The Origins and Philosophy of an Offensive Guru – Part 2
Part 2: The Air Raid, The Hurry Up No Huddle, and Changing the Dynamics of Football
In “Part 1: Gus Malzahn and the Delaware Wing-T,” we looked at where Gus’s offense is rooted and how those roots are still just as obvious today as they were when he first began his head coaching career. What we need to look at now though is how and when Gus Malzahn transformed his Wing-T based offense into the fast paced, high scoring offense we see today.
Gus Malzahn became the head coach at Shiloh Christian High School in Springdale, Arkansas in 1996. After winning only six games in the 1996 season Gus brought his staff together with one goal…take their team to the state championship game. What transpired the following year and the years after is nothing short of amazing. Gus talks about his search for a competitive advantage in his book, “The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy”:
“From day one, I was striving to find the “edge” I needed to help my program to win championships. I attended clinics and met with other coaches that had experienced success. The whole time I was trying to find out what they were doing that I was not doing. While this process was very helpful to me in my career, I have also strived to have something unique in my program that was different than other programs around me. I always believed there had to be something out there that I was missing. I 1997, I found that one thing that was different. That is when the “hurry up, no huddle” was born.”
The Air Raid meets the Hurry Up, No Huddle Offense
Malzahn and his staff had already been experimenting with a different approach to running the offense. They would start a game with a no huddle offense in which they would run several plays at the “two-minute offense” pace, which had been scripted and practiced the week before. The result was that the offense quickly gained momentum and had success. The problem was that once the scripted plays had been run the offense would go back to huddling and would quickly lose momentum.
So, the question then became one of how to maintain the momentum built up by the first few scripted plays of the game. Simple…run the no huddle offense at the “two-minute offense” pace for the entire game. Gus actually describes two different styles of “no huddle” offenses in his book:
“In my opinion, two different types of “no huddle” philosophies exist. The first one involves getting to the line of scrimmage, seeing how the defense is aligned, and then having enough time to signal in the proper play that has the best chance of being successful. The second philosophy of the no huddle is the two-minute offense that has a fast and furious pace that you would run toward the end of the game when you are behind. The HURRY UP, NO HUDDLE is just as its title says. It is the second philosophy that I described. The only difference is we run our offense at that fast and furious pace the entire game.”
When he and his staff first implemented this offense at Shiloh Christian High School it was predominantly a passing attack. More specifically it aligned much closer with the Air Raid offense than the Wing-T. So, where did the influence of the Air Raid offense come from? As stated earlier, just like many coaches do, Gus attended coaching clinics and followed the latest trends in the game and what he found was the wide open passing attack of the Air Raid offense.
While the Air Raid had been in existence for many years prior, the offense never really gained much traction until coaches in NCAA Division I football began to implement the system with great success. Coaches like Hal Mumme and Mike Leach were using this offense to devastate defenses that were more talented, which was one of the advantages to the Air Raid and still is to some degree today. That is, schools that can’t recruit elite athletes are able to compete with larger programs. With Shiloh Christian being located in northwest Arkansas it certainly had its limitations and the level of talent to work with was one of those, thus, making the Air Raid offense appealing.
Implementing this new system though required everything about the program to be completely reworked. Systems for calling plays from the sideline, QB audibles at the line of scrimmage, communication between players on the field, the naming of plays, the number of plays in the play book, and even how practice time was spent were all completely revamped. Everything was done to emphasize speed and playing fast.
One of the biggest changes made was to the play book. In order to play as fast as possible, Malzahn believed that the offense only needed a few base formations and a few plays for each formation. These plays would be relatively simple, could be run against any defensive front, the majority of the plays could be run to either side based on defensive alignments, and the offense would run them to perfection. With a reduction in the total number of plays and formations the learning curve for the offense would be shorter and, of course, allow them to play faster.
Doubles: One running back, 4 wide receivers
Below we’ll look at one of the main passing plays not only in Gus’s playbook, but every Air Raid playbook. “The Smash” is one of the oldest plays in the Air Raid and can be traced back to the offense’s origins at BYU. I chose to use this play over a few others because you can easily find numerous variations and examples just by doing a quick internet search and also because it’s one of the plays diagrammed in Malzahn’s book (that pretty much makes it the obvious choice).
The Smash is designed to be effective against any secondary coverage, however, in Malzahn’s play book there are two variations which are dependent upon the secondary coverage of the defense:
1) Against a single high safety the QB reads the cornerback’s alignment relative to the outside receiver before the snap. If the cornerback concedes the 5 yard stop route by dropping back to play the post route, the QB throws to the flat. If the corner back comes up to play the stop route the QB throws to the post.
2) Against a two safety secondary the QB must read the cornerback and the safety with the outside receiver running the 5 yard stop route but with a quick slant inside after 5 yards. At the snap the read is the same as before but with the safety over the top being the key. If one of the high safeties takes the post route then throw to the stop route. If the cornerback takes away the stop route and the high safety is playing underneath the post, then throw deep. The idea behind adding the quick slant inside for the outside receiver is to draw the two safeties underneath, which opens up the deep post route.
Smash vs Single Safety
Smash vs Two Safety
While the passing game was the main focus of the offense the running game wasn’t forgotten. In total, Malzahn had ten different running plays but only ran four on a consistent basis. Again, the idea was to run a few plays to perfection and be able to run them against any defensive alignment they faced. The four main running plays he used were The Trap, Counter, Power, and Sweep. Below we will look at “The Power” as it was executed by Gus’s offense and the reasons I chose this play are the same as for “The Smash” (diagramed in Gus’s book and examples can easily be found).
Once again we’re looking at another play that has been around for quite some time. The idea behind The Power is simple…it shows that your offensive line can move the defensive line and allow the running back to run between the tackles.
This play was typically run out of the “Pro” formation (see Base Formations). The blocking back takes on the right side defensive end, the right tackle either blocks the nose tackle with the right guard or tracks the second linebacker, the right guard blocks the nose tackle and also watches for the backside linebacker to come through, the center blocks the defensive tackle, the left guard pulls through the play side gap blocking the linebacker, and the running back follows the guard as he leads through the gap.
The Hurry Up, No Huddle vs. The Wing-T
Are there any similarities between the two? The answer is yes even though the HUNH (hurry up, no huddle) as Gus ran it at Shiloh Christian is a far cry from the run based offense of the Wing-T both in practice and appearance. They’re polar opposites in terms of X’s and O’s. Confused? Good, you should be. Any similarities between the two offenses are mainly philosophical in nature. Gus essentially took his way of thinking from the Wing-T and applied it to a passing attack and then took it a step further and applied the “Hurry Up” to the “No Huddle” which had a profound impact.
Remember that the Wing-T’s core lies in the concept of sequence football (there’s that strange phrase again). Meaning, the offense is centered on a small set of formations that all plays can be run from while threatening the defense at multiple points within the same play. This is exactly what Gus did in his high school days and continues to do today. As a high school coach his offense based out of three main formations (see Base Formations) and ran nearly every play out of these formations.
Looking at the example from the Iron Bowl I referenced in Part 1 as well as a portion of Gus’s passing play book from the 2010 season (both are on the next page) we can still see the same principles applied to his current offense. I would even go as far as to say that his current formations are just modified versions of his “Pro” and “Doubles” formations from his high school days. I don’t think it’s a far leap either to say that his “Pro” formation was just an updated version of the traditional Wing-T formations.
Iron Bowl 2013 – Final Drive
Passing Game Playbook – Auburn 2010
The Wing-T + Air Raid + Hurry Up, No Huddle = …?
The most amazing, high scoring, fast paced, power running, play action passing, mind blowing offense the world has ever seen…no really, it’s pretty awesome…
All joking aside, the result of combining the core philosophy and misdirection themes of the Wing-T with the passing concepts of the Air Raid and adding the frantic pace of the “two-minute offense” gives you an offense with no limitations. Let me explain…
The Wing-T as a stand-alone offense lacks the down field striking ability that the Air Raid offers. Sure, it incorporates the play action pass but it lacks the ability to consistently stretch a defense vertically down the field. It does, however, stretch the defense horizontally with its misdirection, motion, and nearly limitless running options.
The Air Raid as a stand-alone offense doesn’t provide the basis for a consistent, power running game like the Wing-T. Yes, you can run out of the Air Raid offense and teams that use it do so in every game they play, but the core of the offense is rooted in passing concepts that are designed to stretch a defense vertically (and horizontally to some degree) to its breaking point.
What better way is there to negate the downfalls of each system than by combining the strengths of each and adding your own innovations? If we look again at the example from the Iron Bowl in the previous section, what you have is a two back and three wide receiver shotgun formation. This formation is used A LOT in Gus’s offense today, but what does having three wide receivers and two backs allow you to do? Well, anything really.
Having three true wide receivers allows multiple routes to be run that are all designed to defeat different secondary coverages. The idea is to neutralize as many types of secondary coverage schemes as you can within the same play which also stretches the defense vertically…a principle that comes from the Air Raid.
With two backs in the backfield the offense can use motion and misdirection to its fullest. The H-Back can be sent in motion as a fourth receiver, an extra blocker for the running game, or for nothing more than “window dressing”…a principle that comes from the Wing-T and stretches the defense horizontally.
The key point here is that all of this is done within the same play and that all of these threats, both running and passing, must be taken into consideration by the defense.
Finally, adding in the fast pace of the Hurry Up, No huddle helps keep the defense from being properly aligned and also wears them down physically and mentally as the game goes on. The fast pace typically forces the defense to play out of their base formation and makes it difficult for them to blitz or substitute for special packages. When playing against a fast paced offense, small mistakes by the defense in regards to their alignment or recognition of the offensive formation are amplified and often lead to points being scored very quickly.
The author of sports blog, SmartFootball.com, said it best: “Whether a run play is successful is usually determined within a second of the snap, and whether the blocking was effective typically hinges on the leverage and angles blockers do or don’t have. Because Malzahn combines a lot of formations and motions with varying strengths, angles, or numbers advantages with a very quick pace, defenders often wind up out of position. And small mistakes can equal big gains for the offense.”
Impact of the Hurry Up, No Huddle
The impact of Gus’s offense at Shiloh Christian was immediate and dramatic. In 1996, the year before Gus implemented his Hurry Up, No Huddle offense they were 6-6, averaging 15.5 points per game, totaled 3027 yards of offense, threw 13 TD passes and 9 interceptions. A year after implementing the system every offensive statistic doubled. They ended the 1997 season 14-1, averaging 30.0 points per game, totaled 6713 yards of offense, throwing 45 TD passes and only 6 interceptions. From 1997 – 2000 Gus Malzahn’s offense averaged close to 7000 yards of total offense per season, at least 30 points per game and never lost more than one game per season.
Between 1997 and 2005 Gus Malzahn won three Arkansas state championships at two different high schools along with shattering state and national offensive records. His impact on football in the state of Arkansas was just as profound and dramatic as the differences between his 1996 season and 1997 season at Shiloh Christian High School. What I don’t think any saw coming though was the impact he would have on college football and even the NFL.
When Gus was given the opportunity to be an offensive coordinator in the SEC for Arkansas in 2006 he managed to produce one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the nation despite being handcuffed by Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt. The following year (2007) Malzahn landed at Tulsa as offensive coordinator and was able to manufacture the nation’s number one offense in total yards per game, a 5,000 yard passer, a 1,000 yard rusher, and three 1,000 yard receivers in a single season. That was the first time in NCAA history any team had been able to accomplish such a feat.
In 2008, still at Tulsa, Malzahn fielded an offense that led the nation in total offense with 7900 yards for the season and ranked second in the nation in scoring. Not only did Tulsa rank second nationally in 2008, they were also ranked second in the history of major college football for scoring offense after the 2008 season.
Auburn and new head coach Gene Chizik named Gus as the offensive coordinator in 2009 giving him another shot to prove his offense could work in the gauntlet that is the SEC. He didn’t disappoint. That year Auburn’s offense broke its single season total offense record that had previously been help by the 2004 team. Under Malzahn quarterback Chris Todd broke Auburn’s single season touchdown record and ranked 18th nationally in overall passer rating.
The following year (2010) Gus Malzahn would produce a Heisman winning quarterback in Cam Newton in route to winning the BCS National Championship. Newton and Auburn’s offense would lead the SEC in scoring offense, total offense, passing efficiency, first downs, and third down conversions. Cam would also break the SEC’s record for rushing yards in a single season by a quarterback and would also become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in single season.
Of course, we all remember what happened last season with Malzahn as head coach. Quarterback Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense would produce the most dominating rushing attack college football had ever seen in route to a SEC Championship and a chance to play in the BCS National Championship game.
The true genius though behind Gus’s offense isn’t embedded in the X’s and O’s or in the meticulous game planning he’s known for. The genius is in the simplicity. Don’t interpret “simple” or “simplicity” as a negative description or that it means his offense can be easily figured out. Far too many head coaches and defensive coordinators have thought the exact same thing and have paid the price for it. What it means is that Gus has simplified the game for his players, which allows them to focus on the key things they need to do in order to be successful in his offense. He’s mastered the art of molding his offense to his players’ strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. He’s mastered the art of teaching.
So, in conclusion (finally, right?) is Gus Malzahn’s offense just a high school offense as many detractors would like you to believe? Absolutely, and that high school offense will line up and punch a defense in the mouth, ram the ball down its throat, take a razor blade to the secondary, run through it, around it, and every combination in between. And just when the defense has it all figured out, Gus will line his offense up and do it all over again at the fast and furious pace he’s infamous for while lighting up the score board and embarrassing defensive coordinators in the process.
Gus Malzahn said it best himself, “The Hurry Up, No Huddle philosophy is designed to completely change the dynamics of the traditional game of football.”
So far, I’d say he’s done just that…
“The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy” by Gus Malzahn p>
This document is not to be sold or used for profit in any way and is not to be copied and/or distributed without the consent of the original author. The original photos and diagrams contained in this document can be found in the sources listed above this statement. This document is to be used for entertainment purposes only.
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