Rockets offensive coordinator Rob Spence tries to dislodge the ball from Brian Jones during a practice session.
Allan Detrich Enlarge
Rob Spence isn't much for the limelight.
The second-year University of Toledo assistant head coach/off-ensive coordinator would rather construct a game plan than conduct an interview.
Any time, any day.
“I joke around and call him the `Mad Scientist,'” UT head coach Tom Amstutz said. “He's a well-rounded person, but he just loves football. He can't get enough of it. He's always working, but that's why he's a very good coordinator.
“He has a great handle on the offense and a great understanding of it. And he does a great job of using it to match the abilities of our football players.”
Spence, who turned 44 last week, has enjoyed success with his spread offense at all six of his college coaching stops, including Toledo.
Along the way, he has worked with future NFL quarterbacks Scott Milanovich at Maryland and Gio Carmazzi at Hofstra, plus Division I-AA freshman All-American Luke McCown at Louisiana Tech. Another of his quarterbacks, Tom Ciacco at Holy Cross, had an NFL tryout.
A year ago in his first season at Toledo, Spence coached second-team All-Mid-American Conference performer Tavares Bolden, who now plays for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
Bolden set the conference record for season completion percentage at 68.7. The Rockets finished 13th in the nation in total offense (444.5) and 16th in scoring offense (34.9), thanks mainly to Bolden and third-team All-American tailback Chester Taylor, a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens.
The player who replaced Bolden at quarterback, unheralded senior Brian Jones, has the best completion percentage in the country at 71.1 percent entering Saturday's game against Central Florida (2-3, 1-1 MAC East) in the Citrus Bowl.
Jones has thrown just one interception in 149 passing attempts for the Rockets (4-2, 2-0 MAC West). UT's offense ranks 11th in the country in total offense 15th in points per game (37.3) and 19th in rushing (216.2).
That success can be attributed directly to Spence - the Rockets' highest paid assistant at $100,000 per season - and his system.
“It's a system that's friendly to the quarterback,” said Spence, who coaches from the press box during games. “We're trying to find things that are going to protect the quarterback and help him make good decisions and not do anything that's overly complicated.”
“I knew coach Spence's offense was a great offense and I knew he was a great offensive coordinator - that's why I came here,” said Jones, a left-hander who passed for 5,600 yards and 52 touchdowns in two years at Shasta (Calif.) Junior College before enrolling at UT in 2001.
“I've learned a lot of football from him and improved greatly since junior college. His program works. His system works. It's high-percentage throws. He makes it simple once you learn the concepts.”
As the name indicates, the objective of Spence's offense is to spread the field, meaning the defenders also are spread out.
The offense is based on multiple formations and a no-huddle approach. It is designed to put opposing defenses in a mismatch situation. Along with creating a mismatch, it also makes defenses think more than react.
UT often features a four-receiver, one-back set. Its bread-and-butter play is the middle screen, in which a wide receiver catches the ball on the flank, then runs toward the middle of the field while working his way downfield. Unlike a normal screen pass, in which the offensive lineman block downfield, UT uses its receivers to create openings for their fellow pass-catchers.
Not only can the spread offense produce big plays, it is an offense that also can control the ball with the run.
Spence is quick to spread around the credit to his offensive coaches - Doug Downing with running backs, Joe Gilbert on the offensive line, Chris Hedden with tight ends and Garrick McGee with receivers.
“It's very, very much a collective effort,” Spence said. “Everybody takes part in the game-planning. One of the great things about our system is that we borrow ideas from every staff member that comes here. And every staff member contributes mightily to every single game plan.
“The key to what we do is a collective effort of our staff and our players. It's not really my system. It's our system.”
Jones, who ranks sixth in the nation in passing efficiency with a rating of 157.3, said it's been an eye-opening experience working under Spence.
“In meetings, you have to be very aware of what's going on,” Jones said. “He'll always keep you on your toes, asking you questions, making sure you know what's going on. He's not going to build up your confidence with compliments.
“He'll give you a handshake every once in a while and be very business-like about it. He'll say, `You played a good game, I'm proud of you. I liked the way you ran the offense out there.' That only lasts a few seconds and then he's ready to move on. He wants you to go out there and improve every week.”
Spence has been pleased with Jones' progress, but he won't assign a final grade until after the season, just like he does with his offense.
“Brian has done pretty much what we've coached him to do,” Spence said. “He's been a pretty good decision-maker. But I always want all the players and coaches to think that there's more out there, because there always is. We don't really talk about perfection. We talk about effort and attitude and playing hard.”
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