“He didn’t want to face my parents,” Drenning said of Rodriguez, now the coach of West Virginia University. “I’ll never forget the look on his face.”
The look on Rodriguez’s face this weekend should be an iridescent smile. His second-ranked Mountaineers (10-1) need a victory Saturday against Pittsburgh, a heavy underdog, to reach the Bowl Championship Series title game. The linchpin to success is Rodriguez’s spread offense, which averages 41 points and 310 rushing yards a game.
It is a system that has worked well for dynamic quarterbacks like Tulane’s Shaun King, Clemson’s Woody Dantzler and West Virginia’s current starter, Pat White. But the offense that has West Virginia on the cusp of its first national title in football began, as the song goes, with a story about a man named Jed.
How did a pharmaceutical salesman whose son’s middle name is Unitas help invent college football’s most productive offenses? By accident, of course, as Rodriguez likes to joke, noting that the man who inspired the offense that has turned White into a Heisman Trophy contender could not run the 40-yard dash in 5.0 seconds with a stiff breeze at his back.
“I’m nothing if not self-aware,” Drenning said, chuckling, in a recent interview.
Rodriguez calls Drenning one of the smartest players he has coached, which is how a bit of ingenuity by necessity was able to give birth to the basic shotgun zone-read run play that West Virginia uses so effectively. In a game early in 1991, Drenning missed or bobbled a handoff and then kept the ball, running for a moderate gain.
“Why did you do that?” Rodriguez asked Drenning.
“The end squeezed in, so I kept it,” Drenning said.
“Oh, right,” Rodriguez said, pretending not to be surprised. “Oh, we’re putting that in next week.”
Years later, Rodriguez laughed when he recalled that moment of discovery.
“It was one of those deals where we kind of fell into that,” Rodriguez said. “We weren’t running it because he wasn’t a runner. But the thought process came in our mind.”
And 16 years later, a majority of running plays in West Virginia’s spread offense are built on the same principle: reading the movement of the defensive end.
Here is how the play works: White takes a snap out of the shotgun and looks at an unblocked defensive end, as Drenning did. If the defender crashes toward the quarterback, White runs into the hole he vacated. If the end stays put to contain the quarterback, White hands off to tailback Steve Slaton, who dashes off in the opposite direction.
Florida’s Tim Tebow and many other college quarterbacks run the spread option out of the shotgun using the same read.
“I don’t think that there’s a team in America that doesn’t do that play now,” said Rod Smith, West Virginia’s quarterbacks coach, who was the backup to Drenning at Glenville.
When Drenning ran the offense at Glenville, it was still primarily a passing offense based on the old run-and-shoot. Drenning said the offense was “stitched out of necessity,” an apt description considering that his body had to be stitched back together while he and Rodriguez learned.
Progress was slow and often painful, with Drenning following up his 20-sack Saturday by taking 12 the next week.
“One thing about getting sacked that many times, he learned to get rid of the ball quickly,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “Jed Drenning probably had the quickest release in all of college football.”
But soon, the new offense took shape, adapting to the defenses and adding wrinkles like reads to counter blitzes. A year after taking the 20 sacks, Drenning led Glenville to a blowout victory against West Virginia State without being sacked. By his senior year, Drenning threw for 4,329 yards, was named the conference’s player of the year and helped receiver Chris George set an all-college single-season record with 144 pass receptions. He also led Glenville to the N.A.I.A. title game.
“It’s amazing how the game has changed,” Smith said. “I used to ask Jed all the time, ‘How come teams don’t run what we run?’ He’d say, ‘They’re scared to.’”
In installing the offense, things started off so bad that during the first spring scrimmage, Tulane’s defensive coaches let a manager call the defensive plays.
“I don’t think we got a first down the whole spring,” Rodriguez said.
Eventually Rodriguez got Shaun King to buy into the system. By King’s senior year, his second in the system, he broke the N.C.A.A. record for passing efficiency and Tulane finished 12-0 and No. 7 in the Associated Press poll. King was not as fast as White, but he ran well enough to be a threat out of the shotgun with the field spread out. King’s running ability showed an evolution from a pass-heavy system.
“He gets so much credit for his system,” King, who played in the N.F.L. and is now an analyst for ESPN, said of Rodriguez. “But he doesn’t get as much credit for his ability to adapt the system to personnel.”
Rodriguez was snubbed for the head coaching job at Tulane after Bowden left for Clemson. So Rodriguez went with him and his system developed its reputation for being “amoebalike,” as Smith calls it.
At Clemson, Dantzler was not as effective a thrower as Drenning or King. So Rodriguez shifted the system’s emphasis to the ground, an early version of its current incarnation. Rodriguez designed run plays based around Dantzler reading the defensive end and reacting. And as Dantzler became more comfortable, Clemson started climbing the polls, including as high as No. 5 in 2000.
“As simple as it is, it’s very potent when executed properly,” Dantzler said of the offense. And the more he ran it, the harder it got to defend.
“Instead of thinking about the play, you’re reacting to the defense,” Dantzler said. “Those are two totally different things. If you’re thinking about the play, you’re not paying much attention to the defense.”
After two seasons at Clemson, Rodriguez came home to his dream job in West Virginia, his alma mater in his home state.
There were growing pains, including a 3-8 season to start, in 2001. But once the personnel fit, the Mountaineers took off. Quarterback Rasheed Marshall ran the spread well enough to lead the Mountaineers to the Gator Bowl in consecutive years. Marshall was selected the Big East offensive player of the year in 2004.
But White and Slaton have taken it to another level, becoming only the third pair of teammates to run for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. And while the national title game in New Orleans is a long way from Glenville State, the principles are the same.
“If the defensive end squeezes, I pull the ball,” White said. “If the defensive end stays wide, I hand off to Steve, and he goes 90.”
Sounds familiar to a man named Jed. Just a bit better executed.
“The difference is that a play that I’d get 15 yards on,” Jed Drenning said, “Pat White would get 80.” "
By Jed Drenning
That’s the best word I could use to describe the spread offense West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez has employed to such great effect over the past 16 years of his coaching career. That same system has been instrumental in making Rodriguez a household name in coaching circles and that now has Rodriguez, a former Mountaineers defensive back, on the threshold of guiding his alma mater to the promised land of college football: a berth in the B.C.S. title game Jan. 7 in New Orleans.
To qualify things a bit, let me preface this all by saying I do believe my perspective through the looking glass of an offensive scheme and style that has in many ways changed the landscape of college football might at least be a touch distinctive, or so I hope. You see, I have the very good fortune of being the first quarterback to ever have played in this offense for Rich Rodriguez. With the Heisman Trophy candidate Pat White behind the wheel, the sleek old sportster seems to be running faster than ever, even after countless points and tens of thousands of yards. Now more than ever I beam with pride over the fact I was the guy lucky enough to first be handed the keys from Coach Rod and drive it off the lot 16 years ago at Glenville State in West Virginia.
Folks these days most readily associate Coach Rodriguez’ Mountaineer offense with 400-yard rushing outbursts, zone-read running plays and explosive jaunts on the perimeter by guys like White and Steve Slaton. While things have no doubt changed a bit since the early 1990s at Glenville State when we were chucking the ball around to the tune of 50-60 times a week and our leading receiver once hauled in 144 receptions in a single season, the fundamental premise of Coach Rod’s scheme remains intact: Spread the defense and take what they give you.
The numbers are hard to dispute. In the past decade and a half Coach Rodriguez’ system has demonstrated an unparalleled ability to burn the offensive candle at both ends. In 1998, with Rodriguez as offensive coordinator, Tulane averaged more than 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game for an entire season. Show me another offensive system boasting a resume that includes 500-yard passing performances (Coach Rodriguez’ quarterbacks produced three such games at Glenville State), as well as games with over 500 yards in team rushing (two times to date at W.V.U., including last week against Connecticut). Show me another scheme that has produced a quarterback with 38 touchdown passes in a season (Shaun King under Coach Rod’s tutelage at Tulane in 1998), and a quarterback with no fewer than three 200-yard rushing performances (White at West Virginia). For that matter, can you cite another offense that stakes claim to a 300-yard single-game receiving performance (Chris George at Glenville State in 1994), and a 300-yard rusher (Kay Jay Harris at West Virginia in 2004)?
The concept of four-receiver sets and a high octane, no-huddle tempo probably seems mainstream today. That wasn’t the case, however, when the earliest variant of West Virginia’s “power-spread” offense was first conceived sixteen autumns ago.
To truly appreciate how progressive Rodriguez’ approach was in 1991 as the head coach at Glenville State, which was when he first began attacking the opposition with spread formations and no-huddle, you first must recall the climate of the collegiate game at that time.
In the early ’90s, college football was obviously a much different game than today, and this especially held true on offense. It was a time, after all, not far removed from the golden era of the wishbone offense. Throughout the course of the 1970s and 1980s, old-school icons like Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno had guided their teams to glory with a simple but effective formula that resonated through the college ranks, from the major universities to the lower-tier, scholarship-deprived programs. Hard-nosed and fundamentally sound defense coupled with a conservative, ground-oriented offense that would chew up the clock and often call for more tight ends and fullbacks in the formation than tuba players in the band.
In short, many coaches at the time still preferred to play it as close to the vest offensively as possible. Batten down the hatches, tighten up the formation and play the entire game in rugby-scrum fashion between the tackles.
For generations of coaches that was the tried and true recipe for success. In the early 1990s when Coach Rod arrived at Glenville State, that conservative mind-set still reigned supreme over college football. For every offensive radical like LaVell Edwards at Brigham Young or John Jenkins at Houston, there were dozens of traditionalists still clinging to the more established three-plays-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach that had worked for decades.
Never get cute and line up in the shotgun or start spreading people out. Only in desperate circumstances like the two-minute drill or third-and-long should you even consider such antics. To do so otherwise would be to invite disaster. That was the widely accepted attitude of the day.
Things weren’t so simple for Coach Rod. At Glenville State, he inherited a program that had at the time the smallest football budget in the country at its level (N.A.I.A.). He recognized that his squad was overmatched, both financially and physically, and consequently he lacked the luxury of convention. Coach Rodriguez realized very early on that if he was going to reverse Glenville’s football fortunes and bring the university its first conference title since 1958 he would have to defy the norm. Defy it he did in 1993. That was the year that he led Glenville State to the first of five straight West Virginia Conference crowns, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Players respond to the notion of being part of something special and unique. Maybe Coach Rod was forward-thinking enough to recognize that going into his rebuilding project at Glenville and that’s why he played the hand he did with an offense no one else dared to implement. Or maybe he simply gained that insight from his experiences there. Either way, Coach Rodriguez adheres to that philosophy and to this day it still serves him –- and his team -– very well. Whether it’s West Virginia’s unique no-huddle, power-spread running game, or the Mountaineers’ odd-stack defense that only a handful of teams across the country employ, or a fake punt in the final minutes of West Virginia’s 2006 Sugar Bowl victory over heavily favored Georgia, Coach Rod is acutely aware of a simple detail that appears lost on many coaches. Kids react favorably to someone who demonstrates the courage to take a chance, and they embrace the notion of circling the wagon and being a part of something that few others have the guts to try.
The great irony is that the whole circumstance appears to have come full circle. There’s no copyright on X’s and O’s and following West Virginia’s recent success coaches across the land are now doing their best to emulate Coach Rod’s offensive system, a system that was born years ago in Glenville when he was brash enough to do one thing no one else dared to.