Some links for those not familiar with the Briles offense:
Baylor coach Art Briles abandoned the playbook several years ago, and he and his assistants teach their players the fast-paced spread offense through countless repetitions in practice and by watching hours of film.
“When I was at Houston, the first thing everybody wanted was the playbook,” said Briles, who coached the Cougars from 2003 to '07. "A guy’s not going to read or study it. Kids play video games, so we show them the plays on video. Everything is on an iPad, and we label it and number them. A playbook is something we don’t do.
“I’m a visual learner, and people learn differently. If you can see something, you remember it. If you read it and try to interpret it, it’s a little different. We do a lot of repetition on the field so guys can learn it.”
The players speed through reps—the system is based on repetition—and strength coach Sean Edinger later points out that an hour-and-a-half practice will include 155 plays. “In a lot of places, that’s a little more than two games’ worth,” he says. “[Other teams] just don’t do that.”
Well, most other teams. Two years ago Tulsa went 2–10 and finished 89th nationally in scoring. Then Philip Montgomery, 44, left his job as Baylor’s offensive coordinator to take over. In Montgomery’s first season the Golden Hurricane improved their point total by 12.5 per game, finished 18th in scoring and reached the Independence Bowl. “In the past at Tulsa, we had a package where we did some spread stuff and went fast,” says senior quarterback Dane Evans. “Now it’s our whole offense. We run our two-minute offense for two hours a day.”
When Evans hears heavy panting across the line, he knows he’s got the defense where he wants them. “I don’t want to say it’s physically impossible to go hard every play,” he says of opponents, but “it’s really about getting people tired and going after them.”
Montgomery is bothered by those who deride the system as simple. He says it’s streamlined by design and laughs at NFL teams that have play calls that take four sentences. “And that’s to run a damn counter,” he says. He points to one of the Baylor offense’s guiding principles: “Don’t make something easy hard.”
In 2014 quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went from Eastern Illinois—under Babers—to the NFL, a second-round pick of the Patriots. As a senior, Garoppolo threw for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns and completed 66% of his passes while leading the Panthers to a 12–2 record and the quarterfinals of the FCS playoff. Did Garoppolo make the offense or the offense make Garoppolo? “The offense forced everyone to look at him,” Babers says. “Then looking at him, there was no doubt what he could become. We both needed each other. But if you’re asking who got the most out of it, I think he got the most out of it.”
Baylor’s single-wing offense
The Bears already have a diverse run game in their “veer and shoot” offensive scheme and it was all too easy to adjust these schemes to feature the QB as the runner rather than the RB.
Ordinarily Baylor’s favorite formation is a “spread-I” set with a TE in an H-back alignment where he can allow them to utilize different lead runs and set up their play-action passing game and run/pass option plays (RPOs). Most of the Baylor offense is geared around setting up their deep routes so they can score as many points as possible as quickly as possible.
But without Seth Russell or Jarrett Stidham available to throw and no Corey Coleman to receive their passes, those deep routes could no longer be the ends of an elite offense. So Briles rotated 3rd string QB/WR Chris Johnson, WR Lynx Hawthorne, and their full stable of RBs at the QB position and unloaded a salvo of different run schemes that combine their max spread sets with two-back runs.
The wide splits of the Briles’ offense were always intended for the benefit of the run game. The offense was built around RPOs (run/pass options) with burning fast receivers waiting out on the numbers to turn screen passes into easy gains if defenses didn’t get enough numbers out wide to stop them and then to punish man coverage with deep shots.
The 2016 Tulsa Golden Hurricane ran for 3392 yards while the 2013 and 2014 Big 12 champion Baylor teams ran for 3376 and 2802 yards respectively. However, those offenses were look to score and they’d content themselves to run it down your throats after you conceded the box to prevent quick-six plays.
Dino Babers’ teams haven’t worked quite like that. His 2013 Eastern Illinois Panthers are his only team to reach 5.0 ypc and his Bowling Green teams never quite established the run with the ferocity of Briles’ Baylor squads. It’s no doubt challenging to build a downhill run game, even with arguably the best downhill run scheme in college football history, and Babers hasn’t stayed in any one job long enough to have coached OL that he hand picked and developed over multiple seasons.
“We’ve kind of mixed some things in, especially in different scenarios or situations that come up,” Kiffin said. “Instead of maybe whole formational stuff, more like ‘Hey, let’s have this play ready for when we need a chunk play down 12 seconds left,’ things like that.”
For the first time in his head coaching career, Kiffin has ceded play-calling duties to his coordinator, Briles.
Both Kiffin and Briles’ offenses are spread offenses, but that doesn’t mean they’re similar systems. Kiffin has described Briles’ scheme as a simple one, using only a handful of formations. Fewer formations mean less motion, allowing FAU to go faster.
Kiffin used to direct a pro-style offense when he was both an assistant and head coach at USC, relying on a two-back system. But he changed his approach when he got to Alabama, resulting in three straight SEC titles and a national championship. The Crimson Tide averaged 38.8 points and 455.3 yards per game in 2016.
Kiffin said the addition of some of his offensive concepts have made the offense slightly more intricate.
“It’s probably a little more complex, but again, we’re not doing too much,” Kiffin said.
In the spring, Kiffin said the Owls have ditched using X, Y and Z designations for receivers and have simply called them by their side and position (example: left slot). Receivers have also said they feel freer in Briles’ system, which includes plenty of option routes.
McNeal said the receivers’ job in Briles’ offense is simple: get open and get up field. Kiffin has said before that receivers have more freedom in Briles’ offense than he’s seen in any offense before.
Baylor’s offense was stacked with speed on the outside. KD Cannon ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Corey Coleman was clocked at 4.37 during Baylor’s Pro Day in 2016.
“Of course, Baylor had receivers, they were track stars,” McNeal said. “Everybody that was on that team that was a receiver ran a 4.4 and under.”
FAU is trending that way with recent additions. John Franklin III transferred from Auburn, where he said he ran a 4.25-second 40-yard dash. West Virginia transfer receiver Jovon Durante should add more speed on the outside, though he would have to sit out a year.
When asked how to tweak the scheme to match receiving personnel, Kiffin said quarterback-receiver chemistry was paramount.
“It is a lot of quarterbacks and receivers being on the same page,” Kiffin said. “Hopefully, we’ve added some speed with our last acquisition. We just got to get guys in the right spots and get guys on the same page because we play in nine days.”