I went into yesterday’s Steve Kragthorpe news conference looking for insight into how the offensive play calling worked last season, and how an offense designed by Kragthorpe alone might differ from what we’ve seen the past two years. Here are the questions I asked, and the answers I got. My thoughts are in red.
Q: You said you wanted the offense to go a different direction. What exactly will be your direction as offensive coordinator?
A: That’s a great question, Eric. I think the biggest thing in terms of my offensive philosophy is, is fairly simple in some respects and very complex in others. No. 1, you want to put your best 11 players on the football field. So we’ve got to determine over the course of spring practice who those best 11 players are. It may be two backs in the backfield, it may be one back in the backfield it may be no backs in the backfield. It just depends on what our personnel offers us the opportunity to do. We want to put our players in a position to be successful when they take the field, and that means putting our best players on the field doing the best things that they’re capable of doing. The other thing that I’m big on in terms of offense is having multiple personalities out of single personnel sets. Most defensive coordinators are going to call their defenses based on the personnel that you put on the field. What you want to try to do as a play-caller and as an offensive coach is put them in a position where they have to guess your intentions based on the personnel that you put on the field. You don’t want to have personnel tendencies. So that’s one of the things I’ve always been really big on is, hopefully, those guys that you put on the field being able to assume different roles and multiple roles that can confuse the defense and yet at the same time be simple for your own football team and try to be complex as you possibly can and yet at the same time be very consistent and concise with your guys.
Later, Laclan McLean of WHAS asked about this “best 11 on the field” philosophy and whether that isn’t the goal of every coach. Originally, I posed the question in my column, “Was Brohm drawing players out of a hat?” Instead, I replaced that with Kragthorpe’s answer to a later question. I was more intersted in Kragthorpe’s later description of what I can only term a “multiple personality” offense. It underscores, I think, just how vast the difference is between the past two offensive philosophies at U of L.
Let me go on at a little length. Petrino based everything he did in the running game on getting one more blocker to the point of attack than you had defenders. It’s very much a tenet of the old option attacks that his father had so much success with. In the passing game, his goal was to create, through motion, formation or misdirection, the matchups that he wanted. It was pretty standard to see U of L use 10 different formations on the game’s first 10 plays. Petrino had the ability to analyze how the defense reacted to each formation, then base future play calls on them. Most of the plays in the first half of the game were setting up plays in the second, using the same formation to do something totally different. It’s why there were so many catches in that offense in which there was no defender even in the television picture when the ball was caught. But it was based on a large number of different personnel packages. There was a Bush package. A Urrutia package. Even a George Stripling package.
What Kragthorpe is describing here is the opposite of that. It is the minimization of packages in favor of a personnel group that can do everything itself. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. If you can find such a group, you could be at a great advantage. Regardless, it is a simpler approach. And if there has been one common thread that has run through the past two offensive season at U of L, it has reflected what looks like a simpler approach and, frankly, a smaller playbook. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, mind you, but it is very different, and the results have been debatable. You could, and I’d agree, bring up the team’s personnel limitations this year as a big reason for the offensive struggles. But if they were, they were limitations on Brohm as well as Kragthorpe.
Anyway, my next question, where I tried to understand the process of how the plays got called last season . . .
Q: For those of us not wearing headset, can you describe what the chain of a play call is like, and what it was like getting plays from the booth versus what you will have next season?
A: That’s a good question. You know, as a guy who was not the lead play caller the past couple of years, I would listen to the play calls and we would be talking in between plays. And a lot of the plays, really, that you end up calling in a game are things that have been hashed out Monday night at 11 o’clock as you are developing your game plan. Certainly as you develop your game plan you continue to go through the week and you get to specific situations. Okay, here’s going to be our first goal-line play, here’s going to be our first short-yardage play, here’s going to be our first third-down pass, here’s going to be our first play when we cross the 50, here’s going to be our first blitz audible. All those things are pretty well hashed out throughout the course of the week and then you have a lead guy that’s actually calling the plays on game day. My role will be a little bit different this year in that I will call every single play, where last year I did not.
The confusing thing about this answer, as I pointed out in today’s column, is that Kragthorpe described a collaborative effort in which there were few game-day surprises. Many situational plays were deliberated on and decided in advance. Given this description, I found it difficult to remove Kragthorpe from play-calling responsibility even if his offensive coordinator, Jeff Brohm, was calling all the plays — despite a rather clear attempt by Kragthorpe initially to separate himself from the play calling (“. . . as a guy who was not the lead play caller the past couple of years . . . “) Then I moved forward into the following line of questioning, trying to get at the question of how many plays were called by each . . .
Q: Do you know what kind of percentage you called last year?
A: Yeah, I think it depended from game to game. Afer the Kentucky game I felt like I had to get more involved in the offense in terms of the play calling. I just didn’t feel like we were quite as productive as we wanted to be as an entire offense, and that doesn’t just mean Jeff being the guy that was calling them, but I just felt like I needed to get more involved. So it would depend on game to game and situation to situation complexion of the game, things I felt like I had seen that would help in terms of attacking the defensive structures that we might be seeing. But it will be very cut and dried this year. I’ll be the point guy and so I’ll take all the blame.
Q: But you don’t know what percentage you called last year?
A: Not really. I mean, again, it varies from game to game. I’d say 80-20, with me being the 20. Overall.
Next came what I thought would be a revealing question. If we know what Kragthorpe didn’t like about last year’s offense, or what went wrong, the answer would give insight into how this year’s scheme might differ. It didn’t. The results . . .
Q: You’ve made this change. What, maybe, did you not like about last year’s offense?
A: That’s a very good question, Eric. I think
the biggest thing, again, going back to my offensive philosophy, we’ve got to do an excellent job of putting the ball in the hands of guys who can make plays for us, and do that in a variety of different ways where it makes us harder to defend. And so that’s something that I’m certainly cognizant of in terms of where we want to go, what we want to do. And we’ve got to find those guys. That’s what spring practice is all about. That’s what your practices before you play the first game are all about, is the opportunity to see guys that will make plays. We have a saying in our program, it’s “Show me.” That’s how I’ve always been. I always told the guys at Texas A&M when I was the offensive coordinator there and I was calling the plays, “Hey, if you want the ball, show me. Show me during the week of practice that you’re the guy that deserves to hve the ball when we tee this thing up on game day.”
Next came what I think is a key question. As a head coach who was hired on offensive reputation, how can the offenses not reflect what he wants them to reflect.
Q: You’ve talked about your offensive philosophy, and if it wasn’t reflected in your offense last season, why do you think that was?
A: Well one of the things I’ve always tried to do with a coordinator when I hire a coordinator, Eric, is I try to get him a chance to put his stamp on it, to do things the way that he would like that they be done. And so, I’ve done that wherever I’ve been, whether it was at Tulsa as a head coach or here at Louisville as a head coach. And so, I just like, again, if I was going to make a change that I needed to be the guy that was directing that, so that there would be no questions, so that there would be no ambiguity about how the offense was structured or who was calling the shots. I just thought that was the best thing to do, and to go ahead and throw it out there and prahse it that way.
I knew there would be a lot of talk about Brohm, and I expected Kragthorpe to go out of his way to say he wasn’t pinning anything on Brohm, which he did. But when you cut a guy loose, you’re pinning it on him, even if it’s just because you want to take over the play-calling. U of L had a head coach for four years, but still had a coordinator in the booth, if in name only. Kicking a guy off the staff is a dramatic action, and it speaks louder than words.
Rather, I wanted to use the opportunity to get some kind of discription of how things work, because it’s only through that kind of insight that any of us can understand what has gone on and how they might change. From time to time people ask how you decide what questions to ask, particularly at news conferences. A lot of times, people want the controversial, “60 Minutes” type questions. Those are good television, but they rarely produce useful answers in news conference settings. When you’re limited to a couple of questions (I was lucky to get these, plus one more, in yesterday), it can be tricky, and I sure haven’t mastered it.