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Mizzou’s pro-style shift will only work if the personnel can handle it

Can Drew Lock and company learn what they need to learn in a single offseason?

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Drew Lock Derrick Forsythe (Rock M Nation)

Any system can work. Triple option, pro-style, spread-to-run, spread-to-pass, etc. The logic behind just about any football offense is pretty sound, and it can work if a) you have the personnel to run it and b) you can properly teach that personnel what it needs to know.

Drew Lock was gifted with an incredible opportunity to define his offense. He made it clear that he was not going to return to Columbia just to return — he needed to improve his draft stock, and he wasn’t going to come back if Barry Odom’s new offensive coordinator couldn’t do that. He requested more lining up under center, and evidently former Tennessee head coach and Dallas Cowboys receivers coach Derek Dooley is going to give it to him. Lock requested more “pro-style” reads, and he’s getting that, too.

There’s a debate to be had here about whether a player should dictate things this much, but it doesn’t really matter — this is taking shape no matter what we think. And Lock is clearly excited.

Wide receivers have a lot more routes at their disposal and words assigned for each of them, cutting down on the amount of guessing that their quarterback has to do. This makes memorization a necessity, which can consume the unprepared.

“I really enjoy it. It tests your brain a little bit,” Lock said. “I think you need that. You’ve got to go out there mentally sharp, and that’s the tougher part for all quarterbacks, really. If you’re not on the mental side out there, you’re gonna be eaten alive in this offense.”

“[Dooley] knows what it takes,” Lock said. “The more and more you get around it, I think the more and more you get comfortable with what it takes to be at the next level. What it is, how they talk, plays they run, just all the little intricate stuff that I didn’t necessarily think I was exactly ready for. I think that’s just what he’s bringing for me. It’s perfect, it’s exactly what I was hoping for as far as being able to get prepared for the next level.”

This spring, we’ve heard about Lock getting more reads, receivers having more routes to learn, etc. It’s a departure from basically everything a Missouri offense has stood for over the last 13 seasons or so. More recently, the Josh Heupel spread was built around minimal plays with maximal formations at maximum tempo. Now, the Tigers are taking on maximal plays with maximal formations at, almost by necessity, a slower tempo.

Since we’re always optimistic in the spring, we’re considering this a good thing. And to be sure, it could absolutely be good. A complicated offense like this — which is frankly beginning to sound like a Bill Walsh offense with its endless combinations — makes scouting you almost impossible and opens up an infinite number of ways to attack your opponent’s weaknesses.

You can move to a new chunk of the playbook and look like a completely different team from week to week. This could be the key to smoothing out the mad volatility that Mizzou became known for over the last couple of seasons.

But it only works if your players can handle it.

I recently read Rough Magic, about Walsh’s first season back at Stanford in 1992. Walsh had retired from the 49ers in early-1989, and after a few unfulfilling years of doing color commentary — he was pretty good but evidently hated it — he got the itch to return to coaching. And he often found himself thrown by what his players could and couldn’t handle.

In the opening game of Stanford’s 1992 season, Walsh’s Cardinal took on No. 7 Texas A&M in the Pigskin Classic and held the Aggies to 196 yards. But one of the greatest play-callers in the sport’s history was constantly thrown off by the simple fact that his line couldn’t handle his blocking schemes. The line was pretty good the year before, but things were too complex, and a simple but relentless A&M defense lit up quarterback Steve Stenstrom all night, picked off two passes, and held Stanford to just 236 yards in a 10-7 Aggie win.

If not for star talent like running back and return man Glyn Milburn, Stanford might have lost a few games in the early-going. And even after erupting for 33 points in a breakthrough win at No. 6 Notre Dame, the line’s problems returned over the next few weeks, scoring just 19 points at No. 19 UCLA, six at home against Arizona’s Desert Swarm, and seven at No. 2 Washington.

The Cardinal picked up steam late in the season, scoring 104 points in wins over USC, Washington State, and Cal and holding Penn State at bay in a 24-3 Blockbuster Bowl win. But the adjustment was painful at times, and when Milburn and some elite defensive players left following the season, the stuttering picked up speed. Walsh went 7-14-2 in 1993-94 and was done.

Now, there are only so many parallels there. Walsh was aging, was taking on both head coaching and offensive coordinator roles, etc. Dooley’s not the head coach, and he probably has a better feel for what a college football player can handle than Walsh, if simply because he hasn’t been gone as long. But the complexity of Walsh’s offense created as many liabilities as it did assets at times.

The biggest reason for optimism that I see for 2018, the clearest reason why Mizzou might be able to handle what Dooley tries to implement, is the personnel. Lock’s back, and while we don’t know that he’ll be great at processing everything he’s been asked to process, he hasn’t proven he won’t be great at it, either.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
Derek Dooley
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Not only that, but he also has an awesome, physical running back duo to lean on (Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III), maybe the league’s best tight end to bail him out (Albert Okwuegbunam), the league’s best deep-ball receiver to perhaps create some easy points (Emanuel Hall), and a line that returns all five starters and 108 career starts. That’s one hell of a collective security blanket. In 2019, with a new QB and a couple of line starters to replace? We’ll see. But it’s easy to see this working out alright.

It’s also reasonably easy to see the offense running into snags — different snags from last year, but snags all the same. The thing about a ‘system’ like Heupel’s was that it had go-to concepts to lean on. Dooley is a first-time play-caller building a system around this and that, but we have no idea what his go-to, gotta-get-a-first-down-right-here concepts will be, and it’s conceivable that he doesn’t either. Giving yourself a multitude of choices can make it awfully hard to make choices.

It’s also not hard to remember 2004. During the spring and summer, all Mizzou fans heard was how Gary Pinkel, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, and QBs coach David Yost were helping Brad Smith make the leap from awesome dual-threat QB to future pro QB. He was adding pocket presence! They were teaching him how to make better reads! He was going to be a better passer, and he’d still have the legs that allowed him to hypnotize so many of us in 2002-03.

In reality, the change in focus charred Smith’s instincts and turned him into something he wasn’t. Instead of leaving the pocket to scramble and utilize his best weapon, he was freezing up more in the pocket. He didn’t have enough play-makers in the skill corps to bail him out, and youth on the offensive line was making life even more difficult. Mizzou had a perfect spread quarterback and tried to turn him into something different. The Tigers fell from 8-5 to 5-6 and nearly got Pinkel fired before he and his staff elected to better adapt to what they had, implemented the spread offense that allowed them to woo Chase Daniel in the 2005 offseason, and erupted.

That same season, Nebraska brought in Bill Callahan to modernize the Huskers’ attack and work in West Coast Offense principles. Granted, the defense was the reason why Callahan eventually failed in Lincoln, but the offense was volatile, easily capable of scoring 50-plus or nothing from week to week (sound familiar?). It took a couple of years for NU to get somewhere offensively.

Turning your personnel into something different can only work if you can teach it, and if your personnel can handle it. We’re going to learn exactly what Mizzou’s personnel can handle this fall, and I don’t think we’re going to have the answers we need until the opening kickoff.

Briar Napier (Rock M Nation)