Indiana's quarterback situation couldn't be much more different than it was last year. The 2011 Hoosiers went through most of the off season with four players competing heavily for the starting position. By the time fall camp began the depth chart was whittled down to two main options, sophomores Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker. These two would take the vast majority of the snaps during the first two months of the season, combining for the first seven starts until injuries opened the door for third-string true freshman Tre Roberson to get a crack at starting. He never gave up the job.
Now, a year later both those sophomores are gone, having transferred with two years of eligibility remaining, and Tre Roberson stands atop a suddenly thin depth chart.
Roberson's youth may have put him at a disadvantage early in 2011's quarterback competition, but by the end of the year Roberson had certainly flashed enough skill to intrigue the coaches. The lithe Roberson --- measuring at just 6'0, 184 lbs --- was a more effective rushing threat than the two more experienced options. Roberson rushed for 70 or more yards four times with a game high of 121. For the season he netted 476 yards after playing significant time in only seven games (starting five) and did so against the meat of a Big Ten schedule (Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Northwestern).
As far as the passing game, Roberson wasn't quite as effective as Wright-Baker, who finished with 1026 yards on 59 percent passing with four interceptions and four touchdowns, but that doesn't take into account that three of the five defenses that Wright-Baker went up against belonged to Ball State, South Carolina State, and North Texas. Meanwhile, Roberson threw for 937 yards on 57 percent passing for three touchdowns and six interceptions against a much tougher slate of defenses. While Indiana was thoroughly overwhelmed by Michigan State when Roberson was at quarterback --- not much shame in that --- the Hoosiers topped 20 points in all four other games in which Roberson was the starter, and took Ohio State into the fourth quarter in a one score game.
The hope going into 2012 has to be for the offense to take another step forward. The defense was quite possibly the worst in all of the big six conferences a year ago, and even a dramatic transformation only gets Indiana to below average. Any large uptick in wins next season will be on the back of the offense in its second year under Kevin Wilson.
Because Indiana is playing so far behind when it comes to defense, an unnecessarily large burden is going to rest on the shoulders of whoever ends up getting the start at quarterback. Despite Roberson's experience over the latter half of last season, as well as his full year in the offense, he is no lock to start, at least says Paul Myerberg of Pre-Snap Read in his (absolutely brilliant and insanely detailed. Srsly) countdown of all 123 FBS teams. The meat:
Whether [true freshman Nathan Sudfeld] will play or take a red shirt hinges on two factors: one, if sophomore Tre Roberson has what it takes to play at an adequate level; and two, if JUCO transfer Cameron Coffman's early arrival - he participated in spring ball - will give him enough of a foothold in Wilson's system to start from day one. For now, I'd be more confident in Coffman grasping the nuts and bolts of Indiana's system than in Roberson's game progressing to the point where he can be trusted as the leader of this offense.
But if the season started today, Roberson's getting the nod. This is largely because Coffman's playing catch-up; Roberson is a year into Wilson's offense while Coffman has 15 spring practices under his belt. While Roberson gives I.U. a different dimension at quarterback as a runner, Wilson's time at Oklahoma proves that this offense demands a quarterback able to make every throw in the playbook. Coffman, the better passer, gives I.U. the best chance at success. If Wilson wants to run a pass-happy offense, then he should forget about trotting out a dual-threat quarterback and opt for a pocket passer.
Not stirring words in favor of the dual-threat who ran things a year ago, and for good reason: both the other options fit more into the mold of the quarterback that Wilson has most recently tried to build.
The player on campus now, juco transfer Cameron Coffman, already cut his teeth at Arizona Western C.C. and acquitted himself nicely as an air-it-out passer. Coffman had a stellar year leading AWCC to the NJCAA national championship game and helping the team win 11 games for the first time in program history. He did it throwing the ball. Coffman ended the year with 2244 passing yards and 21 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions, and his 61 percent completion rate was four points better than Robersons --- not to mention the vastly superior TD/INT ratio. The difference between the two is even more amplified on the ground. Roberson was very effective running the ball against Big Ten defenses last year, while Coffman just about broke even in the running game (13 yards, two touchdowns). The other name in the race for the quarterback job is that of true freshman Nathan Sudfeld, a 6'5 pocket passer out of California that the coaches are optimistic about according to Myerberg. From Wilson's own mouth:
"We have two this spring and we'll add a reasonably talented kid (Sudfeld) that we are high on that will get us to three," said Wilson. "I think Cam has progressed in the pass game during the spring very nicely and we're really pushing Tre in that regard."
These two certainly fit the profile of Wilson's last few quarterbacks. Looking back at the most recent starters in Oklahoma, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones, it seems clear that Sudfeld and Coffman are the wave of the future. Those Oklahoma offenses were very pass heavy. The record setting 2008 offense led by Bradford in his Heisman season was third in the nation in pass yards with 349 per game. The two-loss, Fiesta Bowl winning outfit in 2010 was also third in the nation, this time with 343 yards per game.
Watching these teams operate is a lesson in the division of labor on the football field. Neither Jones nor Bradford were much of a running threat out of the backfield, but both were nothing if not big arms capable of winging the ball down field with ease. When Myerberg says the Oklahoma offense "demands a quarterback able to make every throw in the playbook," he is talking not about Roberson's arm vs. those of Bradford and Jones --- although there is a large difference there --- but about the offense's raison d'etre. The Oklahoma spread offense isn't shy when it comes to running the ball. Far from it, the 2008 version averaged almost 200 yards per game. However, it is a classic case of the pass setting up the run and the quarterback being tasked with threatening the defense with his arm. Oklahoma's offense is predicated on down field passing with three- and four-wide sets in an attempt to find mismatches and open zones. Any running game on top of that is just gravy.
If this is the offense that Kevin Wilson hopes to build in Indiana, and by all accounts it seems like he is leaning more pass-spread than anything else, then Coffman and Sudfeld are logical options. However, there is another door, one that Wilson has already been down.
Back in the year 2000 there was a game played that most Michigan fans remember quite well. Before Appalachian State was David to Michigan's Goliath, there was the lowly Northwestern Wildcats, a team that Michigan had roundly owned since before anyone could remember, coming into a game against the vaunted Michigan defense armed with only some goofy spread-option offense. Not only did Northwestern win the game, it did so with a definitive statement about the future of the spread offense in college football. Smart Football's Chris Brown has written pretty extensively on the game, and he marked it as a momentous occasion for the spread-to-run offense*:
Northwestern defeats Michigan 54-51. This is shocking enough. Northwestern scored fifty-four points against a Michigan team known for great defense and great defensive talent. Doubly shocking. Quarterback Zak Kustok threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns. Not so shocking from a spread QB in victory. Don't they always have to throw for this much to win? That's why they get in the gun, right?
But wait, there's another stat.
Northwestern Rushing: 332 Yards; 6.64 average per carry. 332 yards.
What? Three-Hundred and Thirty Yards rushing?
How did they do that? Yes their running back had a huge day, but the yards that also made everyone sit up and take notice were the 55 yards from Northwestern's quarterback, Zak Kustok - hardly Vince Young or Pat White in raw athleticism. But the light went off across the country. If Zak Kustok can do it, maybe my guy can too. And even if he's not Vince Young, just the threat that he can make the defense pay if they over pursue by getting me eight yards, then let's do it.
Rich Rodriguez is largely credited with the development of the modern spread-option offense, namely the zone read, a play which he developed at Glenville State, but Chris Brown makes a strong case for that Northwestern vs. Michigan game being a strong legitimizing factor for the young offensive system. It was also Kevin Wilson, offensive coordinator and longtime assistant under head coach Randy Walker, that was in charge of the whole thing.
Walker and Wilson hadn't always been the kind of spread-offense tinkerers that Rodriguez or Hal Mumme were, constantly looking to innovate. However, they knew they needed something to give them a leg up at Northwestern after a first year record of 3-8. After that year Walker and Wilson met with a few coaches, including the St. Louis Rams' Mike Martz and the Clemson staff led by Tommy Bowden and coordinated by Rodriguez. What followed, in Brown's words:
...but the lasting impact was Rodriguez. This was because what Rodriguez showed them was less a new way to attack the problem of good defenses but more just a new way to think about attacking the problem. Rodriguez showed them the shotgun and the zone read stuff they were doing at Clemson and had done at Tulane, but the reason it clicked for Wilson and Walker is that they realized that they could run all their old stuff the zones, the power, counter, option, etc all from spread sets.
And so started the march toward mainstream acceptance that the spread-to-run offense, particularly the zone-read, which would take over college football in the next decade. Not only did Walker and Wilson help introduce the rest of the country to this fancy new system in the form of 54-points on the mighty Michigan Wolverines, they did so while adding something else valuable to the offense: they took the best parts of the Rodriguez system and fit them around all the traditional stuff they had coached for most of their careers. Now the spread-to-run system that Rodriguez had been building for years got a sudden injection of these basic ideas of old-school football, something that isn't even given a second thought today when one talks about all the subtle tweaks and adjustments that a coach can make to a single play, much less the staggering complexity of blocking schemes, reads, and constraint plays.
This kind of offense, a spread that relies on running the ball out of shotgun sets and employing reads to find openings against otherwise solid, fundamentally sound defenses is the one that a quarterback like Tre Roberson is built for, and has already shown a knack for. This is the same guy who ran for 70 or more yards against Iowa and Ohio State last year as a true freshman (while passing for 197 and 174 yards respectively). With Roberson looking to be reunited with backfield-mate Stephen Houston, the rushing offense for Indiana could take a major step forward considering the youth everywhere else.
So the question Paul Myerberg is asking, namely, what does Kevin Wilson want to run? isn't the whole story. Between the better part of the last decade that Wilson spent building one of the more impressive passing offenses of modern college football and the recruitment of quarterbacks like Coffman and Sudfeld it seems clear that Wilson's heart lies with the wide-open passing spread that favors one of the newcomers at quarterback.
However, as Kevin Wilson knows as much as anyone, you don't always get to pick the right circumstances to carry out your plan. Thus, the question isn't about what Kevin Wilson does or doesn't want to run, but rather what will give his team the best chance to win football games this fall.
So come September when Indiana settles on a starter for the 2012 season it will go a long way towards telling us what WIlson thinks he has at quarterback, and how married he is to his most recent offensive successes at Oklahoma. Luckily, Wilson is the perfect guy to run either system. And rest assured, he is going to need all the tricks he can muster if he wants to one-up the upset that introduced the college football world to the virtues of running out of a shotgun spread twelve years ago.
*(I am referring to it as the "spread-to-run" offense in an attempt to differentiate the types of spread offenses out there without going into much detail. Since there are so many different variations I just decided to, for simplicity's sake, break it into the ultimate ends of the offense. Oklahoma is a spread-to-pass offense, Northwestern circa 2000 was a spread-to-run. If you want to get into a semantics debate just know that I am as fanatical about not generalizing anything shotgun and four-wide as simply "spread" as you probably are if you are still reading this footnote. /digression.)