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In Theory: Shawn Watson's Offensive Philosophy

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The question on every Louisville fan's mind: What can we expect from Shawn Watson now that he's assumed offensive coordinator duties? Answer: I have no idea. I'm probably not even qualified to blog about football in the first place, but Rutherford's in North Carolina, so let's examine this issue anyways. 

Can we assume the scheme an offensive coordinator installed at one program will be carbon copied at his next? No guarantee. More importantly, the regular season is six weeks old. Not a great time to overhaul the X's and O's at any level, especially college football with student athletes and their classroom priorities. In theory. 

So we're not going to infer anything from the information below as fact or fiction but will present it as a peek inside Watson's recent philosophy as Nebraska's OC and label this entire premise as "maybe this is what we can expect".

Prior to the 2009 season, Lincoln Journal Star columnist Steve Sipple described Watson's offensive approach using the following verbiage:

The Huskers feature a passing attack with NFL user-friendly West Coast principles (and protections) combined with a multi-faceted running game that possesses elements of the spread, including the zone read.    

Ok, so what does that mean? Chris Brown, who runs the excellent blog Smart Football explains:

[Shawn Watson] is a West Coast offense guy (I have a clinic talk he gave recently on the passing game and building stretches in the passing game.)

So what he has likely done is take a pro style/west coast timing based pass game, but junked the Byzantine jargon NFL teams use to teach it, and pared the number of concepts down to a number manageable for college kids. (Hence the term "user friendly.")

The run game is just pro style inside zone and outside zone, but they can also get in the gun and have the QB do the zone read, which changes nothing for the offensive line than if they ran the same plays from a pro-style under center set with a tight end and fullback. 

So the idea seems to be that the run game is simple because they can show old school and new school with the same blocking for the offensive line, even if to fans (and opponents?) it looks different. 

And for the pass game it sounds like they are doing the kind of thing Norm Chow got famous doing: running a sophisticated, pro passing game tailored for college kids (Former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan forgot to do this latter part, forgetting that coaching is not what you know, but what your players do).

Unfortunately, marrying a west coast scheme with the spread offense didn't go over so well at Nebraska, which is why Watson started the 2011 season as quarterbacks coach at Louisville.  Ask a Husker fan their opinion of Watson now and you're likely to hear the same things Cards fans are saying about Mike Sanford. One particular critique posted in the comments section of Nebraska football blog Corn Nation, days after the Huskers had lost the 2010 Big 12 Championship Game to Oklahoma, struck a very familiar nerve:

My biggest gripe about Watson is his lack of ingenuity and creativity. He did not invent the wildcat, but sure does like to overuse it. How many times can he run the same play, over and over and over? I thought I was going to vomit the amount of times that he would run Martinez and Burkhead in shotgun, with the QB option. Seriously, if I can see it coming, so can the opposing DC. There were quite a few plays this year that I only saw once a game or once every few games, that worked well (i.e. the same shotgun formation, fake RB hand-off, bootleg pass to Reed). He does not keep defenses honest with his play calling style and seems to fall in love with certain plays.

by CCE718 on Dec 7, 2010 11:32 AM MST

Sound at all similar to recent play-calling woes at UofL? Well, it's not exactly apples and apples. Watson's offense averaged 31 points and 398 yards per game last season, so his criticism was about more than just points and production. It was points and production against elite teams like Texas and Oklahoma in big spots like Big 12 Championship Games. Something Louisville won't have to worry about for another 27 months, right? 

The next question on Louisville fans' minds: Is Watson the long-term answer at OC for Louisville? Will he be labeled "interim" OC or is this promotion more permanent? Therein lies the answer. Probably.

One other interesting comparison in Watson's last job is between his current boss, Charlie Strong and former boss, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. Both are defensive-minded coaches who made the jump from winning BCS championships as defensive coordinators in the SEC to their first head coaching jobs. Nobody questions Strong's defensive chops, but as a new head coach, would he benefit from an OC who has experience as an FBS head coach and can operate from that perspective in his duties? That's one of the assumptions I made with the Sanford OC hire but isn't necessarily true. 

Watson was a head coach in the mid-90s at Southern Illinois, a decent FCS football program, but struggled there and left after three years, posting an 11-22 overall record. It was his only head coaching opportunity. 

I'll leave you with a quote from Shawn Watson himself, as told to Steve Sipple:

Like any good play-caller, Watson has an answer, emphasizing that a fundamental tenet guides him: Your team better be able to run the ball well, period.

"You always have to remember who you are," he said. "And honestly, it starts with rushing the football. I'll argue with anybody who wants to argue that point. I know this: Championships are won by teams that rush the football. It opens up the passing game.

"That said, there have been years when I've had to use the passing game to set up the running game. But you still have to develop a run game. You absolutely have to garner that respect from the defense."

Fans will argue about how best to set up the running game with the current personnel. After averaging 18 points per game against a cupcake schedule--only three FBS teams have had easier schedules to date according to Jeff Sagarin's ratings--I'll be content seeing the offense look prepared to execute the plays and getting the ball into our playmakers' hands. He's had what, three days to prepare for this, right? No worries.