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What could a Jim Harbaugh spread offense look like?

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By hiring former spread OL coach Ed Warriner and bringing in Shea Patterson, Jim Harbaugh may be transitioning towards more of a pro-spread fusion in 2018.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Michigan vs South Carolina Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Far and away the biggest story of the 2017 season was the towering rise of Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs, who bulldozed opponents with great defense, a physical run game, and careful play by freshman QB Jake Fromm. A major factor fueling that rise was Georgia’s embrace of spread football. Kirby Smart and his OC Jim Chaney made the same calculation that Lane Kiffin and so many other coaches at blue blood programs have made, that the spread is actually a best practice for the “haves” of college football.

If the opponent has to spread out wide to handle your speed, they can no longer easily outnumber your superior size and strength in the trenches.

Up in Michigan, Jim Harbaugh made two rather substantial additions to the Michigan football program this offseason who’s impact on the 2018 season are probably not very commonly understood. The first and obvious one is former five-star QB Shea Patterson of Ole Miss, who was recently named the starter for week one. Patterson threw for 2259 yards and 17 TDs a year ago at Ole Miss before suffering an injury and ultimately transferring from the wreckage. With Wilton Speight grad transferring to UCLA the competition was essentially between Patterson and Michigan recruit Brandon Peters who threw for 672 yards last year as a sophomore before Wisconsin’s pass rush knocked him out till the bowl game.

The other big addition was OL coach Ed Warriner, who Harbaugh pulled from Minnesota where Warriner had turned up on a life raft after Urban Meyer overhauled his offensive staff in light of the 31-0 fiasco against Clemson. Between these two coaches there is some potential for Michigan to explore a fusion of spread football with the “neanderball” approach they took in the first three years of the Harbaugh era.

Ed Warriner: spread and zone guru

Warriner’s first big, P5 coaching gig was when Mark Mangino made him the OC and QB coach for the Kansas Jayhawks back in 2007. That was also the first year that Kansas made little and little known Lake Travis QB Todd Reesing their starting QB in his sophomore year.

Reesing threw for 3486 yards and 33 TDs and the Jayhawks went 12-1 that year with an Orange Bowl/BCS appearance in which they edged out Virginia Tech 24-21. Kansas ran a spread offense but it was a physical one who’s main backs Brandon McAnderson and Jake Sharp ran for 1125 yards and 821 yards respectively while totaling 23 rushing TDs.

The name of the game at Kansas under Mangino was zone blocking. Both inside and outside zone were big components to their run game, but if you didn’t opt for being isolated and undermanned up front against their technicians along the line then they were happy to fling it around.

From there, Warriner went back to OL coaching in 2010 with Notre Dame after the Mangino Kansas program went belly up in 2009. Those two seasons saw the Irish start to build a physical ground game with Warriner overseeing their implementation of zone blocking from spread sets, which then led to Warriner being snatched up by Ohio State when they hired Urban Meyer and went to the zone/power read offense in 2012.

The results in Ohio State were tremendous and while Warriner was ushered out after his promotion to OC alongside Tim Beck in 2015 and 2016 didn’t yield as much fruit, there was never much question about the Buckeyes’ play along the line. Warriner’s Minnesota offense hadn’t taken off yet 2017, especially against Michigan, but Harbaugh evidently didn’t see anything to dissuade him from bringing Warriner to Michigan first as an offensive analyst and then inevitably as the new OL coach.

Warriner’s teaching of the inside zone play as a “tight zone” run essentially mirrors the “duo” blocking scheme that Michigan leaned on a year ago. The biggest difference is that while “duo” uses FBs, TEs, and H-backs to secure the edge and create double teams, running “tight zone” from the spread can do that or attach options to control the perimeter and isolate the OL and back against an outmanned front.

Shea Patterson, spread QB

The Shea Patterson offense at Ole Miss was a full-blown, RPO spread system. The assumption was that he’d adopt to Michigan and their pro-style system, but it seems that it may in fact be the opposite.

A greater emphasis on zone blocking rather than the man and gap schemes that Harbaugh preferred at Michigan in the past would mesh easily with a more varied approach to formations and personnel packages. The Wolverines could vacillate from flooding the field with blockers or spreading out receivers and giving Patterson some pass or run options on the perimeter.

As it happens, when I took in Michigan’s extremely limited and drill-focused open practice this past weekend, they ran multiple drills which emphasized exactly these tactics. The OL spent a lot of time executing a variety of IZ combos with zone footwork while the QBs worked on throwing quick passes out of the shotgun. Patterson was far and away the fastest and most accurate QB at getting the ball out on the quick options while an OL that will likely go as follows:

LT: Jon Runyan, Jr: 6-4, 300 pound RS junior. Former 3-star from Pennsylvania.

LG: Ben Bredeson: 6-5, 308 pound junior. Former 4-star from Wisconsin.

OC: Cesar Ruiz:6-3, 320 pound sophomore. Former 4-star from New Jersey via IMG.

RG: Michael Onwenu: 6-3, 350 pound junior. Former 4-star from Michigan.

RT: James Hudson: 6-5, 305 pound RS freshman. Former 4-star Ohio, converted DL.

It’s a big group that figures to still have some questions in pass protection but may prove exemplary at rooting DL off the ball with double teams and creating vertical creases for the run game. They’re all your standard Midwestern kids from the regional OL hotspots that were chosen for their capacity to create a mauling run game you don’t want to face in a cold weather, outdoor game in November.

The spread/pro-style fusion

Here’s something though, the Michigan roster is still stocked up with TEs and FBs and it seems unlikely that Harbaugh is going to be eager to move away from putting big brutes on the field. Particularly given how many talented brutes are on this team, or the fact that potential star WR Tarik Black just broke his foot.

But using pro-style personnel in spread sets has long been a useful trick employed by Harbaugh and the Wolverines have lots of TEs on the roster that are effective and well drilled in the art of playing flexed out wide. Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon combined to catch 48 passes for 604 yards and five TDs last year at 8.4 yards per target.

So why not utilize 21 (FB and TE), 12 (two TEs), or even (gasp) 22 personnel (FB and two TEs) from the spread? Michigan could create all kinds of interesting formations from that personnel grouping designed to maximize their matchup advantages.

The Wolverines could get into a shotgun set with a FB and TE but flex one of their TEs (84 is 6-5, 248 pound Sean McKeon here) as the solo-side WR:

It would be hard for the defense to be able to shade help against either the boundary corner matched up on a TE OR the field corner matched up on promoting sophomore and former 5-star WR, Donovan Peoples-Jones. No. 83 is 6-7, 250 pound TE Zach Gentry, no. 42 is 6-3, 251 pound FB Ben Mason.

They could get cute in overloading formations either to create punishing run blocking surfaces:

Or to confuse matchups in the passing game:

That former bunch set with two TEs and a FB stacked up could create for a punishing mix of runs, QB zone-read plays, play-action, or RPOs. The latter would be useful for creating matchups for simple option routes where the QB is picking a man and throwing him open against an overmatched defender.

Imagine something as simple as a stick/out/QB draw RPO from that latter set?

The Wolverines could motion the RB and the FB to their respective positions before the snap and watch the defense give away the coverages as they audibled into new calls. From there, it’d be a simple read for Patterson to pick the out by Gentry or the stick by Peoples-Jones (or any WR that may prove good in that role) and read a LB to see if they cover the route to the hash marks or stay in the box to defend the QB draw.

Michigan probably doesn’t want to run Patterson all day every day but he is mobile and it’d be child’s play for Harbaugh to scheme up wizardry with his army of versatile brutes for his spread QB to execute while running around.

The last few years of both college and NFL strategic trends have been veering towards a fusion of spread formations and tactics with NFL passing schemes and TEs. With Shea Patterson, a simplified and spread-friendly yet still downhill blocking scheme, and the pro-style talent that’s already assembled in Ann Arbor, this Michigan team could potentially put it all together in a magical way this coming season.