How awkward would this week be if SMU had hired Paul Johnson?
Hey, it could’ve happened. SMU athletic director Steve Orsini was an associate AD at the Naval Academy during Paul Johnson’s first stint in Annapolis. When it came time for him to hire a coach himself, he knew what he was looking for. Orsini flew Johnson to Dallas to take the grand tour of SMU’s new facilities, hoping to show the ambitious Navy coach just how serious he was about turning the long-suffering Mustang program into a winner. The salary that the SMU AD was allegedly offering was also a statement of how serious he was about winning football games. But Orsini couldn’t offer the one thing that Johnson wanted– the BCS. In the end, Johnson went to Georgia Tech, and Orsini moved on to plan B.
And he had one hell of an impressive plan B. Orsini was ridiculed by fans and the media for the length of the SMU coaching search, but he knew what he was doing. Little did everyone else know that the search was taking so long because Orsini’s choice was playing in a BCS game himself. New facilities and a demonstrated commitment to winning might not have been enough to lure Paul Johnson, but it was exactly what one other top coach was missing. Seventy-one days after firing Phil Bennett, Orsini hired Hawaii coach June Jones to take over the SMU program.
Those of you who have known me for a while know that I love June Jones. I began following him when he became interim head coach of the Chargers following the firing of Kevin Gillbride in 1998. At the end of that season, Jones decided to leave the NFL and take the head coaching job at Hawaii, where he inherited a team that went 0-12 under Fred vonAppen in 1998. That just set him up for one of the great turnarounds in college football history. Jones took that winless team to a 9-4 record in 1999, including a share of the WAC championship and a win over Oregon State in the Oahu Bowl. It was Hawaii’s first conference championship and bowl game since a certain former Navy head coach led the Rainbow offense to a Holiday Bowl win in 1992. And that’s no coincidence.
While perhaps not apparent on the surface, there are a lot of parallels between coaching at Hawaii and coaching at the Naval Academy. Both have unique challenges that make winning difficult. Hawaii doesn’t have the academic and military hurdles to jump, obviously, but they have their own obstacles. Money is tight out at Division I’s most isolated outpost thanks to travel costs associated with sending 18 varsity sports to competitions on the mainland. Jones’ recruiting budget was restrictive, and parents aren’t always eager to send their kids to school thousands of miles away. Hawaii’s facilities were so bad that Colt Brennan once went to the media to complain about the lack of soap in the football locker room. Under these conditions, Jones’ 76-41 record, with two conference titles, three 10+ win seasons, 6 bowl games, and a BCS berth, is absolutely astounding. Like we’ve said before, the way to win under adverse conditions is to do things differently than everyone else; if two teams line up against each other doing the same thing, the one with the better talent is going to win every time. Hawaii won under Bob Wagner using Paul Johnson’s spread option offense. Under Jones, the “something different” was another offense: the run & shoot.
Jones learned the offense while playing quarterback for Mouse Davis at Portland State, and he has been its champion at the Division I level. The run & shoot is frequently labeled by fans and the media as a “gimmick” offense, but that’s only true if you think that innovation and smart football is “gimmicky.” The basic concepts of the run & shoot are in fact very similar to Navy’s offenses under Paul Johnson and Ivin Jasper. Navy’s quarterbacks read individual defensive players as their keys for determining who gets the ball when running option plays. Run & shoot quarterbacks do the exact same thing, only their keys tell them where to throw the ball. In fact, there is an added layer of complexity in the run & shoot, since the wide receivers also need to read and react to the same keys as the quarterback to determine what route to run after the snap. It can be complicated, but also extremely effective; just as Navy sits among the top rushing teams each year, Hawaii was consistently a top 5 passing team under Jones. And that isn’t where the similarity ends.
One thing that makes me cringe a little bit is when Paul Johnson’s offense, or its base spread formation, is called the “flexbone.” It isn’t. “Flexbone” has a specific connotation as a variation of the wishbone. It’s true that when you “break the bone,” sometimes that means lining up in formations like Navy’s base spread:
But when Tiger Ellison created the run & shoot offense 40 years ago, he ran it out of this same spread formation. I doubt anyone called it the “flexbone” back then as they watched Ellison’s Middletown High School teams throw the ball all over the place. Ellison simply called it the “double slot.” And it was a visit paid to run & shoot guru Mouse Davis during Johnson’s first tour at Georgia Southern that led him to the double slot formation. Johnson took those run & shoot concepts and mixed in the inside/outside veer principles he knew from coaching high school. And blammo! Magic. It’s backwards to call this the “flexbone;” Johnson didn’t take the wishbone and “break the bone,” he took the run & shoot formations he learned from Davis and mixed in what he knew of the wishbone. (If you want to see a true “flexbone,” that’s what Army is running now). You could say that the run & shoot and Paul Johnson’s spread option are family.
Nobody relates to you like family, and Navy fans can appreciate what SMU is going through this year. SMU in 2008 is very similar to Navy in 2002. They rack up plenty of yards, but plenty of turnovers, too, and not much defense. It’s no surprise. A first-year quarterback in Navy’s system would have a hard time learning to make the right reads, and it’s no different in the run & shoot. Perhaps knowing that any quarterback would probably struggle is what led Jones to ruffle some feathers and choose a freshman, Bo Levi Mitchell, as his starting quarterback. Mitchell has some admirable numbers; he’s 11th in the country with nearly 285 passing yards per game, and he’s thrown for 21 touchdowns. But he’s also thrown a whopping 18 interceptions; more than two per game, and the most in the country. Despite the tough times with his freshman quarterback, June Jones never seems to get too angry with him on the sideline. He’s always calm, and uses every series as an opportunity to teach his young signal-caller the finer points of the offense. There have been signs lately that maybe the offense is coming around. After back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and TCU in which SMU only scored 7 points in each game, the Mustangs looked headed for a repeat performance against Tulane, trailing 31-7 at the half. But the offense came back in the second half, scoring on its first three posessions and leading the team on a comeback that fell just short at 34-27. Two weeks ago, undefeated Tulsa trailed SMU 31-24 going into the 4th quarter before scoring 13 straight to end the game with a 37-31 win. Mitchell threw for 318 yards, 4 TDs, and only one INT. Last week against Houston, the Mustangs blew a 35-23 4th quarter lead in a 44-38 loss. Mitchell had 365 yards and 4 TDs in that game. The offense is coming around, and is looking for that one breakthrough game.
This is going to put pressure on the Navy offense to score, something I’m a lot more confident about after Jarod Bryant’s performance last week. While it’s true that the rest of the offense looked bad, the defense they lined up against had a lot to do with that. SMU’s defense, to put it mildly, isn’t Pitt. The Mustangs are 109th in rushing defense 116th in scoring defense so far this year. If Jarod plays the way he played last week, Navy will score. That leaves it up to the defense, who will certainly give up some points, but also have the opportunity to make some big plays. SMU gives up more than two sacks per game, which is good news for Nate Frazier and Jabaree Tuani. They will force Mitchell to hurry some throws and hopefully stop a couple drives. If they don’t, it will be a long afternoon for the linebackers and the secondary.
The weather is supposed to be bad this weekend. Rain would be a bigger deal if NMCMS was still a grass surface, but with Fieldturf to run on, it probably won’t be much of a factor. The wind might be, though, not only for SMU but for any deep play-action passes Ivin Jasper might want to call. We’ll have to see. SMU is gaining confidence, and Navy has something to prove to themselves after looking so bad last week. This game could be closer than you think.