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Mike Norvell’s TE-inclusive spread offense

Norvell’s spread offense is built off the use of a traditional, in-line TE to create stress for opposing defenses and set up the explosive passing game to light up the scoreboard.

NCAA Football: Navy at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

As we’ve noted before, there’s a good chance that the next head coach at your favorite, struggling P5 university is going to be a guy that’s currently building a resume in the American Athletic Conference. The AAC is a large conference that covers most of the good recruiting turf between the Atlantic and the I-35 corridor in Texas. Many of the metropolitan areas that the big schools recruit are also host to AAC programs such as South Florida (Tampa), Central Florida (Orlando), Houston, Cincinnati, and of course Memphis. That means that that a hire from one of those schools is a coach that’s already been recruiting the high schools, building the relevant relationships and connections, and working with the demographic that your school’s HC needs to be comfortable recruiting and coaching.

As it stands right now, Mike Norvell seems like the next man up to have a shot at a big time job. He’s only been at Memphis for two years now but they went 8-5 (5-3 in AAC play) in year one with an impressive 48-44 victory over Houston in the season finale and then came back to go 10-3 (7-1 in the AAC) and take UCF to the wire in a thrilling 62-55 conference title game defeat.

What’s more, the second year leap came after Notre Dame poached Norvell’s OC Chip Long and proceeded to have a strong bounce back year on offense. The 2017 success saw their new OC Darrell Dickey also get poached, this time by Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M. Everyone’s already trying to learn Norvell’s offensive methods.

Now the AAC is seeing the departure of Scott Frost from UCF leaving Norvell’s Memphis in good shape to win the conference so it’s only a matter of time before someone just puts him in charge of their whole program.

Here are the Norvell offensive methods that have propelled Memphis and have been sought after by bigger programs.

Extending the spread surface with a TE

In my interminable series on “the return of the fullback” I’ve made a big point of how “spread to run” teams like to use a TE in the backfield as an H-back in order to allow them to use two-back running schemes while still spacing the field with three-receiver sets. With the possibility of a lead insert, spread teams can run old school iso, power or counter schemes, or just inside/outside zone schemes with a lead escort to pick off a LB and allow a speedy back to find open grass.

That’s most valuable in the play-action game, where the D is sucked in by the downhill trajectory of the FB/HB and may vacate intermediate windows that can then be attacked or else suck in safeties to the intermediate lanes and thus vacate even deeper passing windows.

However, there’s also a lot of value to attacking a spread out defense by extending the surface area for the defense with an in-line TE and that’s how Memphis likes to play it. This has been particularly valuable to them while attacking the tite fronts that are popular across the league.

The TE blocks down on the DE and up to a LB while the frontside guard pulls around for the OLB. The danger of the tite front is that if you don’t have anyone lined up across from the TE then he gets a free path to pick off whichever of your strong side defenders the offense wants to send him at. Between that and the backside of the D worrying about the TE running a route for the QB on the rollout, the Knights get overstressed laterally opening a big crease for the back.

On their dart/iso plays they’d get their TE a free run at a LB:

The collision between the play side LB and the TE takes place two yards down field so even though the LB hits him hard and drives him back, the TE is getting free ground and he just has to maintain some of it to create a crease.

Memphis’ trick is that while they are a heavily spread team who’s QB threw for 4k yards, nearly every play is either a straight run, an RPO, or play-action. Consequently, blocking TEs don’t have to spend time mastering the art of route running, it’s the run action that allows them to get open. Meanwhile the defense has to handle the numbers problem that results from the extra gap(s) created by the TE(s). Against an H-back inserting somewhere along the line the D can align at depth and then trigger downhill but with the TE along the line teams have to commit a seventh man within near proximity and that leaves just four defenders to handle three receivers.

Creating two man games and isolations

Once a defense is concerned about defending the extra gap up front created by the TE then it becomes all too easy for Norvell to scheme up two-man games and isolations for his star skill players. Riley Ferguson was brilliant at operating this offense and regularly threw with accuracy, particularly on the move which made their play-action game all the more deadly.

By two-man games I mean one-read plays where Ferguson would read a defender, make a quick decision, and then get the ball out. For instance, quick passes to star wideout Anthony Miller attached to their runs. Against UCF in the title game, the Tigers played a cat and mouse game with Knight OLB Shaquem Griffin in which they had mixed success.

On this play they’re running their iso play with a quick bubble screen attached and Ferguson is reading the OLB over the bubble to see if he aligns to defend the bubble or to crash the edge. Griffin shows Ferguson a conservative alignment before flying into the backfield at the snap to run the play down from behind. This was a problem pretty unique to playing UCF as most OLBs and nickel DBs don’t run <4.4.

They caught Griffin later when he was trying to pull the opposite trick, showing a hard edge before bailing to stop the quick game.

Anyways, you can tell that Ferguson is making a quick pre-snap read to determine whether to hand off or throw and their offense was littered with pass options like this that they’d sprinkle in as needed to force defenses to commit numbers to both Miller and the run game at the same time. Ferguson typically needed to make a clear pre-snap read to get the decisions right but when he did, he was very accurate.

Then they had their play-action and passing stuff where they’d either create a very simple read for Ferguson or else isolate someone like Miller and just throw him the ball, like on this double move TD:

As you can tell, a strong-armed QB that can be taught how the offense attacks the defense and to make accurate throws off quick reads becomes very deadly in this scheme. The Tigers already have former Arizona State blue chip QB Brady White queued up to potentially be the next trigger-man if he can beat the competition of former 3-star David Moore and then hang on against another JUCO they have waiting in the wings.

This is run-centric football in which the QB is set up to produce huge numbers because he’s being asked to make simple reads and throws to athletes operating in a lot of space. Again, with the use of the TEs in the run game, and occasionally slipping past aggressive safeties on PA seam routes, the defense has to commit seven defenders near the box which leaves them four defenders to handle three receivers. Or in the double TE sets, three defenders to handle two receivers. That doesn’t leave much margin for error against a guy like Anthony Miller, who broke a lot of tackles in space over the last few years en route to 3590 career receiving yards and 31 touchdowns.

The 2018 squad has to replace Anthony Miller out wide and Riley Ferguson from behind center but returns both RBs, four starting OL (including All-AAC LT Trevon Tate), and is now working off multiple years of Norvell and Justin Fuente recruiting explosive players to feature in the spread. If Norvell can parlay that into Memphis’ first AAC title then he’ll be the next AAC coach to get snatched up by a P5 program.