HOOVER, ALABAMA — Since history has this habit of repeating itself, you have to figure that this will be a big year, or at least one that is much improved, for Coach Urban Meyer’s spread option offense at the University of Florida. Year twos have been very kind to Meyer at previous outposts Bowling Green and Utah so history tells us this season will yield similar results at Florida.
In year one of the spread option at Bowling Green and Utah, the results weren’t always pretty but both teams found ways to win games, which is precisely what happened with the Gators last year. There was a lot of spread and not a whole lot of option in the offense but somehow the Gators came up with a 9-3 record, pretty good considering it was a transition year with new coaches, a new offense and a whole slew of injuries to the people Meyer was counting on to make plays.
In year two at Bowling Green the spread option worked wonders. In year two at Utah it worked miracles. The undefeated Utes played the part of the party crasher by forcing their way into a BCS game where they trashed Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl.
So here we are on the verge of year two of the spread option at Florida and nobody but nobody is talking about history. Nobody is remotely close to predicting the Gators’ second year production will be anything close to that of year twos at Bowling Green and Utah. Even though the Gators have been predicted by the writers and broadcasters at SEC Media Days to win the East Division championship it’s more about the Florida defense and special teams than it is the offense.
Florida won with defense and special teams last year and most pundits think the Gators can do it again this year with a similar formula. Nobody doubts the talent on defense nor do they doubt Florida’s well-coached special teams that were hugely responsible for four of Florida’s nine wins last season.
Offense? Let’s just say there’s not a lot of love for the spread option among the pundits and even less love for Chris Leak as the trigger man in an offense where the quarterback is expected to use both his arms and his legs.
A day earlier when former South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier was asked about Leak and the spread option, it was what Spurrier didn’t say that told you his opinion.
“He throws a beautiful ball,” said the Old Ball Coach.
Everybody knows Leak can throw the ball. He’s at 8,271 passing yards for a Florida career that spans 33 starts, third best in the nation in both those categories. Throwing the ball has never been a problem. The problem is running the ball. He’s a reluctant runner and for the spread option offense to have success, he’s got to take positive yards with his feet instead of holding the ball too long or throwing it away. He’s got to understand that second and six or second and five is a far better offensive situation than second and 10 or second and 15.
Understanding that it’s necessary to run sometimes is at the heart of the inevitable question — “can the offense work in the SEC?” — that Meyer was asked Friday when he took the podium at SEC Media Days. There is plenty of doubt that Leak can or will run the ball effectively. He threw for 2,639 yards, 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions last season. Those are great numbers. Unfortunately, he only ran for 81 yards on 105 attempts. That’s not so great.
Meyer got asked that same question about the offense working last year and he answered yes. He was also asked if Leak can run the offense last year and again he said yes but 12 games of inconsistent production in 2005 didn’t give anyone a case of the warm and fuzzies. Meyer said yes both times this year and while you have to figure Leak will be improved, will he improve enough to make the offense successful consistently against SEC defenses?
Basically, Meyer’s offense has two categories of doubters.
First, there are the doubters that don’t think the spread option offense can work in the SEC period. They think that the spread worked just fine in the Mountain West and Mid-America conferences because Meyer had more speed than the pedestrian defenses that he faced. In the SEC, even the bad teams have an abundance of speed on defense so there is a potential checkmate there.
Secondly, there are the doubters that think the spread can work in the SEC but not with a quarterback that’s obviously more comfortable hanging in the pocket like Leak.
Meyer doesn’t question that the offense can work in the SEC. While addressing the media, he mentioned West Virginia, which uses the spread like the old single wing, overpowering teams with a running game that is a marvelous combination of speed, power and drive blocking. He mentioned Texas, which spread the field to open things up for the multi-talented Vince Young, who ran and threw the Longhorns to the national championship. He mentioned Penn State, which spread the field and produced the first big season for Joe Paterno in four years.
What those three teams do in the spread isn’t all that dissimilar to what the Florida offense is supposed to do if it’s run right. Meyer says the offense gets run the right way when you have the right personnel to run it.
“Absolutely it [spread option] can work,” said Meyer. “Any offense can work if it’s personnel-driven and you do a good job of matching the personnel.”
Last year, Meyer’s ability to match the personnel took a hit when his wide receiver corps was hit with one injury after another. The offense slowed to a crawl, particularly in the middle of the season, when the injuries mounted. Losing Bubba Caldwell to a broken leg in game three was devastating. He was Florida’s X-factor, defenses-stretcher that could score in a variety of ways from any place on the field. His injury was followed by a series of dings to Chad Jackson, a pair of sprained ankles and a broken rib for Dallas Baker and a high ankle sprain that took six weeks to heal for Jemalle Cornelius.
The lack of healthy targets limited what Leak could do. During that mid-season stretch, he looked like a below average quarterback, but he rebounded late in the year, particularly in wins over FSU in the regular season ender and Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
“I wish I could say it was great coaching or that Chris Leak got that much better by the end of the year,” said Meyer. “It wasn’t. Dallas Baker was full speed in the bowl game, and so was Cornelius in the last two games and so his [Leak’s] production went back up. It’s a perpendicular-driven offense and like every other offense in America if those cats are healthy on the outside, your quarterback tends to have a little more production.”
Caldwell, Baker and Cornelius return this year and all three are healthy. The depth problems of last year have been solved with a crew of young and very fast burners like Percy Harvin and Jarred Fayson. And, there is the Cornelius Ingram factor. The converted quarterback has playmaker written all over him as a wide receiver.
So Meyer has the personnel at wide receiver to make the offense work, but that brings us back once again to Leak. Can he run the offense? Can he make it go?
Maybe the better questions are will Meyer abandon the elements of the spread option that don’t fit Leak and adapt the offense to fit Leak’s strengths?
The coach says that’s the plan. Instead of Leak being a square peg being forced to fit into a round hole, Meyer says he’s going to make Leak a square peg fitting into a square hole.
“It’s our job to make it a square peg in a square hole,” said Meyer. “We’re going to make that happen. We did make that happen at times last year.”
Florida has the defense and special teams to at least match last year’s 9-3 record even with a brutal schedule that includes a four-game stretch of Alabama, LSU (both home games), Auburn (road) and Georgia (Jacksonville). Improving on that record and getting to the SEC championship game means the offense will have to get better than it was last year. It means Meyer will have to adapt it to match the personnel and that starts with Leak.
“At the University of Florida and most programs you’re not evaluated on yards thrown but winning championships,” said Meyer. “The only just criticism of Chris right now in my opinion is that he has not won a championship.”
Winning a national championship was Leak’s goal when he signed with UF three years ago. He hasn’t won the national title nor has he won the SEC. Given Florida’s schedule, a national title is a longshot. An SEC title, however, is do-able.
“Chris’ job is to win a championship,” said Meyer. “That’s all that matters is to find a way to win that championship.”
Finding a way starts with making the square peg fit the square hole.