Well that worked out well.
The University of Florida went a long way to further re-establishing itself as a major player in the Southeastern Conference with the hiring of former Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain, who will bring his brand of efficient, yet multiplistic, offensive football.
In fact, I was all over the hiring as I’m an unabashed supporter of all things Nick Saban and the various assistants who’ve worked under him (click here to read my piece on Coach Mac’s hiring).
Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher is the best offensive assistant that has gone through the Saban car wash as his success with Saban has only been superseded by his success post Saban. His penchant for developing first-round quarterback selections is uncanny, and the best is yet to come with former Heisman winner Jameis Winston set to be potentially the first-overall pick in this coming draft (or next?!).
But it’s McElwain who is beginning to look like Fisher’s equal with his success at CSU and the landing of a prestigious job like the one he has with UF.
But like any coach at a major program will tell you, even a coaching god like Saban, the hiring of your assistant coaches is a lot bigger than people give it credit for. We already know former Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins took a step up by procuring the Gators’ DC job (quit it with this lateral move stuff, people). And we also know that he will be in possession of possibly the most talented secondary in the nation.
Most of the questions will undoubtedly come on the offensive side of the ball where Coach Mac will put his expertise to use. But his reported hiring of fellow former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, according to Sports Illustrated’s Thayer Evans, may be the hire that puts this entire operation over the top.
When it comes to offensive football, there’s nothing like having continuity in your scheme and philosophy.
The McElwain-Nussmeier pairing will be as smooth as a baby’s bottom…wait, that analogy sounds kind of strange…
In full disclosure, I originally intended this piece to be meant for the University of Georgia as I felt like Nussmeier would be a great replacement for outgoing OC Mike Bobo. UGA is the type of program who needs to stick to being a pro-style outfit as it does a great job of getting legit pro prospects — much like Florida has been.
I previously wondered if Nussmeier would ever join McElwain as he followed his success at Bama but didn’t achieve it in his brief one-year stop at the University of Michigan.
But UGA’s loss is most certainly Florida’s gain as “Nuss” and “Mac” have very similar tactical operations and philosophies.
McElwain, Alabama’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11, specialized in creating mismatches with his frequent use of “12 and “22 personnel,” which made Bama a complete powerhouse as it derived most of its yards the smashmouth way.
From Mark Ingram, to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, McElwain specialized in developing top-flight running backs that were versed in the nuances of the position: man- and zone-blocking concepts, screens and pass-protections.
McElwain implemented the “Wildcat” formation to take advantage of being in possession of multiple backs and tight ends. And while his work with quarterbacks John-Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy was admirable, it always felt like something was missing from the passing game despite the presence of, perhaps, the greatest receiver the conference will ever see, Julio Jones (although current Bama receiver Amari Cooper is better, ha!).
McElwain did leave off on a high note with freshman QB A.J. McCarron as he was undoubtedly the only authentic pro prospect the coach worked with. Although McCarron possessed an NFL-caliber arm, to a degree, his inexperience forced Coach Mac to be as conservative as ever and lean on the exploits of Richardson and Lacy.
It wasn’t until Nussmeier arrived that Bama’s passing game took off. McCarron’s stats: 2,634 yards, 16 touchdowns, five interceptions (66.8 completion percentage) as a sophomore with McElwain, paled in comparison to his monster junior season under Nussmeier (2,933 yards, 30 TDs, three INTs with a 67.2 completion).
Coach Nuss’ work with freshman receiver Amari Cooper (59 catches for 1000 yards and 11 TDs) was some of the greatest work in Bama history. Nussmeier brought in a true zone-blocking scheme which worked well with another freshman in T.J. Yeldon (175 attempts for 1,108 yards and 12 TDs) — who combined with Lacy (204 carries for 1,322 yards with 17 TDs) to give Bama two 1,000-yard rushers.
Quite frankly, Nussmeier’s 2012 offense is the most balanced we’ve witnessed of the Saban era. Even current Bama OC Lane Kiffin’s run game leaves a lot to be desired, although his passing attack is even better than Nussmeier’s.
Saban certainly agrees.
“I’ve been begging the offensive coordinators around here to open it up ever since I’ve been here,” Saban expressed on a video of which was posted earlier this season on al.com (per Mark Snyder of FreeP.com). “Fisher [LSU] was the best offensive coordinator I ever had that did what I wanted to do. And everybody always wants to run the ball.”
I expect Florida’s run game to be even more dynamic under McElwain than it was under former OC Kurt Roper, but with Nussmeier in the fold we can expect the vertical passing game to be combined with McElwain’s wizardry of the short-to-intermediate game.
The mesh of philosophies should get the Gators up to speed rapidly.
Screens/Swings/Vertical Concepts/Work With Mobile QBs
One thing we do know about McElwain: He favors pocket-passing QBs who can deal conventionally. Nussmeier, on the other hand, has had success with mobile QBs that excel at vertical passing — most notably as the OC at the University of Washington (2009-11) where he helped make Jake Locker a first-round pick.
He also worked with a young Keith Price, who most certainly fits that description. He loved to work off play-action, which became a tendency breaker after a series of outside-zone runs.
The 2012 SEC Championship Game may have been his finest moment as a coach — besides the 42-14 domination of Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game a month later — as he matched wits with Bobo en route to one of the most exciting games ever.
Nussmeier loved to overload one side of the field and break it back against the grain with either a screen or run. This causes a conflict of assignment as defenses tend to cheat to the strong side of the formation (especially mentally).
Both Nuss and Mac are major proponents of the one-back offense which puts three to four receiving targets on the field at all times. One of those threats still happens to be the running back as Nuss has a mean screen/swing game in his arsenal.
Here we see a swing pass to star running back Derrick Henry out of “10 personnel,” which was really “11” but Nuss has a tendency to move the “Y” all over the formation. Florida’s rising junior running back Kelvin Taylor is as good of an open-field runner as you’ll ever see; his work in the passing game will be something to behold.
Another aspect that should make its way to Gainesville is the leeway Nussmeier provides QBs with to audible to favorable looks. In the above sequence, which was originally a called run, McCarron checked to a “Smoke” screen when he saw off-man coverage against Cooper.
These are manufactured yards as they’re almost as easy as turning and handing the ball off. More offenses need to incorporate this aspect in its scheme instead of being so formulaic.
As much as Saban tries to pretend, Nussmeier’s offense was filled with plenty of explosive plays as the latter taught McCarron to trust the skills of Cooper. On any given play there was some type of downfield call in the route combinations.
Case in point: Can you imagine what Florida receiver Demarcus Robinson will do with these downfield opportunities from, perhaps, redshirt freshman QB Will Grier?
There’s a lot to be said for continuity in football; both McElwain and Nussmeier have similar philosophies on offense, yet both have subtle differences they will draw upon to make Florida’s offense a complete machine.
It’s been widely written that the Florida fan base prefers to throw it all around the yard, like back in the glory days of Steve Spurrier, but it may have to settle for some good ol’ fashioned balance on offense.
Yep, just when you thought it was safe to play Florida…