The general buzz around the Vanderbilt campus this offseason is "how do we fix the offense that cost Vanderbilt so many games this past season?" The answer isn't as easy as you would think. When Mack Brown had both Vince Young and Colt McCoy running a spread offense he found great success.
When the Alabama Crimson Tide eliminated Colt McCoy from their National Championship game the chaos that soon followed was nothing short of legendary. Mack Brown immediately decided he wanted to do what Alabama does so well, he wanted to line up between the tackles and run people over, and why not? With a state like Texas you certainly have the talent to do just that. Suddenly guys who didn't fit this type of scheme were leaving Austin and heading to other schools. All the wide receivers that Texas had spent time recruiting were suddenly being replaced by tight ends and fullbacks. And what happened?
It didn't work.
Greg Davis was fired that offseason. In comes Major Applewhite, back comes the spread that got Texas so far earlier in the decade...and yet, something was off. That something was the mass amounts of transfers that had preceded the season. Guys that thought they wouldn't play but 15-20 snaps a season were now going to the smaller Texas schools like Southern Methodist. Now you were asking fullbacks to take the same kind of agenda and simply sit down since they couldn't play in space, and you were asking them to risk of not even playing a single snap in most games.
Suddenly the bigger backs you had tried to build and recruit were misplaced in what can only be called a disaster, tight ends were being asked to play inside receiver, and offensive lineman who had been training for strength and size were now asked to run in space and make athletic plays they could no longer do at their size. But that's just an example, right? Something like that couldn't happen in the might Southeastern Conference, could it?
Urban Meyer learned very quickly scheme is more important than star rating. Suddenly plugging in a true pocket passer into his spread option offense just didn't have the same "WHAM" that it did when Tim Tebow and Cam Newton were running the show. Even when Florida had a massive lead and Cam Newton came in behind Tebow you could tell that things just clicked. It was never that way for poor John Brantley, who basically got a free ride to Florida only for his moment to come and land with an unexpected "thud".
That offseason Urban Meyer made it official, he was leaving the University of Florida to spend more time with his family. After one season he went to Ohio State and found a way to make the Buckeyes into National Champions in a short span, toppling his old rival Nick Saban in the process. What was happening back in Gainesville was nearly a carbon copy of what had happened in Austin just a few years prior.
Will Muschamp was trying to take a spread roster and turn it into a pro style power running game the SEC was known for. Let's make one thing perfectly clear here - Florida, even with Brantley, had one of the better rosters to run a spread style offense. The fact that Muschamp wanted to change it was one of those things that was going to either make or break someone as a coach. So what is the first thing Muschamp did? He got Jeff Driskel, a spread style quarterback who has never taken snaps from under center. We all know how that worked out. Muschamp got canned and Driskel ended up at Louisiana Tech.
How do the situations at Texas and at Florida compare to what we're seeing at Vanderbilt? The answer is they're carbon copies, just on a much smaller scale. The reality of the situation is simply this; if Vanderbilt tries to move from a pro style approach to a spread approach the offensive linemen who have spent the last couple of years working on bulking up have to become more agile athletes. The Commodores have to find four competent receivers when they could barely find two all season long. Vanderbilt would have four scholarship tight ends currently on the roster in a scheme that doesn't feature them. They have offered two more TEs a scholarship in a small class of only 16 (about to be 17) players. Then, the team has two more scholarship fullbacks on the roster.
That's scholarships on players who simply won't get used more than a handful of plays. And that isn't all. What about Jaire George and Dallas Rivers? Neither of them have shown the agility to play running back in a spread offense. What do you do with them? The only other option is moving them to defense - the side of the ball where we're currently loaded.
If Andy Ludwig gets his wish to open up the offense more, you could be opening up Pandora's box. It could be something as simple as having a slot receiver instead of two tight ends on the field. Or he could want to run a full spread, complete with a tailback who can flank out at wide receiver. Kind of like
Brian Kimbrow some other back we won't name.
Want me to be completely honest with you? This should scare you to the bone.
The idea of spending another two-three years adding more pieces just to be competitive doesn't sound appealing. It sounds like a way to lose to more teams like Western Kentucky. It sounds like a way to lose a game to Temple. It sounds like a way Vanderbilt shuffles back to the bottom of the Eastern Division. You also run the risk of alienating Kyle Shurmur, your quarterback of the future, the guy who wanted to be in a dropback system. The damning thing about it all is, this system, this plan is proven to work. It's worked for Willie Taggart at WKU and USF. It's worked for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and Michigan. It's worked for David Shaw at Stanford. THIS SYSTEM, THIS PLAN, IT ALL WORKS!
I've coached in spread offenses for years. I think it's a novel idea to use it in a lot of cases. But not when you've got 1/8th of your scholarships sunk into players you wouldn't get to use on offense. Not when you'd have to change your strength program around to reverse what you just spent two years building up. If Jim Harbaugh had done what Derek Mason is about to do now Stanford wouldn't even be relevant. He would have never went to the 49ers and later to Michigan. That's how big of a screw up this can be.
Vanderbilt has the ability to be relentless and tough against their opponents. Vanderbilt has the ability to line up and run between the tackles against their opponents. Just because they weren't able to do it with a young roster doesn't mean it can't be done.
I'll end by saying this: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This next year could be make or break for Vanderbilt football. Vanderbilt can beat MTSU, they can beat Georgia Tech, they can beat South Carolina, Tennessee State, Missouri, Western Kentucky, Kentucky, and maybe even Auburn. But they can't do that if they don't stay the course in which they've invested the past two years.