There aren't many ways to describe what the spread offense is in its most basic form.
"It's defined by people that remove players from the box offensively by formation," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Fair enough. But for as easy as it is to explain the spread, it's just as difficult to defend against. Thus, at least eight of 11 Big Ten teams will run some form of it this season.
Rodriguez has made a career out of using the spread - which is to line up offensively with multiple receivers split wide and typically one running back, forcing linebackers and safeties out of the middle of the field.
He's run the offense in each of the last 18 seasons, either as a head coach at West Virginia and Glenville State, or as offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson.
But the spread Rodriguez will teach when the Wolverines begin fall practice for the 2008 season tomorrow might be a little different from what he ran for seven seasons with the Mountaineers.
And it will certainly be different from the spread plays Ohio State coach Jim Tressel works on when the Buckeyes begin practice tomorrow, as well as those at Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Penn State, and Northwestern.
That's another reason why the spread is so appealing - not just in the Big Ten, but nationwide. There are so many options an offense has once it spreads out the defense.
"I think it adds additional pressure," Tressel said. "Using all the field, using the quarterback as a runner, in some cases. Some people don't run the quarterback. You do what your guys can do. Spread is a deployment. Conceptually, what are you going to do? All of us spread."
Rodriguez historically has used the spread to run the ball. In fact, Rodriguez's style is more specifically referred to as the "spread-option," highlighting its tendency to feature running quarterbacks.
In seven seasons at West Virginia, Rodriguez's offenses never finished in the top 100 nationally in passing. Mountaineers quarterback Pat White - a master when it came to operating Rod-riguez's schemes - rushed for a team-high 1,335 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago. He also threw for 1,724 and 14 scores.
The Wolverines don't have a Pat White, at least not one who has taken a college snap yet. True freshman Justin Feagin is considered a dual threat at quarterback, but it is likely too much to ask of him to be ready to start when UM opens up Aug. 30 against Utah.
The odds-on favorite to open the year as the Wolverines' main quarterback, redshirt freshman Steven Threet, actually ran a version of the spread at Adrian High. But at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Threet is unquestionably a thrower before he's a runner.
And the spread is completely new to UM's returning players. Former coach Lloyd Carr featured a traditional, pro-style offense with fullbacks and pass-catching tight ends.
"We're going to have to be at our creative best as coaches because of the inexperience we've got," Rodriguez said. "You're talking about four or five guys on the offensive line will be first-time starters, a couple of the wide receivers, running backs, you're talking all the way across the board. There's a lot of young guys playing for the first time, so we've got to be creative."
"But you can't be creative to the point where we create confusion for ourselves. It's kind of a little balance that we've got to come up with. We're not going to forfeit. We're going to do what we can with what we put out there."
Ron Zook, who is entering his fourth season as Illinois coach, uses the spread because it was the toughest offense to plan for when he was a defensive coordinator. And, as Rodriguez will agree, it can be adaptable to the players on a particular roster.
"It gives people an opportunity where personnel-wise you may not be as good as others. It levels the field a little bit," said Zook, whose quarterback Juice Williams ran the spread optimally in Illinois' 28-21 upset win over the Buckeyes last year.
Williams threw for four scores in upending top-ranked Ohio State, but he picked up three crucial first downs on runs during the Illini's game-clinching final drive.
When Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter takes the field this season, he will also be operating out of the spread. But the plays he runs will look nothing like what Williams does at Illinois.
Boilermakers coach and Toledo native Joe Tiller is credited with bringing the spread to the Big Ten when he came over from Wyoming following the 1996 season. Tiller's offense is wide open and pass happy, and is routinely among the nation's leaders in passing yards.
Tiller, who's entering his final year as the Boilermakers' coach, isn't surprised that so many teams in his conference - and across the country - now use some form of the spread.
"Young people love to throw and catch and run around, high-five each other and have fun playing the game," Tiller said. "I think this style of offense is a fun style to participate in. Young people, if you want to keep them involved in the sport of football, you have to provide an outlet that's enjoyable to them, not just [a] highly disciplined or regimented style of play.
"So it doesn't surprise me at all that the spread offense has really swept the nation."
Tressel's Buckeyes sometimes line up in a spread formation, and might do so more this year when freshman phenom Terrelle Pryor is on the field. But Ohio State, especially with its veteran offensive line and bruising tailback Chris Wells, can just as easily punish defenses with a traditional I-formation offense.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has one of the few Big Ten teams that stays away from the spread.
"The thing I like about being at Wisconsin right now is we're unique," he said. "You line up with a tailback and a fullback and you got some big ugly guys up front that come down hill."
But Bielema said the Badgers will devote double the amount of time from last season preparing to defend against the conference's various spreads.
It's probably a good idea. They'll see plenty of them this year.
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