After reading the Dabo vs. Spence philosophy article then the good Dr.'s blog earlier in the week, I felt this topic should be elaborated upon. Let me preface this with the fact that all items discussed within this individual post are based solely on perceptions and opinions that have evolved over watching years of football, particularly Clemson football. This opinion does not criticize Dabo/Napier to the extent that Spence is questioned simply because we have not seen enough of their true schemes with hand-chosen coaches in game situations.
The topic of Spence is one commonly discussed over water coolers all over the state of South Carolina. This "mad scientist" is known for extensive offensive knowledge and creativity. This creativity can be focused specifically what I would consider "non-traditional" collegiate offensive strategies. Furthermore, all reports (I have never met the man, only seen his product on the field and read extensively about his service at Toledo) regarding Spence's philosophy indicate the guy is an intelligent man who utilizes extremely complex schemes with his players. We all have heard about the size of his playbook. We will get into the specifics below, but initially I wish to describe his coaching style as "finesse" football.
Swinney (and by default, Napier) has taken a different approach to the offensive philosophy. The Swinney plan will utilize many of the same concepts that in Spence's playbook, but will not be as complex. Thus, the strategy will involve becoming more physical and focusing on a more narrow choice of plays, but plays that you can successfully run. We will call this the "Hedgehog" approach (see Jim Collins' work Good to Great, which I highly recommend).
As professed throughout previous blogs, Spence's ideas for running a college football offense are not popular here. His complex offense has wrinkles on top of wrinkles. While I am fine with the old Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared," this seems to be a little extreme when you couple this extensive playbook with the time limitations placed on student athletes. Further, practice time was used weekly to implement this extensive playbook, thus running many plays with few repetitions over the course of a week's practice. This strategy may be effective for professional athletes who focus only on Sunday games and nothing else. NFL stars also have no restrictions on time spent and do not have to concern themselves with the studies/NCAA rules. Long story short, I believe that Spence misused collegiate practice time by overwhelming the players with too many ideas without devoting enough focus to core plays that will definitely be run during game situations.
The complexity does not end with shear numbers of plays. The blocking schemes implemented here are also extremely difficult for young players to digest. Zone blocking requires an initial covered/uncovered read followed by combination blocking by uncovered linemen. While I will not get into this scheme at this time, I will say that zone blocking is more difficult to understand and implement than basic man blocking. This style coupled with misdirection and trapping requires a cohesive group of linemen who are aware of their surroundings and able to work with their peers. When the stars line up, this style works extremely well and is almost like watching a choreographed performance on the football field (see late '90's Denver Broncos). With an inexperienced group of players, this is a nightmare (see 2008 Clemson offensive line). It should also be noted that typical zone blocking techniques require a more agile (and typically smaller) offensive line. Because of this last statement, Spence's offensive linemen were less effective in short yard scenarios. Also, Spence utilized a strategy of linemen in a two-point stance, no matter the situation. The last two statements (IMO) create a finesse line that must work together for many years in order to create the cohesion needed to work as one unit. If this unit has not put in the time, there will be no holes for the backs. This was evident in '08.
I believe that the Clemson offense of the past few years lacked the toughness needed to win close ballgames. This was evident with the difficulties the Tiger's had getting tough yards when they counted. Often I thought that play calling was intended to "outsmart" the defense instead of running a base package that emphasized the best situational plays. The offense, at times appeared to get "too cute" with the play calling, often making simple play calls extremely complex and improper for the situation at hand.
The final problem that I have with Spence's offense comes from his insistence for complexity and a wide-array of possibilities on the field. If Spence indeed was the master artist, why could we only run a hand full of plays? Better yet, why the fuck were we running bubble screens every other play? If I were Spence, we would practice about 6 plays: counter, power, bubble screen, y-screen, z-screen, and combo screen simply because those 6 plays seem to compose about 80% of our offensive play calling under Rob Spence.
The combination of all factors listed above came to a head against Va. Tech in 2007. Our receivers got killed as the Hokies sat on those shitty and repetitive WR screen passes. Va Tech put as many people in the box as they could, then dared Clemson to throw the ball over them (which, by talent or by strategy, we proved that we could not do). This proved to be the blueprint for defeating a Spence offense. I was disappointed and extremely pissed off with these tactics all along, but I think that we can all agree that the Wake Forest game last season had to be the most piss poor offensive output most of us have ever seen out of a Clemson football team. Hell, Tommy West was probably laughing at us.
The above commentary coupled with dumb ass mistakes (offsides penalties, lining up improperly, what appeared to be poor effort, etc...) lead me to favor Dobo's strategy of getting a tough offensive line (see Pearman's comments in a previous Dr. B blog), becoming tougher overall as a team, and not beating ourselves. Swinney's hedgehog strategy requires that we have competency in fewer plays. In return we will be able to run these plays better because the team will get more repetition of these core plays. We will not be practicing bullshit just to see how it looks, we will be practicing plays that will actually be utilized in game situations.
Swinney will have a more experienced offensive line than last season. This line is a little heavier than before. Also, this members of this group appear to actually be giving a shit about playing football (see past articles within this blog for details). I will be interested to see the specifics of our blocking schemes in game situations, and specifically how much zone vs man blocking this team will partake in.
I will also be interested to see how much Swinney's practice philosophy will affect this team. Clemson should be sharper after focusing on fewer plays. Clemson should also be a better technical team with fewer mistakes due to the decrease in playbook size. The key here will be avoiding bonehead playcalls (i.e., reverse WR pass last season against GT). I believe this group will be able to script the first few plays, but am not as confident in gameday decisions. Will Napier be able to adjust on the fly? Can we stretch defenses vertically this season? I appologize for the lack of criticism of the Napier/Swinney plan, but do not feel that this assessment would be accurate nor fair as this is the first time either has opened a season in his current role.
Admittedly, I am much more excited about playing a more physical brand of football. I am also hopeful that we will stretch defenses with the passing game instead of relying on an endless source of screen passes. We will likely see an attitude that does not try to outsmart the opponent, but exploit our strengths and opponents' weaknesses through a core package of football plays. This should simplify preparation and hopefully we won't see as much sloppy play out of our offense. In all, I don't see how the Tigers' offense could be any worse than last season. Ridding CU of R. Spence was a step away from that debacle.