Ryan Grubb has grown into one of the best offensive coordinators in college football.
Which may have appeared improbable just three years ago.
When current UW coach Kalen DeBoer left Fresno State to become Indiana’s offensive coordinator in 2019, Grubb — then the Bulldogs’ offensive line coach and run game coordinator — was elevated to offensive coordinator and associate head coach. It was the Kingsley, Iowa, native’s first opportunity to call plays since serving as the University of Sioux Falls’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach six years earlier.
And, after DeBoer’s departure, it did not go well.
“That was my first year calling it at Fresno, and there were some elements of that offense that were kind of out of our DNA a little bit,” Grubb recalled Monday. “Kalen had left and we had other guys come in. There were a lot of good ideas. But it didn’t stay as true to some of the things that were principled in our offense. Those are things you learn from.
“Where does the confidence come from in our system, and what are we always going to be able to do on a week-to-week basis? You keep building on those things and are able to identify things quicker that are advantageous for your offense.”
After compiling a combined 22-6 record in DeBoer’s two seasons as OC at Fresno State, including a Mountain West title in 2018, the Bulldogs went 4-8 the following fall. They ranked fifth in the Mountain West in scoring offense (30.0 points per game) and red zone touchdown percentage (63%), sixth in yards per play (6.04), eighth in total offense (386 yards per game), and ninth in third down conversions (37.67%) and first downs per game (19.3).
Fresno State strayed from its offensive identity, and paid a substantial price.
But when DeBoer returned as head coach in 2020, the Bulldogs started winning — and Grubb was a reason why.
“He’s a great offensive mind,” said DeBoer, who previously worked with Grubb at Sioux Falls (2007-09) and Eastern Michigan (2014-16). “Especially the last eight years, we built the offense together. He’s been very involved. Yes, he was the offensive line coach prior to being the coordinator. But he knew he wanted to be a coordinator, so he was always paying attention, asking questions and we were developing our system together.”
In the last three seasons, that system has yielded increasing success.
2020 — Fresno State (3-3)
Scoring offense: 32.8 points per game (2nd Mountain West)
Total offense: 479.3 yards per game (1st)
Yards per play: 6.2 (4th)
First downs per game: 24.3 (1st)
Third down conversions: 43.18% (3rd)
Red zone touchdown percentage: 64.29% (3rd)
Plays of 20 yards or more: 5.5/game
2021 — Fresno State (10-3)
Scoring offense: 33.4 points per game (2nd Mountain West)
Total offense: 463.8 yards per game (1st)
Yards per play: 6.33 (1st)
First downs per game: 24.3 (1st)
Third down conversions: 42.86% (5th)
Red zone touchdown percentage: 68.63% (2nd)
Plays of 20 yards or more: 5.6/game
2022 — Washington (3-0)
Scoring offense: 45.3 points per game (3rd Pac-12)
Total offense: 548.3 yards per game (1st)
Yards per play: 7.25 (2nd)
First downs per game: 28.3 (1st)
Third down conversions: 56.10% (1st)
Red zone touchdown percentage: 70% (7th)
Plays of 20 yards or more: 7.3/game
Through three games, UW’s offense — which flatlined under coordinator John Donovan in 2021 — ranks second in the nation in passing offense, fourth in total offense, fifth in first downs and ninth in third down conversions. Grubb and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. have successively incinerated Kent State, Portland State and No. 11 Michigan State.
At Pac-12 media day on July 29, Husky offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland provided a season spoiler — saying “we have the best kept secret in college football with Ryan Grubb as offensive coordinator. He’s a wizard on offense, that’s for sure.”
Last weekend, that wizard cast a spell on Michigan State — dizzying the Spartans with a whopping seven pre-snap shifts on a particular play.
“We talk about that a lot, how the shifts and the motions and the different things that we do can confuse defenses and get them in certain looks,” said UW wide receiver Rome Odunze, who has caught 10 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown in two games this fall. “It’s just a great feeling. You’re almost licking your chops when they shift into that position and (you think), ‘Oh, yeah. That’s right where I need him.’ It’s fun to see it all work together.”
That work, of course, doesn’t start game week.
Grubb’s success isn’t magic.
It’s method and sweat.
“As proud of a play-caller as he is, in the summer months and in the spring, he is not afraid to bounce something off me,” DeBoer said. “It starts with that humility and desire to have a growth mindset and always continue to get better. Then it goes to just the work ethic he has. There are very few people that are ever going to beat him to the office and be here any later.
“So him understanding and seeing what’s out there on the football field … he’s locked in. You can see what he’s saying is almost happening before it’s happening. ‘Hey, this safety is going to widen at the snap.’ Oh, yep, there he goes. ‘This linebacker is leaving space for someone to fill that area.’ That’s what’s happening when you click on the film on Sunday.”
It’s not happening by accident — nor is it as easy as the Husky offense is making it look.
Take the sequence with 30 seconds left in the second quarter on Saturday — when Penix completed a 17-yard pass to tight end Devin Culp on fourth-and-5, then rolled left to find wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk for a 17-yard score and a 29-8 halftime lead.
“There’s about five or six scenarios that you’ve got to be ready for when you don’t have timeouts,” DeBoer explained. “There’s 30 seconds on the clock and it’s fourth down. It’s not just that play, but you’ve got to be ready for the next play or two after that. We’re all in sync and it’s really cool and it’s fun to see (Grubb work). There’s times and places where you just don’t get in his way.”
In the last three years, Grubb has grown into this role — and he’s still growing.
The wizard certainly knows what he wants.
“Everything’s always reps, you know what I mean?” said Grubb, who has coached every offensive position and brings that perspective to the coordinator role. “Every year you see something and it reminds you of a game and how something else played out. So I think there’s an experience piece to that, that can build confidence. You know exactly how you want your system to look.”
Added Odunze: “Grubb is very on point with what he wants. He’s very strict with the details. He’s just so hungry, and he’s driven, and so consistent it’s almost crazy. Grubb’s been the same guy since I’ve met him and consistently wants to get better, and he’s still not satisfied. I’m just happy to be a part of his offense.”