PULLMAN – Between taking aim at California’s infrastructure, handicapping a battle royale of Pac-12 Conference mascots and sharing tales of Gardner Minshew’s scantily clad exercise routines, Mike Leach reserved a few minutes of his Monday news conference to talk football strategy and offensive strategy ahead of Saturday’s conference opener with UCLA.
Someday, when college football historians write about the offensive revolution that took place in the 21st century, much of their research will harken back to the Air Raid concepts Leach popularized at Texas Tech and the spread-option schemes devised by Chip Kelly in his time at Oregon.
Though, as much credit as both men get for how they advanced modern offense, Leach, in his eighth year at WSU, and Kelly, in his second at UCLA, are equally responsible for forcing college football programs to rethink the approach to defense.
“He got a lot of people hurrying up,” Leach said. “I think Chip Kelly impacted defenses more than he did our offense, but he definitely had some impact on our offenses.”
Working in the Midwest at the time of Oregon’s football boom, WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys only followed Kelly’s success from afar, but as programs across the country started to see the merits of running the “Blur Offense” and adopt it as their own, Claeys and other defensive-minded coaches had to adapt.
“I’ll tell you what it did, him going real fast, us coordinators were real stubborn for a long time and still tried to keep our real long defensive calls or read wristbands,” Claeys said. “And by the time you do that, they’re snapping the ball. So, it made us simplify the way we call games, so we can get calls in faster and give kids a chance to line up. But so many people are doing it now, you do get used to that tempo for the most part.”
Kelly’s still in hurry-up mode these days, in a different way, scrambling for his first win in his second season at the UCLA helm. The Bruins (0-3) are playing the Cougars (3-0) for the first time in two years and enter Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game as 18-point underdogs.
Just 3-12 in his first 15 games at UCLA, Kelly hasn’t met expectations in Westwood. His offense is still scrounging for a breakthrough after scoring 42 points against Cincinnati, San Diego State and Oklahoma – just 14 in each game.
It may not restore confidence in anyone who’s wearing baby blue and gold to Saturday’s game, or watching on ESPN from Los Angeles, but Leach believes the Bruins, with a roster of players who had recruiting offers from almost everyone in the conference, aren’t too far from turning the corner.
“I think they’re an extremely talented team, I think they’re better than they’ve been playing,” he said. “Because I know a great deal about their players. We recruited a lot of them. I just don’t think they’re playing together as well as they’d like to right now, but that can happen over time and it can happen overnight.”
Most of the evidence doesn’t suggest it’ll happen from one week to the next, though. The Bruins, as Kelly noted in a midweek media availability, have 87 freshmen and sophomores on their roster, and start a true freshman, redshirt freshman and true sophomore on the offensive line.
The byproduct is, UCLA has given up three sacks per game and the Bruins average just 2.2 yards per run attempt.
Kelly also hasn’t been able to install the same tempo that made his Oregon teams so potent. It isn’t the end-all, be-all for the coach, either.
“We want to play fast, but do you have enough depth to play fast?” Kelly said. “When you’re a young team like we are … most of the kids are still learning and a lot of those kids are still getting up to speed in terms of what we’re doing. So it’s not fair to throw them in and try to run a whole, full offense when they don’t know the whole full offense.
“So, tempo has not been a big factor for what we do with this group based upon our youth. So that’s part of the deal.”
As for getting into the win column, the Bruins are certainly in hurry-up mode in that regard.