And So It Begins

Today is the first day of football practice. Sunbeams are bursting through the clouds, the choirs of angels are singing, and all is right with the world. Well, maybe not everything. Is it just me or does Paul Johnson sound way too optimistic in his Media Day press conference? It doesn’t seem right. Anyway, I’ll get to overanalyzing everything he said in a minute. But first, some media day links:

  • A pair of photo galleries– the first linked in the press conference transcript, chock full of Pete Medhurst and Bill Wagner hard at work; the second courtesy of Dave Ausiello at GoMids.com.
  • The fruit of Wagner’s labor, here.
  • Additional writeups from the Sun, Examiner, Times, and Post.

OK, on to the part where I read too much into every syllable that comes out of PJ’s mouth. We’ll start with his introductory remarks:

I think as a group our guys have had the best summer since I’ve been here. We had a large group that stayed here and got in a lot of workouts. They came back and tested very well and they have done some good things so we are excited about getting started.

This is a great thing to hear. Wagner’s last question touched on PJ’s concern at the beginning of spring about the team’s attitude. Apparently he wasn’t pleased, although he didn’t seem to say much about it then. If there’s one thing I fear about the Navy football program– other than some BCS school offering PJ a heap of cash– it’s complacency. It’s exciting to see a new group of seniors taking charge.

Wagner: Can you talk a little more about what you have to do to rebuild the defense?

Johnson: We lost a lot of key players off the defense. We lost a lot of guys that started for three or four years and they made a lot of plays for us. We are going to have some new faces out there, but I really think we have a chance to be better athletically than we have been on defense. There will be some growing pains. This team reminds me a little bit of where we were a couple of years ago when we lost nine or 10 starters on offense and we had eight or nine guys back on defense and we ended up having a great year. I think we have the players to be good on defense. We are short on experience, but I think they have some athletic ability.

PJ’s response sounds a lot like something you might have read on Pitch Right, particularly the comparison to the 2004 team. Props to Adam for his analysis. PJ also echoes something he said on the wine & cheese circuit over the spring, that he feels good about the athletes he has on defense. It’d be one thing if we were dealing with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, but the defense, while lacking game experience, is mostly made up of players who have been practicing in the system for 2-3 years. They’ll be ready. Actually, I don’t remember PJ ever gushing so much before:

We have personnel on defense. They don’t have a lot of experience, but athletically I feel good about where we are. We have some new guys in the secondary, but athletically they are as good or better than anybody we’ve had back there. At linebacker, Clint (Sovie) and Irv (Spencer) have played some. It’s going to be hard to replace David Mahoney and Tyler Tidwell; they played a lot of games at outside linebacker, yet we have some guys that have a chance. Mattt Wimsat has been a backup and he’s going to get a chance, Matt Humiston has a chance, we have some young guys that nobody knows that I’m excited about. They are good athletes. Jordan Eddington, Matt Nechak, there are a lot of guys that nobody has heard about that I think can be pretty good football players.

PJ usually keeps his excitement to himself, at least with guys who haven’t played yet. He usually doesn’t want to put too much pressure on anyone. So much for that! I know I’m going to be paying close attention to Eddington and Nechak now. Nechak had already sort of announced his arrival with his hit on Jarrod Bryant in the Blue & Gold game.

Vito: It seems like the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy has found a home here in recent years. Is that still a priority?

Johnson: It’s always been one of the main goals of the team. Later on tonight the captains will get the team together and they will come up with the goals for this year’s team. I’m big on letting the players come up with their own goals. I’m sure that will be one of them. Winning that trophy is one of the most important things we do here. It’s a rallying point for the alumni and former players. Navy went way too long without winning that thing and our guys kind of like having it. We are going to try and defend it the best we can.

Speaking of goals, PJ usually talks about them in his preseason radio interviews. I’m anxious to hear what the team came up with.

Wagner: The flip side of the defense is the offense where you have a lot of experience returning. Do you think you have more experienced guys playing key spots than you’ve had in a while? You have two quarterbacks back, two fullbacks and a ton of slot backs.

Johnson: I think we have some depth. If everybody stays healthy we have some good athletes on offense. The difference between the offense and defense right now is the offensive guys have game experience. There will be some real competition for the positions and I think any time you have competition it makes everybody better. We are anxious to get started. So much of having a successful season is getting the right blend together and staying away from injuries. You never know what’s going to happen until you start playing. We have the big P word. We have potential. The question is can we translate that into being a good football team. We still aren’t going to intimidate anybody. When we get off the bus the other team isn’t going to run for cover. I guarantee you that everybody that plays us has us circled as a win. They all think that they should beat us and that’s not going to change no matter who we play.

It isn’t a PJ presser until he talks about getting off the bus. I love football season.

We moved Antron Harper to center and I think that will be a good position for him, I think he’s a natural in there.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to mention that after watching his CSTV All-Access interview with Pete Medhurst, Antron Harper’s biceps look like they could turn a lump of coal into a diamond.

Ausiello: On the other side of the ball with Nate Frazier, does that put more pressure on him as a sophomore looking to contribute up the middle on defense?

Johnson: It depends on what we are doing. Nate could end up being a defensive end, he could be the nose guard, he could slide and be over the guard, he’s probably going to be an inside guy, but I don’t think there’s any more pressure on Nate than there is Jordan Stephens or Andrew Lark or Kyle Bookhout or Chris Kuhar-Pitters. Nate is listed as a starter heading into fall camp, but he hasn’t played a down yet. I don’t want everybody building him up like he’s the second coming of Deacon Jones. Let’s watch him play first. He may get beat out before the season starts. There will be a lot of guys competing in there.

There’s lot riding on Nate’s shoulders. The nose guard, more than anyone else, is the one player that can make or break a 3-4 defense. Two-gap players don’t grow on trees either, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of hype when there’s a player here with that kind of potential. He and Antron sure had some great battles over the spring. Despite PJ’s words of caution, I can’t help being excited.

Wagner: We spent a lot of the off-season talking about your candidacy for other jobs and talking about rumors are you happy to be standing there with a Navy shirt on?

Johnson: Yeah. As long as I beat Army this year they will let me stay one more year. A lot of that stuff you guys drum up in the press and I get a chuckle out of it. I jokingly told somebody that it’s better to be talked about for other jobs than people talking about who is going to take your job. That’s not much fun. That just comes with having a successful program. It’s a credit to the players and the assistant coaches. I wouldn’t read too much into that stuff.

Come on, Coach. Who are you kidding? I freak out about the long snapper two-deep. Things like rumors about your departure have me about a half-step from going Unabomber. It’s all gonna be taken seriously.

And that’s it. I’m fired up for a month of PJ one-liners leading up to the Temple game. Let the snot bubbles fly!

In completely unrelated news… Kyle Eckel is off the bike and back in Dolphins practice after sitting out a couple of days while nursing his hamstring.

Five Myths of Paul Johnson’s Offense

If I was a smarter person, I probably wouldn’t write this. After all, I don’t want to convince any boosters or ADs out there that Paul Johnson’s offense would work anywhere else. I’d much rather have them all continue to believe that his offense is boring and would drive fans away. (It would! You’d be an “option” team! Other schools in your conference would laugh at you! Stay away for your own good!) But it’s the end of July now, and teams are about to begin their fall camps. Whatever hiring and firing that was going to happen this offseason has been done already, and this blog post will be long forgotten by the time the carousel fires up again. So with practice starting this week, I thought that now would be a good time to prepare Navy fans for the onslaught of clichés that will be launched at them from fans and media alike about PJ’s offense. It happens every year; someone will try to tell you why Navy’s offense is a quaint little anomaly instead of a legitimate scoring threat. This year, you’ll know whose opinion to ignore after someone rolls out one or more of these myths about option offenses. Here’s five things you’ll probably hear someone say on College Gameday at some point this season:

Myth #1: You can’t recruit players to run an option offense.

This is the Grand High Llama of all option offense myths. The thinking goes like this: every recruit wants to play in the NFL. Therefore, you need to run an NFL-style offense in order to get recruits to come to your school. Seems simple, right? That’s probably why so many people believe it.

The truth is that very few college teams run genuine NFL-style offenses. Those that do are usually led by one of the few coaches with an NFL history like Pete Carroll or Charlie Weis. Last year, West Virginia averaged 303 rushing yards per game. The NFL rushing leader, Atlanta, averaged only 183 yards per game. Clearly, West Virginia doesn’t run an NFL-style offense. You don’t hear anyone saying that you can’t recruit players for the Mountaineers’ offense though, do you? Texas ran for an NFL-atypical 275 yards per game in 2005, but that didn’t stop quarterback Vince Young from being a first round draft pick. I reeeeeaaaaally don’t think that Mack Brown has a tough sell to high school players, either. People tend to be prejudiced against the option because teams have been running some form of it for decades. It’s an “old” style of offense at a time when fans like new and flashy (also known as “passing”). Teams like Hawaii and Texas Tech have high-scoring offenses that churn out 350-400 passing yards every game. Nobody does that in the NFL, either, but neither of those teams are portrayed as having some kind of recruiting burden. For some reason, people tend to define “NFL-style” and “not NFL-style” as “not option” and “option,” respectively. It’s an <Kyle> absurd </Eckel> oversimplification. There’s a huge variety of offenses in the college game, and the NFL picks from all of them. If you have the athletic ability, you’ll get your chance. Just ask Antonio Gates.

Kyle steamrollin' dudes.That said, does anyone think that Kyle Eckel would have gotten a look from an NFL team if he played in any other offense? What running back wouldn’t want a chance to play in an offense that runs the ball 85-90% of the time? Navy’s offense gives bruisers like Eckel and Adam Ballard a chance at 1,000-yard seasons. Slashers like Reggie Campbell or Eric Roberts can have 1,000 all-purpose yards and show their ability in the open field. They can also share bowl game records with the likes of Barry Sanders… as in Campbell’s 5 touchdowns in the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl. There’s no shortage of running backs of all kinds who’d love to play in this offense. There’s no shortage of quarterbacks, either. It might be surprising to hear that, since the stereotypical quarterback is the drop-back, “pro-style,” passing type. But there are still a lot of high schools that use the option, and a lot of great athletes playing quarterback for those teams. In college, those guys end up playing safety. How many of them would love the opportunity to keep playing quarterback? Off the top of my head, I can think of two of them: Kaipo and Jarod Bryant. Both had offers to play defensive back at BCS schools, and both came to Navy for the chance to play quarterback. They aren’t alone.

There’s actually a bit of a recruiting advantage that comes from running an option offense. Employing a unique offense means that you don’t necessarily have to compete for the same players as every other school to make it work. When other schools go after towering 320-pound offensive linemen, Navy looks for smaller, quicker players who can run and get to the second level of the defense faster. When other offenses look for pocket passers, Navy looks for runners. The toughest sell is to wide receivers, but you don’t need the world’s greatest receiving corps if you only throw 10 passes in a game. For Navy, the slotbacks are as much receivers as they are running backs anyway. Those slotbacks, like Reggie Campbell, don’t have to be the size of most college running backs in order to succeed. With PJ, smaller players get a chance to get the ball in space and use their speed. Essentially, the nature of Paul Johnson’s offense increases the talent pool that he can recruit from. At a school like Navy with a naturally limited recruiting pool to begin with, that’s critical.

Myth #2: Offenses need “balance” to succeed.

This one I’ve never understood, but it’s probably the myth that I hear the most. There are those who believe that an offense can’t succeed if it’s too reliant on running the ball. These people say that a good offense needs a mix of running and passing.

Does this even make sense? Is it somehow better to average 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game instead of 320 yards rushing and 80 yards passing? Isn’t it 400 yards either way? Speaking of Texas Tech, they averaged 370 yards passing and less than 80 yards rushing per game last year. Why don’t people say that they need more “balance?” It’s because people don’t really want more balance. They want more passing. “Balance” is just a code word for “throw more.”

The whole idea behind having a balance between running and passing is that in theory, it keeps defenses off guard. Sometimes it might, but there’s more than one way to confuse a defense. It comes down to playcalling, not statistics. You could have a “balanced” offense, but if your playcalling is formulaic and uninspired it won’t fool anyone. On the other hand, on an option play where the quarterback doesn’t even know who’s going to end up with the ball, how can the defense? And that’s before you even start to get into all of the different types of option plays and plays that show an option look. Effective offenses come from creative playcalling, not statistical balance. There are plenty of ways to be creative in an option offense.

Myth #3: Option teams can’t pass.

There’s actually a grain of truth in this one. But only a grain, and not for the reasons that people think. A glance at a stat sheet reveals that– brace yourself– Navy and other option-oriented teams don’t do much passing. I know, I know, I just spent the last section talking about how passing isn’t necessary. Just because it isn’t necessary, though, doesn’t mean that you won’t want to take advantage of what the defense gives you from time to time. It can be easier said than done. When 85% of your plays are running plays, 85% of your time in practice is spent working on those plays. The lack of practice is particularly tough on the offensive line, which doesn’t have the time to refine pass blocking technique. In fact, Navy was ranked last in sacks per pass attempt last year. And that’s the grain of truth; Navy gives up a lot of sacks.

Jason TomlinsonGiving up sacks is a far cry from not being able to pass, though. While Navy has problems passing when the defense is expecting it, they are a very effective passing team when they can do it on their own terms. And that means play action. The repetition of playing the same assignment down after down can make a defender lazy. Next thing he knows, that slotback he was expecting to throw a block is blowing by him and running wide open downfield. That’s why Reggie Campbell averaged over 17 yards per catch last year. It isn’t always pretty, but it doesn’t have to be pretty to be effective. Navy doesn’t pass often, but they make the most of it when they do.

Those who have followed Paul Johnson’s career know that his offense borrows heavily from run and shoot principles. It might not be so apparent at Navy where he can go entire games without throwing a pass, but like he says, he has four receivers lined up on every play. In fact, schematically, the option is probably the best thing an offense can do for its passing game. The way to defend the option is to play assignment football. Playing assignment football simplifies pass coverage and makes it a lot easier for the opposing quarterback to read. Urban Meyer makes a living exploiting this.

Myth #4: The option is outdated. It can’t compete with the speed of today’s defenses.

Speaking of Urban Meyer, his success has meant that this particular myth hasn’t been as common lately. His offense is very option-heavy, even if he dislikes the “option coach” label. (PJ is a friend of Meyer’s and tells a funny story about that.) For some reason, though, people still cling to the idea that the option’s time has come and gone. Maybe it’s because Meyer runs his option plays out of the shotgun, as if that really changes anything. If Meyer’s success hasn’t convinced you, then I doubt that there’s anything I could say that would. That doesn’t make for interesting reading, though, so I’ll make the attempt.

It’s true that defenses are faster than they used to be. But offenses are too, so that theory sort of flies out the window. Besides, I don’t think there’s a better way to neutralize a defense’s speed than by running the triple option. Before a defender can run to the ball, he has to figure out who has the ball. That means that this super-fast player is standing and waiting, not running. If he is too aggressive and attacks too soon, the quarterback can read that and give the ball to his next option. That’s where the big gains come from; out-of-position defenders. Defending the option is difficult because in order to succeed, you have to be patient and controlled, which is the opposite of the aggresive style that most defenses favor. To anticipate on a play is to invite disaster.

Something else to consider is that on triple option plays, you don’t have to block everybody. There are always two players that are left unblocked as dive or pitch keys. If there’s a particularly good player on the defense, he can essentially be taken out of the game by making him a read for the quarterback. Say a defense has a really good linebacker. By leaving him unblocked and making him the QB’s pitch key, he won’t make very many tackles. He can either cover the QB or the pitch man, but going after one means that the other is getting the ball. If everyone can hold their blocks, that means a big gain.

Myth #5: The option is a “gimmick” offense.

You know, there was a time when the forward pass was considered a “gimmick.” Then in 1913, some upstart Indiana Catholic school used it to crush the powerhouse Army team 35-13. All of a sudden it wasn’t so “gimmicky” anymore. Now, it’s hard to imagine football without it.

I hate the term “gimmick offense.” It implies that there is really only one “correct” way that football is supposed to be played, and anything that deviates from that is some kind of a freak outlier that isn’t to be taken seriously. Doesn’t that attitude detract from what makes football so great? Isn’t innovation part of what keeps us watching? The chess match between coaches is a drama that makes the game we love so entertaining. There are a lot of ways to move a football down the field, and I like seeing them all. Besides, isn’t it a bit ridiculous to describe a play as “gimmicky” when it’s been a staple of college offenses for decades? I don’t think there’s anything less gimmicky than the option.

If this offense was just a “gimmick,” then you’d think that it would have been figured out by now. Yet PJ’s been winning with it for 20 years.

So there you have it. Now go forth and laugh at the ignorant.

I’m Not Crazy

OK, maybe I really did hear Chet say something about playing Maryland again in 2010. The Examiner talks about that, plus Army-Navy and an update on a Baltimore bowl game, here. Clearly, Navy football is a centerpiece of Baltimore’s future plans.

I might be sane, but the same can’t be said for everyone on the internet. This is why drinking and blogging don’t mix, kids. Don’t let it happen to you. (The A-minus in academics is a nice touch.)

Mountain West Media Day

I watched this riveting affair last night, or at least the Air Force portion of it, because I was bored and because the American Gladiators reruns on ESPN Classic just aren’t holding their appeal the way I thought they would. Then again, without Fisher DeBerry and his mix of arrogance and sour grapes, neither is Mountain West media day. If Troy Calhoun doesn’t step up his press conference game next year, I’ll be back to watching Nitro and Gemini crush mullet-headed dudes playing “Powerball.” Anyway, Calhoun was joined by Shaun Carney and linebacker Drew Fowler to hit a few softballs tossed by Tom Hart and Trev Alberts. Here’s a recap:

- Calhoun was asked how his NFL experience translates to the college game. Calhoun essentially says that football is football and he doesn’t really treat it differently.

- The next question is what everyone wants to know: what’s the offense going to look like? More specifically, Calhoun was asked if the option would still be a feature of the Air Force attack. His response was that they will indeed run the option, but it’ll have a different look. Right about now, my head starts spinning.

Let’s take a look at the miracle that will be the Air Force offense this year. According to everything that’s been written or said about it so far, it will feature:

  • Running the option out of the shotgun, I-formation, and even 3-back sets
  • Yet somehow featuring a running back who’ll manage to get 25-30 carries per game
  • All while Shaun Carney is lighting up the skies & throwing 20-25 passes of his own, to maintain “balance”
  • And led by an offensive line employing more zone blocking schemes, as opposed to the traditional assignment blocking of years past.

That sounds like a great plan for the Xbox. For the real world, where posessions and practice time are limited and your offensive coordinator just left for Arkansas a week ago… not so much. I don’t think the Zoomie offense is going to be quite so eclectic. I think we’re really witnessing an evolution in Troy Calhoun’s thinking. Those thoughts probably have gone something like this:

When first hired: “We’ll run some option plays, but it won’t be our bread & butter. It’s important for a running back to find a rhythm, and to do that he needs 25 carries or so per game. Plus, I’d like to throw the ball with Shaun Carney.”

After seeing the players he inherited and watching them all spring: “Uh-oh. You know, maybe we should take another look at doing the whole ‘option’ thing.”

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody loves option football more than me. It just makes me wonder what we’ll see when Air Force finally takes the field. But enough of that. Moving on with the interview…

- The “why bother asking” question of the day: Carney was asked about his relationship with his coach. He said that it was great. STOP THE PRESSES. I was fully expecting him to throw Troy Calhoun under the bus! Especially when he was sitting two feet away!

- Fowler was asked what he thought of the new look defense. He said that it was going to be fun and that it’ll give him a lot of chances to make plays.

- Calhoun was asked about the difficulty of coaching at Air Force. He gave the usual answers about academics & military commitment & whatnot.

- Carney was asked about his first solo flight. Nobody cares.

- Fowler was asked about how the summer training schedule might put Air Force players at a disadvantage compared to their Mountain West counterparts, who can concentrate on football all summer. Fowler said that it was just a “fact of life” and that that he didn’t think much of it.

- Carney was asked about the level of competition in the Mountain West. He responded that the conference is very underrated. He says that there’s a lot of talent in the conference, and that you see it on draft day. After that there was the usual “any given saturday” stuff about how anyone can beat anyone else in the conference.

- The last question went to Calhoun, who was asked if he thought it was possible for a service academy team to finish in the top 10 again like Air Force did once when he played there. Calhoun said yes, he believes it could happen again. He acknowledged the enormous challenge, but said that he’s coaching special people and that’s what makes it possible.

All in all, not the most profound interview. Not that media days are really supposed to be. I have to go wash my hands now and say a few Hail Marys after typing so much about Air Force.

OK, now I feel better. Only a week away from the Navy media day and the start of fall practice. It can’t come soon enough.

Poinsettia Bowl Locks In PAC-10

The Poinsettia Bowl and the Hawaii Bowl have both completed the deals that will bring PAC-10 teams, if eligible, to those games in 2008 and 2009. Read about it here.

This is good news for the long-term health of the Poinsettia Bowl, which gets PAC-10 #7 in 2008 and PAC-10 #6 in 2009. With their previously stated intention to invite Navy every 3 years, the San Diego Bowl Association will most likely have an at-large bid available again in 2010. The question now is what bowl arrangements Navy can make for 2008 and 2009, when the at-large safety net of the Poinsettia Bowl might not be available.

UPDATE: Some more details here.

June Jones *hearts* Navy

That’s what he tells the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, anyway. Read about that, and his conversation with Paul Johnson over 18 holes, here. (Scroll to the bottom)

If he really wants to make a trip to Annapolis, Chet, you gotta make it happen!

Odds & Ends

- The Savannah Morning News is covering Tracy Ham’s induction into the college football hall of fame. Ham was the record-setting Georgia Southern quarterback who led the Eagles to two national championships in 1985 and 1986. The offensive coordinator for those teams was, of course, Paul Johnson, and there’s a story in the article that’ll give PJ fans a chuckle.

- Notre Dame is going to play a “home” game in Orlando in 2011 and 2014, which I assume will be after the renovation of the tinker toy dump that is the Citrus Bowl. Their opponents for those two games have not been announced yet, but since Navy played Notre Dame in Orlando once before it’s only natural to wonder if it’ll happen again (that game was a Navy home game, though, and not Notre Dame’s). You can scratch the 2014 game, since Notre Dame is at Navy that year. That leaves 2011, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. They’ll probably take a team with more local appeal like USF. That would also take care of one of their Big East obligation games. I don’t think that the Domers were looking to put any of their schedule “regulars” in these neutral site games anyway. Just some speculation on my part.

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