miss is the power run. They supplement it with option reads, zone, counter, and pin & pull schemes but power underlies their approach to running the ball.
However, Ole Miss didn't run a lot of traditional power (or counter) with the running back but instead used a lot of power read in which Walton would run at the edge while Wallace read the end to determine whether to hand off or plunge up the middle himself:
Or QB power paired with a sweep or screen to the perimeter:
In either instance, the Rebels would use Walton or a receiver to attack the perimeter while using Dr. Bo as the inside runner. Obviously Wallace wasn't exactly a thundering, downhill runner that was going to run over or wear down opponents and Ole Miss couldn't afford to try and use him that way or else they could lose the triggerman for their passing game, which is what made their offense hum.
Another feature of the 2014 Ole Miss running game that diminished their ability to be a "smashmouth" style of spread team despite running power schemes was their OL technique for blocking these plays.
The Rebels like to slip their OL downfield as quickly as possible off double teams and get movement downfield by getting big OL on linebackers rather than by driving DL off the ball with double teams.
In this example the center and right guard double the nose and the center looks to break off the combo block as quickly as he can to find a linebacker. Meanwhile the guard is overwhelmed without help and the play is stuffed. This wasn't just an issue against Alabama, either.
This time they maintain a double on the nose guard because they can't control him otherwise, freeing up an A&M backer to help blow up the play for minimal gain.
The Rebels simply lacked physicality at the point of attack and even their power run game is largely built around finesse rather than blasting holes in a defense. As one anonymous SEC coach told Athlon, "...they don't really try to run the ball."
Solutions in 2015?
The solution to the problem of lacking a physical run game that Hugh Freeze seems to be pursuing is to field bigger running backs Jordan Wilkins (6'1" 214) and Akeem Judd (5'11" 222) more in 2015 in order to get more "dirty runs."
With that term, Freeze is describing a running game in which his backs hit the hole hard and run over defenders while falling forward so that the offense can get tough yards and avoid the negative or zero gain runs that plagued them in 2015. There's no major change in philosophy or technique, just an interest in encouraging the runners to be more physical.
No doubt there is an upgrade to be found in utilizing power backs more where last year the primary runners were the QB and a 172 pound scat back, but that alone will not make Ole Miss into a smashmouth spread team rather than a finesse one.
The major question that needs to be asked is how physical Ole Miss needs to be on offense in order to win the SEC or win a national championship? If their passing game becomes even more efficient and they add more explosive plays does it matter if they aren't a team that can line up and impose their will in the running game?
Just to the west there are two examples of finesse spread teams that managed some strong results with finesse spread O's without having to build a physical run game, the Colt McCoy-era Texas Longhorns and Landry Jones-era Oklahoma Sooners. Interestingly, neither of them reached the heights Ole Miss is aiming for but they still have some historical lessons to offer the Rebels.
Every team that aspires to winning a league championship needs to be able to play defense but a finesse spread is certainly no exception as these teams will inevitably face a squad with a DL good enough to allow them to play nickel/dime personnel in two-deep coverages all day and take away the passing game without getting gashed by the run. When that day comes, the defense needs to be able to carry the team.
Secondly, the Rebels need to become a more efficient passing team. Wallace was quite good over the last few years and threw for 8.4 yards per attempt and 3194 yards in 2014, but his 14 interceptions were a killer. A similar propensity for turning the ball over kept Landry Jones from winning more than one Big 12 title despite four years as a starter.
The likely starters for Ole Miss will all bring more "arm talent" to the table than Dr. Bo but whether they can show a similar mastery of the system and do an even better job of avoiding mistakes very much remains to be seen. At the least, the number of weapons at Ole Miss that the QB will be working with is certainly not less than in previous years.
Finally, a finesse spread team needs to be capable of getting tough yards situationally when it really matters. The Landry Jones Sooners would sub in Blake Bell and the Belldozer package in the instances, which were nearly automatic for generating 1st downs and touchdowns.
Texas had a jumbo package with big Cody Johnson at tailback and often a defensive tackle lined up at fullback to help him out. These instances were virtually the only time that the Texas OL would get down in a three point stance and look to just move people off the line of scrimmage. The rest of the time they were in a two point stance to help keep defenders off Colt so he could do his thing.
Ole Miss would benefit considerably from installing a 4th phase package to allow them to run the football when they have to in order to win games. Kelly and Kincade both have the athleticism to operate a package like this or the Rebels could just choose whichever runner is most effective on power from a direct snap. Additionally, they'd want to bring over athletes from defense like defensive tackles Robert Nkemdiche or Issac Gross to help them control the line of scrimmage on offense as they do on defense.
We haven't seen a finesse spread team win the SEC yet but Ole Miss came awfully close in 2014 and with a few adjustments perhaps they can do it in 2015.