Spread concepts around for decades

During the early 1960s, when Joe Paterno was still a Penn State assistant, he attended a coaching clinic in Reno, Nev.

Paterno invited Darrel "Mouse" Davis, a high school coach from Oregon, to lunch one day, and their conversation quickly turned to Davis' innovative offense. Davis had been running a high-octane passing game that featured only one running back and as many as four wide receivers.

At some point during lunch, Davis asked Paterno to diagram Penn State's defense on a napkin.

"We'd kill you if you were in that defense," Davis told Paterno.

Nearly a half century later, Davis still laughs while recalling his first conversation with Paterno.

"That's what I believed," Davis said. "It was true. They wouldn't have stopped us."

Nearly 50 years before Florida coach Urban Meyer used the spread offense to guide the Gators to two of the past three BCS national championships -- and long before record-setting quarterbacks Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy, Vince Young and Pat White were even born -- Davis was just beginning to put the finishing touches on his version of the run 'n' shoot offense.

Only now is Davis beginning to realize what kind of impact his offense still has on college football.

"Everyone is either running four- or five-wide, and they're all throwing the crap out of the football," Davis said. "The spread has been phenomenal in football. It's the way you play football now."

Entering the 2009 season, the spread offense has never been more popular in college football. From Florida to Michigan to Texas, coaches are trying to keep defenses off-balance with multiple-receiver sets, myriad motion and fast-paced, no-huddle attacks.

Even Paterno, who has been reluctant to change much of anything during his 43 seasons as the Nittany Lions' coach, is running a version of the spread offense with quarterback Daryll Clark.

"I think it's here to stay," Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "I don't think it's a fad. It's just part of the evolution of offense."

Without the spread, Tebow wouldn't have become the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy in 2007. Meyer wouldn't have gone from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida in the blink of an eye, and Young wouldn't have produced perhaps the greatest one-man performance in college football history while leading Texas to the 2005 national championship in a 41-38 victory over USC in the Rose Bowl.

Few innovations have had such a profound change on college football through the years, even if the spread offense originally showed its roots decades ago. Davis adopted much of his offense from Glenn "Tiger" Ellison, a coach at Middletown High School in Ohio. Ellison wrote a book in 1965 titled "Run-and-Shoot Football: The Offense of the Future."

More than a decade earlier, then-TCU coach Leo "Dutch" Meyer wrote a book titled "Spread Formation Football." With quarterbacks Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien, Meyer had built much of the Horned Frogs' offense around short, precise passes.

"When we started running it, people would say, 'You just can't run it because it's so unsound,'" Davis said. "They'd all say, 'You have to have a tight end.'"

Davis, now 76 years old, spent 15 seasons coaching at three Oregon high schools before moving to Portland State, where he used the run 'n' shoot to lead the country in scoring three times and set 20 NCAA Division II offensive records. (Current SMU coach June Jones and former NFL star Neil Lomax were his quarterbacks.)

In more than 50 years on the sideline, Davis left his mark at nearly every level of football, with coaching stops in college and the NFL, Canadian Football League, Arena League and the now-defunct United States Football League. He retired as Portland State's offensive coordinator on June 1.

Even now, Davis wonders why it took college football coaches so long to adopt the principles of his offense, which was predicated on spreading a defense so wide that it created vertical seams for both runs and passes.

"I think it took coaches a while to find out how really tough it is to defend four-wide and how difficult it is to defend with either run or pass," Davis said. "The spread offense is now more of an option orientation by a lot of teams. A lot of them are running our same routes, but they don't read them as much. A lot of them are more run-oriented."

In many ways, the spread offense is still evolving. Coaches often see something they like from another coach's offense, then add their own wrinkles, plays and formations.

"You steal what you steal and put your own stuff in it," Davis said. "It's all interwoven some way."

When Rich Rodriguez took his spread offense from West Virginia to Michigan, a reporter from a Detroit newspaper called Davis. Rodriguez had told the reporter that he'd stolen much of his offense from Davis.

"He didn't get his stuff from me," Davis told the reporter. "I don't know where he got it from, but he got it from somebody else."

There are plenty of versions of the spread offense to imitate. The spread offenses at schools such as Texas Tech, Missouri and Tulsa are built around high-percentage passing games and often rely on quarterbacks and coaches to make the right decisions at the line of scrimmage. Spread offenses run by teams such as Michigan and Oregon are run-oriented attacks built around slot receivers, tailbacks and dual-threat quarterbacks.

"The bottom line is every spread offense is different," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said last year. "Florida's spread offense is different than Missouri, and Missouri's is different than what Kansas is trying to do."

Even Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who took his triple-option offense from Navy to Georgia Tech and guided the Yellow Jackets to a 9-4 record in his first season in 2008, classifies his offense as a spread attack.

"Our system isn't much different from what everybody else is running," Johnson said. "Pretty much everybody is running what we're running, but they're doing it out of the shotgun. We're just doing it from under center."

The variety of spread offenses is what makes them so difficult to defend.

"The hardest thing for your kids is to adjust every week," Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. "Back in 1985, every team lined up with two backs. Now everybody is running something different. That's why you see a lot of points scored now."

Spread offenses also have changed the ways teams are playing defense. Bigger safeties have become linebackers, and linebackers have become defensive ends. Defensive coordinators are trying to get as much speed on the field to slow down spread attacks.

"They're putting five or six athletes out in space, and it's forcing you to put athletes out in space," Foster said. "Back when they played two tailbacks, you could put eight or nine guys in the box. Now they're making it tougher to do that because of where they place their people."

And until defenses catch up with spread offenses, college football teams will continue to light up their scoreboards.

"I think defenses will catch up with them," Foster said. "We're going to always try to devise ways to attack it. The spread just makes you defend the whole field, sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.