Virginia's Groh on defending the spread offense

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

As you might have noticed, ESPN.com is all about the spread offense today, and one of the best coaches in the ACC to talk to about it is Virginia coach Al Groh. With the addition of Gregg Brandon as offensive coordinator, the Cavaliers have made the spread offense their project this offseason. Also, Virginia was one of the teams able to defeat Georgia Tech last year when Paul Johnson unveiled his spread option offense. Groh has a sharp defensive mind and experience coaching NFL defenses, which is why he's also Virginia's defensive coordinator. Groh was kind enough to answer some questions about the spread offense and how to defend it. Here's Groh's take on the spread offense:

How do you prepare for it and what's your philosophy in going against it?

Al Groh: We have not had the dealings with it that coaches in other areas have. It's prevalent throughout the Big 12. We certainly see phases of it here during the course of a game, but this conference has not adopted it to the same degree that other conferences have. We want to try to be proactive in being prepared for it for when it does occur during the course of a game if it comes up. We've done a lot of research on it here during the offseason. It's been one of our projects. It appears that one of the keys to it is, things run in cycles. The offense grabs the momentum, and the defense counters with something ... That's been the trend throughout the years. When one side always had the upper hand the other side is back on its heels. One side controls the table so to speak. That appears to be what's going on right now. The offense is controlling the play at the table.

One of the things we have observed is that defensive teams have to be willing to take some risks in order to take the initiative back. When you're so spread out, and one of the features of the spread, and the spread offense is just a formation. Having been in conversations with people, the two things I noticed is, last year Missouri finished fourth in the country in passing and Oregon finished fourth in running. Both are called spread offenses. The word spread is no longer associated with specific plays. It's simply a formation that spreads the defense from sideline to sideline and in doing so creates some natural spaces in the defense. It's harder to go from far away to attack the offense and you leave yourself vulnerable to certain things. By the same token, what we're observing is defenses are afraid to take any risks. They just stand there and they're a standing target.

What we do like about being in the 3-4 defense is the flexibility it provides because defense, so much these days, that fourth linebacker as opposed to a fourth defensive lineman in the 4-3, gives us significantly more options. What defensive coaching is now, no matter what the system, you have to find some ways to adapt to what the other team is doing. We think this gives us the ability to adapt and react. You'd like to be on the attack defensively and set the tone, but to a degree the offensive will always control that. You have to be able to adjust and adapt.

How different is what Georgia Tech does? It's the spread option. How does that make it a little more difficult to prepare for, or does it?

AG: They are in their own way, yes, they fall under that umbrella because while the plays are different, it's out of sync with what teams face on a repetitive basis. That's the only time that most teams see that offense every year. There's no accumulated familiarity by the coaches or players going against it. That's a big part of the difficulty of playing against that or any offense that isn't common to what the defenses generally see. There's different plays, but it accomplishes similar things.

You guys beat them last year. As a coach, you get it. But how do you get your players prepared for it in what, five days, when they never see it?

AG: You're exactly right. One of the things we thought that was very important in the presentation of it was to demystify it for the players. In some cases, players can get frustrated. For example, this Wildcat formation that's gaining some notoriety. Really, in a lot of ways, it's a reduced down spread. It's spread out, but a lot of times it's with a player back there getting the direct snap who's a real good runner, but is not a passer. Actually, in talking with the Patriots last year, and all of a sudden it got sprung on them by Miami. In doing so, the unfamiliarity of it really threw them off during the course of the game and they could never quite get it back and in talking with the coaches there, they had issues during the game with getting the players settled down because there was still a mystique to what they were up against. From that point on, they had a detailed plan, and the next time they played against it from other teams as well as the second time they played Miami, they fared much better. You've got to demystify these unique offenses for the defensive players.

How much has it helped you as a defensive coach to understand it and scheme for it because Gregg is on your staff now and that's the way he's thinking?

AG: Very much so. It's helped us to establish a significant period of experimentation. We put some things out there and run them, and we really haven't tried to defend our team so much as let's just run our stuff and see what we like and what we don't like. It has certainly been helpful to us in that degree.

Who in the ACC runs the spread besides Clemson, a little bit ...

AG: A number of teams will show up on some downs, but in this conference, at least through last year, we still have a considerable amount of two-back plays. Or let's just say formations that only have two wide receivers in the game. I talked to Mack Brown during the offseason and he said their team only played something like 180 plays of regular defense. Most of the year they were in substituted defenses because they played against this every week. It helped us in getting an idea of what are the things within our system that seem to be appropriate and what's not appropriate.

Do you think there's any benefit to preparing the guys for the NFL to run one particular offensive scheme or another?

AG: Not really. I think that if the players are well-trained fundamentally, those are the things that carry over from league to league. The fundamental skills of how to execute their job, how to defeat the player across from them. It's highly unlikely that most players are going to go - with only 32 teams in the NFL - it's highly unlikely they're going to go to a system that's exactly like the one they came from. They're going to have to make some adjustments system-wise. The big thing is they have the fundamental background that can translate to any system. If you can block guys in one system, you can block them in another. If you can beat blocks in the 3-4, you can beat blocks in the 4-3. If you get blocked in the 3-4, you're going to get blocked in the 4-3.

Makes sense. Why do you think more ACC teams haven't
caught on to this?

AG: It gets trendy within leagues. What you have to go against, whether it's offense or defense, you have to prepare for those things. You kind of become influenced and spend more time looking at those things and become influenced by those things. And of course a lot of it has to do with the philosophical backgrounds and beliefs that coaches bring with them. And really your background, too. At a point, sometimes what you know how to teach best, what you know how to utilize during the course of a game is the best for a particular team as opposed to something that is intriguing, but when certain things happen during a game maybe you just don't have the wherewithal to make those in-game decisions because you don't have enough familiarity with the system. Therefore, a team would be better off with something they're really fluent in.

Do you think your players will be more comfortable playing Georgia Tech the second time around?

AG: They should have a certain element of confidence. Their circumstances should be a lot more positive than if we would have given up 40 points. Then you have to come back the next year and convince the players we can really do this. 'Well wait a second, last year we were completely bamboozled by it and we haven't played against it since.' Yeah, I think we don't have to overcome that type of situation to start with, but no matter what, they run those plays every day. Their opponents, and this is the value of being a little bit out of the norm, whether it's with your offense or defense, their opponents only practice against those plays for a week.