Loose Change

Lots of chatter popping up in the last couple of days:

  • In the “ignorance is bliss” category, we have PJ’s Monday presser. Talk about a list of things you wish you didn’t know… Kaipo’s in a neck brace, none of the punters are consistent, the secondary’s all hurt, and Greg Thrasher is in PJ’s doghouse. Yeesh. I guess there’s a silver lining in that Rashawn King is recovering well from his shoulder injury, but anyone who didn’t like PJ’s media day optimism can feel better knowing that it’s back to business as usual.
  • Navy will once again be an NCAA lacrosse tournament quarterfinal host this year. The ability to host events like these were a big reason why Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium made the switch to FieldTurf, so it’s nice to see that move pay off. It’ll be nicer if it’s a Navy home game this year.
  • The unending football conference affiliation talk resumed as Chet talked to Ron Snyder about the difficulties of finding bowl games as an independent. Conference membership means a lot more than bowl game access, though. I still don’t think that this will happen anytime soon, if at all.
  • Navy’s been sold out of Army-Navy tickets for a while. Now Army is too. If you want tickets, looks like you’ll be headed to Stubhub or eBay.
  • Scout.com’s Temple site previews Navy (subscription required). For those without a subscription, it’s very complimentary, saying that Navy “might be the second-toughest team on the schedule.” In case you’re wondering, Temple plays Penn State this year.
  • Some Air Force Academy grad wants to play pro baseball. I don’t really care that much as long as this doesn’t become a habit; the Air Force will do what it thinks is best for itself. But will people PLEASE stop comparing every scrub that wants to turn pro to David Robinson? By the time Robinson played his first game in San Antonio, he had already been an Olympic medalist, a Naismith Award winner, a Wooden Award winner, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and led Navy to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. That is a far, far cry from being one of thousands of players struggling to find a place in minor league baseball. Robinson is one of the best players in the history of his sport. Karl Bolt is not. It makes a difference when the Navy or Air Force is considering an athlete’s fate.
  • Bill Wagner offers a look at college recruiting, including Billy Lange’s approach.
  • ESPN.com talks Patriot League basketball as part of their “Shoot Around” series.

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.


Today is Induction Day for the class of 2011. I’d congratulate them and wish them luck, but they won’t be checking the internet for a while to be able to see it.

For the sports faithful, I-Day means that now we wait for the official recruit list to come out. Usually it takes a day or two to make sure that everyone actually gets sworn in, so hopefully we’ll see something by the weekend.

UPDATE: Maybe a lot sooner than the weekend… The basketball recruit list is already out.

And here’s the football release.

My I-Day Manifesto

The two best pieces of advice you can give to someone who’s about to head off to Plebe Summer are to keep a sense of humor, and to remain anonymous as long as possible. Don’t do anything that will make a detailer remember you. For my plebe summer roommate, that second part was a bit of a problem.

It wasn’t any fault of his own, really. He is the best athlete I’ve ever known, recruited to play both soccer and lacrosse. When you are that high-profile of a recruit, the detailers already know who you are. Everyone ends up getting some time in the “spotlight” eventually during Plebe Summer, but my roommate had the honor of being first. When the detailers wanted to drop the platoon for pushups, it wasn’t unusual to hear the process begin with one of them yelling, “You’re just here to play lacrosse!”

Fast forward a few years to 2003. In his book, Recruiting Confidential, David Claerbaut chronicles the college recruiting process experienced by his stepson, Chicago running back James Velissaris. James committed to the Naval Academy, and his family made the trip with him to Annapolis to see him sworn in on I-Day. When it came time to take the oath, though, James didn’t do it. Reading over the commitment papers, he felt that he was only there to play football; to him, that wasn’t reason enough to sign. Velissaris would end up playing for Harvard.

Two different stories, but with similar themes: sports as the primary motivation in choosing to attend the Naval Academy. As I was reading James Velissaris’ story, the same thought occurred to me as when I would hear my Plebe Summer detailers barking at my roommate: is there really anything wrong with that?

June has arrived. It is the time when a select group of high school seniors across the country are about to trade the cap and gown of the graduate for the dixie cup and whiteworks assigned to the Naval Academy’s lowest of the low. Included in this group preparing for the challenge of Plebe Summer are the athletes recruited to fill out the rosters of Navy’s several varsity sports. On I-Day, these athletes are going to face decisions of their own. Like James Velissaris, they might find themselves questioning their own motives. They shouldn’t. It is perfectly acceptable that being recruited to play a varsity sport would be someone’s main attraction to the Naval Academy. It should be expected, and in a lot of ways, encouraged.

Plenty of Academy alums would bristle at that thought. Some of these graduates seem to think that every midshipman-to-be that passes through the gates of USNA does so because each one of them is driven to have a career as a Navy or Marine Corps officer. Some of them are. Or at least they think they are. Let’s be real, now; how many 18 year-olds coming straight out of high school really have any idea what it means to be an officer in the Naval Service? I am a third-generation Academy graduate and spent my entire childhood surrounded by all things Navy. I thought I had a pretty good idea going into I-Day. It took all of 15 minutes of Plebe Summer for me to realize that I didn’t know squat. If most grads would take an honest look at their own experience, they’d probably admit the same thing. If a person doesn’t truly understand what being a Naval officer entails, then he can’t truly be dedicated to a Naval career from day one. It’s unfair to expect otherwise.

In fact, the Navy itself doesn’t expect it. Have you seen Navy advertising on television? A recent Navy ad shows three Navy officers who turned their Navy experience into successful civilian careers. All branches of the military use college money and other benefits to bring people to the recruiting office. The Marine Corps sells itself as an exclusive club. It’s true, obviously; but it’s also secondary to to what being a Marine really means.

There is a bit of a double standard at work here, too. Many of the same graduates and onlookers who cringe when a recruit says that he came to play football have no problem with other reasons that a midshipman might give. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complain when a mid says that he came to USNA for the quality of the education. When someone comes to Annapolis because his father or brother or sister did, it’s generally regarded as a heartwarming nod to family tradition. How are these reasons any different? The Naval Academy does a lot to make itself attractive to applicants as a school. Athletics are a part of that, as are academic programs, extracurriculars, traditions, etc. Coming for any of these reasons is no different than coming to play a sport. None of them are the same thing as saying, “I want to be a Navy or Marine Corps officer.”

Those who question the mindset of these soon-to-be midshipmen need to remember the mission of the institution. It is not the job of the high school senior to be dedicated to a career of naval service; it is the job of the Naval Academy to motivate him to do so. As long as coaches are upfront with kids on the recruiting trail about the challenge that lies ahead, there really is no bad reason to come to USNA. That’s why the Navy is comfortable advertising about how it can help jumpstart a civilian career. Those who want to use their Navy experience to do so, can. But some of those people brought in by that ad might find that a Navy career is more rewarding than they realized, and they’ll stick around for a while. There’s a cliche at the Academy about how the guys who’d swear they would be in for life end up getting out as soon as their commitment is up, and the guys who’d swear they would get out as soon as possible end up becoming admirals. There’s some truth to that; no matter what you think going in, it isn’t until you’ve actually experienced the life of a Naval officer that you’d know if it is for you. Very few of these young men and women about to take the oath really know what’s waiting for them on the other side, but they’re willing to give it a try. The country needs people who are willing to give it a try, even if it doesn’t always work out in the end.

We should be thankful for each and every one of those who will raise their right hand on June 27th, regardless of why they’re doing it.

Fenske Transferring?

CSTV’s Hodge Report is reporting that forward Bobby Fenske is leaving the Naval Academy. Fenske (6-8, 196), a prized recruit who originally committed to the Air Force Academy before being medically disqualified, averaged a little more than 8 minutes per game in his freshman campaign (including 10 starts). While seeing limited action, he did shoot 40% from behind the arc (10-25) and was almost certainly being counted on as a centerpiece of Billy Lange’s frontcourt for the next three years. Fenske’s departure leaves the small forward position a two-man battle between junior Adam Teague and sophomore T.J. Topercer. No word yet on where Fenske will end up.

OJ AvworoCoach Lange may be losing a forward via transfer, but he’s gaining a guard. Idaho’s O.J. Avworo (6-0, 180) is transferring to Navy. Avworo, who was heavily recruited by Navy before committing to Idaho, will sit out next season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules. He averaged nearly 27 min./game with the Vandals last year while starting 24 games and leading the team with 95 assists. Avworo should contend for the starting point guard spot when he is eligible to play in 2008-2009, which would free up Kaleo Kina to take over Greg Sprink’s role as Navy’s primary scoring threat in the backcourt.