Spread offense: Arizona evolves, adjusts under Dykes

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

One of the reasons Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes is about to become a hot head-coaching candidate is that he's not a system guy. He's a personnel guy.

He figures out what he has. Then he figures out how to use them.

When Mike Stoops hired him away from Texas Tech, most immediately assumed he'd start throwing the ball 60 times a game, just like the Red Raiders do.

Nope. The Wildcats ran the ball 504 times last year and passed it 412.

It's about doing what works. So Dykes' spread offense has evolved.

Has it worked? Well, in 2006, the year before he moved to Tucson, Arizona averaged 16.6 points and 252.8 yards per game. In 2007, Dykes' offense averaged 28 points and 385 yards per game. In 2008, that offense averaged 36.6 points and 402 yards per game.

In 2007, the Wildcats averaged just 77 yards rushing. In 2008, 158.4.

To Dykes, the spread doesn't mean one thing. Other than moving the football.

Is there a fundamental difference in the way you guys line up versus Oregon and the spreads that are more of a spread-option running attack?

Sonny Dykes: Definitely. If you look at Oregon and West Virginia, with what Rich Rodriguez was doing there, they were spreading to run. They wanted to spread the field to take some of the onus off the offensive line and run the football. Oregon is doing the same thing. Spread teams like Texas Tech were kind of the run-and-shoot guys and are really trying to spread the field to throw it. What we're doing here is kind of a combination of both. We double call a lot of stuff, so depending on how many people are in the box, we're going to throw it when we've got good numbers and run it when we've got good numbers to run it. That's really what Tech is doing but they are more inclined to throw it.

What is your base formation?

SD: For us, it always depends on personnel. Who are our best players? We have a tight end -- obviously we've got [Rob] Gronkowski, so our base formation involves a tight end. When we had [receiver] Mike Thomas, our base formation was a one-back set with Mike Thomas being the inside of three receivers. Now, we'll be a little bit more of a two-back team because of [H-back] Chris Gronkowski. We'll be a mixture really. So our base formation will be with a tight end and a fullback, which is a little bit more old style football.

So that's the big difference between you guys and Texas Tech -- the fullback and tight end are just role players for the Red Raiders, right?

SD: But if Tech had Rob Gronkowski they'd be playing with a tight end a lot. It just depends on your personnel. Any coach is going to try to get his best guys on the field. Our offense has evolved and a lot of it is because of Robbie. We started running some power and a little bit more of a downhill run game just because he can block a defensive end at a point of attack. There just aren't many tight ends you can count on to do that. We're evolving. We're probably a little bit more like Oregon now than Texas Tech, just because of our ability and need to run the football. But if we had Mike Crabtree and Graham Harrell, we'd be throwing it 60 times a game. Instead, we've got Rob Gronkowski and Nic Grigsby, so we're more inclined to run it.

How about with receivers? Does the spread require different things out of them than if you were lining up in a pro-style set?

SD: Yeah, definitely. The quarterback and receivers have to spend a lot of time getting on the same page. If you run the ball, guys are going to try to sneak more guys in the box. When they do that, you need to find a way to get the ball on the perimeter, whether it's throwing the [bubble screens] or whatever, to try to get the ball away from the guys packing the box. When you're doing that, it looks like an easy throw, but it's something that requires quite a bit of timing and work between quarterbacks and wide receivers. If you're going to spread it out and do that, your quarterback and receivers have to spend a lot of time developing a feel for each other.

If you're going to run 35 times a game, you need receivers to block well. But, in general, does a spread receiver need to be a better blocker than a pro-style receiver?

SD: I think so because of the screens. A lot of that stuff maybe forces them to be more effective blockers. It's different. Our receivers don't cut much. You look at the old Nebraska film, when they were running the option and getting the ball on the perimeter, they were cutting guys down. Our guys are really just trying to get in the way more. So it's a different kind of blocking, but it's probably more important in the spread because of the screens and how many times the ball is actually out on the edge.

One way guys recruit against spread teams is they tell recruits that if they play in a spread offense they are not going to get the respect from the NFL in the draft. What do you say to that?

SD: It's weird. Remember [the University of] Miami was one of the first teams running the one-back and running a spread offense with three receivers on the field? They were doing it with guys like Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde and all of those guys were getting drafted. Back then, Miami was using it as a real advantage -- hey, we're spreading the field and throwing the ball. That's how you get into the NFL. What's happened is the spread has changed and there are a lot of different kinds of spreads. You've got what Penn State was doing last year which is more traditional type stuff. And then you've got the stuff that is way out there, the run-and-shoot stuff, what Tech's done. I think anytime a quarterback can drop back and throw the football, that's important. All that does is make him better, whether he does it under center or out of the shotgun. I don't see how a quarterback can be faulted when he takes a snap, avoids a rush, shuffles in the pocket, goes through reads, finds a receiver, throws an accurate ball and does all the things you have to do to drop back and throw. I don't see how he becomes a better quarterback by being under center and handing it to a running back. There's been a little bit of a knock, but I think that's just because of the personnel. If you're Texas Tech, you don't have to recruit 6-foot-6 quarterbacks who can stand in the pocket and throw the ball. And those are the guys the NFL is always going to like. Now, some of those guys don't work out and guys like Tom Brady do, who's not very big and doesn't have a particularly strong arm. They're just good players. Whether it's college or pro, the important thing for a quarterback is just finding a good fit.