Coordinators answer some key topics around college football in this Q&A
Head coaches usually get the lion’s share of the credit when things go well (and the blame when they don’t), but coordinators are often the brains of the operation, charged with directing the team’s strategy on a play-to-play basis and reacting instantaneously to what the other team is doing. Athlon Sports gathered 15 of the nation’s best offensive and defensive play-callers and picked their sizable football brains on topics ranging from the nuts and bolts of their jobs to college football’s big-picture issues.
Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator, LSU
Mike DeBord, offensive coordinator, Indiana
Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, Miami (Fla.)
D.J. Eliot, defensive coordinator, Colorado
Danny Gonzales, defensive coordinator, Arizona State
Rob Likens, offensive coordinator, Arizona State
Brian Lindgren, offensive coordinator, Oregon State
Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator, Vanderbilt
Tee Martin, offensive coordinator, UCLA
Noel Mazzone, offensive coordinator, Arizona
Morgan Scalley, defensive coordinator, Utah
Bob Shoop, defensive coordinator, Mississippi State
Jake Spavital, offensive coordinator, West Virginia
Troy Taylor, offensive coordinator, Utah
Tim Tibesar, offensive coordinator, Oregon State
What is one rule you would like to see changed that would make your job easier?
Aranda: No official visits in the spring and summer. That’d be great. ... There are times where you’re doing your plan for the first game or you want to do a study on a team, and that kind of gets hampered because a kid’s coming down. That kind of gets disrupted.
Scalley: The rule that linemen can be three yards downfield and it still be an eligible pass. It makes the RPO stuff that much more of a problem for defensive coordinators. Ineligible men downfield makes the play-action pass game more manageable from a defensive perspective.
Shoop: One of the biggest issues in college football today is the length of the game and the number of snaps. To me, if we went more to the pro style of timing, where the clock was always running. The pro game, the average offense has between 55 and 65 plays. In college, it’s between 75 and 85. From a player-safety perspective and a length-of-game standpoint, I think we need to look at some of these things. And I think a simple way to do it is with the timing aspect. Keeping the clock running more.
Diaz: I want to see the targeting rule so it’s split into two. Like a Flagrant 1 and a Flagrant 2. So the real intent, the real launching intent, is punishable, whether you’re kicked out in the first half or the second half and miss part of the following game. But the more in-the-nature-of-the-game type thing is penalized differently.
Lindgren: Having the linemen be able to block a little more downfield on passes, in the RPO run game.
Ludwig: I would like more time to work with the players in the offseason.
Mazzone: The coach-to-quarterback communication. I’d like the NFL style where you have the phone going into the QBs helmet.
Martin: As a receivers coach and coordinator, I’d say the [pass] interference call. I think it should be a spot foul like in the NFL. If you pull my receiver down 50 yards down field it shouldn’t be a 15-yard penalty. It should be a 50-yard penalty.
Gonzales: Recruiting restrictions. There are so many rules you have to watch out for. There are so many nitpicking things going on -- you can say ‘Hi’ to a senior but you can’t say ‘Hi’ to a junior. You could eliminate so many rules that they can’t really keep tract of.
Likens: I think they are too stringent on the cut blocking rules. You used to be able to cut anywhere on the field. Now you can’t cut backside, you can’t cut kicking a guy out. You’ve got to be faced up on him, 10 and 2, all that stuff. I liked the old rules better.
Tibesar: I’d like to see them go back to where the offensive line can’t use their hands anymore. That would make my job easier. Back in the day, remember the offensive line had to block with their elbows out.
Who is the best opposing coordinator you have faced in your career?
Aranda: Lane Kiffin. I’ve lost to Lane multiple times. What makes him special is he looks at what plays hurt you, and he’s able to pull those out. And he has good timing for it. You have to do a real good job on your self-scout to get a good feeling for what he’s seeing and how he’s going to attack, because the self-scout is so much more important than the opponent scout when you’re playing him. So it’s a big challenge, and on top of that, he has a good feel for setting up stuff and calling stuff.
Eliot: Steve Spurrier. He just knew his system so well. Throughout the game, he’d figure out what you were doing and how to attack you.
Shoop: Hugh Freeze is a good play caller. Jim Chaney is a good play caller. I’ll go with Josh Heupel. I really respect the job that he did at Missouri the last two years.
DeBord: I always thought what Coach [Nick] Saban does defensively, no matter who his coordinator was at the time, when I was at Tennessee, it was Kirby [Smart], and I always thought that scheme was very good, kept you off balance. And then a scheme is sometimes only as good as the players, and they had great players who played exceptionally well within the scheme. I always thought he was hard to go against. I went against him when he was at Alabama and also when he was at Michigan State when I was at Michigan, so I had a lot of experience against him.
Diaz: I always thought Bobby Petrino did a great job with his offenses. Dan Enos did a great job at Arkansas. There’s been a bunch. Once you start thinking about one, you leave out some other guys. But some of those Petrino offenses at Louisville were really, really well put together.
Tibesar: Urban Meyer. He’s not really the coordinator, but I’ve had to face Coach Meyer at Ohio State three times and unfortunately haven’t been able to get a W on him yet.
Lindgren: There’s been a lot. I have a great deal of respect for Pete Kwiatkowski at Washington. Those guys have done a nice job against me in my career.
Mazzone: Oh my gosh... in 28 years of defensive coordinators. Everyone I can’t score points on! I always have thought [USC’s] Clancy Pendergast was tough. Jeremy Pruitt was tough at Alabama, but they also have some really good players over there. That helps. When I was at UCLA, [then-Stanford defensive coordinator] Derek Mason was a real tough one to go against.
Martin: Nick Saban and Kirby Smart at Alabama. They were just sound and didn’t make a lot of mistakes.
Gonzales: In my 20 years of coaching football, any time you go against a triple-option team -- Ken Niumatalolo at Navy -- on the chalkboard, you can’t beat them. They are going to have a free blocker every time. I think the triple option is the greatest offense ever invented. At a school like this, if you tried to run it, you’d never sell any tickets. I wouldn’t want to defend it every day in practice. When you get into the spread stuff, I think Mike Leach is as a good an offensive mind as there is.
Likens: [Former Oregon DC] Nick Aliotti. They had it rolling there a couple of years on defense. They were tough.
Scalley: The one who has given us the most fits is probably Rich Rod [former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez]. I assume he was heading up their offense, but they QB run game that he’s had -- he did such a great job with the run game. It was really good and caused us fits.
Spavital: That’s a tough one. I’d probably say Kirby Smart. I thought John Chavis, but he ended up working with me [at Texas A&M]. Will Muschamp did a good job.
Who is the best player you have faced?
Aranda: Lamar Jackson would be one. As a college football player, he’s a scary player. Braxton Miller would be up there, too, as far as being dominant in college. Lamar would do it more skill-based, where Braxton would have a little more grit to it. But both of those guys, when it came down to it, they wanted the ball in their hands.
Tibesar: Sam Bradford, the quarterback at Oklahoma when I was coaching at Kansas State. That offense they had was phenomenal.
Eliot: Dak Prescott. He could throw as well as any quarterback, could make decisions as well as any quarterback but also could run as well as any quarterback. He had accuracy, great decision making and was athletic.
Shoop: Michael Vick
Diaz: Probably RGIII his last year at Baylor. He had the ability to run and throw, and their ability to stretch the field. His skill set, he was a major problem.
DeBord: He wasn’t an opposing player and yet he was, in some ways, but going against Charles Woodson every day in practice at Michigan, I saw some of the most amazing plays ever by an individual. I really learned a lot by studying him every day, how he played the position. He wasn’t really an opponent, but yet he was because our offense had to go against the defense all the time. He was an exceptional player.
Lindgren: No. 94 at USC, [defensive tackle] Leonard Williams. I remember we had to make a bunch of protection adjustments for him. He created a lot of issues.
Ludwig: Joey Bosa at Ohio State. Great athleticism and a great motor. Excellent football player.
Mazzone: That kid at Tennessee [DE Derek Barnett]. Going up against UCLA in practice, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. The entire front seven at Alabama.
Martin: Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina. Him and [Georgia LB] Justin Houston.
Taylor: [Washington State DL] Hercules Mata'afa.
Likens: [Former Miami safety] Sean Taylor. When I was at Temple, he was at Miami, and he had my receivers scared to death.
Spavital: I’d want to say the entire Alabama defense. You can go Jonathan Allen. He was a freak. Minkah Fitzpatrick, he was phenomenal. I thought Cyrus Jones was phenomenal. I thought Ha-Ha Clinton Dix was phenomenal. If I had to choose, Jonathan Allen’s probably the best one. Robert Nkemdiche is another one who stands out.
Scalley: [Former USC WR] Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster. Or [former Oregon QB] Marcus Mariota.
How much communication during the game do you have with your head coach?
Aranda: We talk before the game about a plan and what we think is going to happen and what we think our answers will be, kind of in anticipation of what’s to come. And at halftime, we talk again with the defense. Those two times for sure, and during the game, if there’s a timeout, we’ll have a talk about what we’re doing and thinking, just to get on the same page.
Ludwig: We have very good communications in-game relating to situational football. It’s very good. Good communication.
Elliot: Quite a bit. We’re on the same page with the philosophy and situational football.
Spavital: Really not much. Dana [Holgorsen] has been really good on understanding, because he was a play-caller. And he didn’t like to get messed with when he was a play caller, so he tries to stay away from me as much as he can.
Tibesar: During the course of a game, there’s pretty limited communication. More so situational than down-to-down play calling. They’d be communicating with me: “Hey, the offense is going to go for it on fourth down, have the defense ready to go.”
Diaz: Mark [Richt] is busy with the whole offense, but he’s on our headset when we’re out on the field defensively, and he and I will have some conversations over the course of the game. Every now and then, he’ll ask me a question or so, but that’s probably the extent of it.
Lindgren: It will be a new experience for me working with [new Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith]. With Coach [Mike] MacIntyre at Colorado, he’d always been on with the offensive side. Most of the feedback and talking was in between series with him, giving his thoughts like, ‘Hey, we need to get this player involved some more.’ Or we need to attack this or that. We needed to get the ball down the field. There would be things of that nature.
Martin: Some. Clay [Helton], having been a former offensive coordinator, is over the headset some. I don’t like a lot of voices in my head. There are times I don’t even have the headset on and people may be talking and I don’t hear them because I need to be in my own head. Then there are times, at halftime or after a series, when I will listen to people. But then I got to get into my own thoughts. But Clay does talk, and he might have suggestions. There are times when he might call two or three plays a game, which is his right as the head coach. But we have a good chemistry.
Taylor: He is on the head set when we have the ball. Coach [Kyle Whittingham] will communicate if we will go for it or punt or kick a field goal. Information he gives is concise and pertinent. He allows me to focus and call the game. I love it.
Gonzales: With Rocky Long at San Diego State, he was on our headsets the whole time. I think it will be very similar with Herm Edwards. But Coach Edwards isn’t a micromanager. He lets people do their jobs. I think he’ll be on our headsets 90 percent of the game, but I invite and look forward to having him. The knowledge he has? You can’t replace that.
Likens: Every head coach is different. Some coaches stay on there and are like Keith Jackson, giving you a play-by-play on everything. Then some coaches don’t say a word to you until after the series is over. With Coach Herm, we’ve had discussions and he’s told me ‘The only thing I’ll ever say is ‘Go for it’ or ‘Let’s punt it’ or ‘I’ll talk to you between series.’
Scalley: Quite a bit because [Kyle Whittingham] is a defensive guy. and I like to pick his brain. He lets me be, he lets me call the game as I see fit, but I’d be an idiot if I didn’t utilize his experience.
What is the easiest position to recruit to?
Bob Shoop: Probably safety. There are a lot of high school DBs out there who think they are corners but a significant amount get moved to safety. And you can do a lot of different things with that body type -- the tall, athletic guys who are long corners who might not be able to make it at corner in college, you can move them to play safety. And then you can recruit some safety-types that you can move to linebacker against some spread offenses. You can find enough guys to handle it.
Mazzone: The easiest for me is quarterbacks. That’s because I know those guys, and I’ve got a good feel for them and I’ve had a chance to be around a lot of them. I kind of can talk the QB language.
Spavital: The easiest is receivers because we’ve put up a lot of numbers. It’s a very quarterback-, receiver-friendly offense, so that’s always encouraging. We had almost three 1,000-yard receivers last year, so the kids all believe that they can come in and be a 1,000-yard receiver.
Diaz: From an evaluation standpoint, it might be linebacker, just because they’re always going to be involved in whatever is going on in every play.
Elliot: On defense, the list where we have the most guys is inside linebacker.
Martin: At USC, in Southern California, it’s receivers and quarterbacks.
Scalley: To the University of Utah? Defensive tackle. We can get ‘em here at home or on the islands.
Gonzales: Running back. Usually it’s the best player on the team, the guy who you put the ball in his hands every time, so you get a chance to evaluate him. And those guys are so versatile -- you can recruit them and then they can play other positions. If he’s not good enough at running back, he can be a defensive back or a slot wide out.
What is the most difficult position to recruit to?
Aranda: Defensive backs can be hard to gauge whether the ball skills are there whether the toughness is there, whether they’ve got the length to play. The other one I would mention is linebacker because it’s such an instinctive position. Sometimes you can miss on the workout warrior guys that were all really fast at the 40, had a good vertical jump at your camp, but when it comes to the game, they have to be able to adjust with motion and fit versus this or that. There’s an instinct level that’s hard to measure. It’s almost like a quarterback.
Ludwig: The quarterback recruit is obviously the most critical, and getting the best guy, the ideal player for your university and your style of play is the biggest task in the recruiting process for us on offense.
Bob Shoop: I think everyone would say defensive line. In the SEC especially, it’s a line of scrimmage league. You need to have big-time D-linemen, and that’s not easy.
Diaz: Defensive back, at times, would be the most difficult, because it’s the hardest to find those guys on film, because they’re not challenged very often. A lot of times, they’re not even in the camera. And then conversely, defensive tackle is the hardest to recruit because there’s fewer of them than anybody in the country, so the physical recruiting of them is a challenge.
DeBord: One of the most difficult in today’s college football is the quarterback position. When I was at Michigan a long time ago, we had five guys on scholarship and a guy might only play a couple years, might only start a couple years, but he prepared the other three years. Whereas today, quarterbacks don’t want to sit too long. They want to play. So that’s become one of the toughest positions to now recruit.
Spavital: I’d probably say running backs are the hardest, just based off of how we’re kind of seen as a team that throws it around a little bit.
Lindgren: Offensive line. There’s a handful of guys who are no-brainers, who you can really see as really athletic and then there’s a big portion of guys who do some good things and you’re trying to determine how this guy is going to translate to the next level -- what is his upside going to look like. The really good offensive line coaches have a knack for that.
Tibesar: Defensive line. They are the hardest to find -- really big guys who can run. Everybody is looking for them and everybody is going after the same guys. It’s a harder body type to find.
Mazzone: Probably for me the most difficult is DBs. You know deep down in my heart I don’t really like those guys.
Martin: Offensive line.
Likens: Quarterback. When you recruit a quarterback, there’s only one guy who plays. There are so many things that go into his decision. They are fun guys to recruit because they know what they want, most of them, and they are pretty straight-forward. You don’t see a lot of hat-flipping going on by quarterbacks on Signing Day. They kind of know what they are looking for and when they see it, they go after it. That’s why you see them get committed early. But [recruiting QBs] is time-consuming.
Scalley: Cornerbacks. A majority of your high school players want to be on offense; they want to touch the ball. For our scheme, man-to-man coverage, you can’t miss on speed, and usually speed in high school is being played at wide receiver and running back, so you’re recruiting a kid who wants to play offense and you’re saying, ‘Hey, we see you as a secondary guy.’ And they say, ‘Hey, I think I can play offense.’
Gonzales: Offensive linemen are the hardest to recruit. It takes special evaluation to recruiting those guys successfully.
Do you script plays to start a game?
Ludwig: Yes. It’s a good, strong guideline that you draw from heavily in the first couple of series or the first quarter of the game, but you get off it if the opponent is throwing something a little different at you that you haven’t quite seen on tape. You have to make some adjustments.
Mazzone: No. I’ve got a call sheet of about 25 plays -- basically openers. I don’t script it; it’s just 25 plays.
Spavital: I script my first three to five.
Taylor: No. But I have an idea of early calls that I will use in every situation.
Likens: Yes, you try to. But obviously you can get off script. Some guys will change their lineup in a way you didn’t expect, and you have to come off [the script].
Lindgren: Yep. We script the first 12 and then go from there. In past years, I’ve scripted as many as 30. I’ll jump on it for situationals, third downs. It’s kind of a guideline.
DeBord: It’s usually 13. Pick the unlucky number and try to make it lucky. I have really varied through the years. Sometimes I would pick 10, sometimes I’d pick 12, sometimes I might as high as 15 or whatever. Just here at Indiana, we talked about it and one of the coaches says, ‘Hey, let’s take the unlucky number,’ so that’s what we do now.
How much collaboration during the week is there with your quarterback?
Ludwig: A lot. We have extensive collaboration with the quarterback.
Mazzone: I started this with Philip Rivers [at NC State]. I’d have a game plan on the white board and Phillip would come in on Wednesday after class and without me in the room, he’d rank the plays in the game plan -- one he loved and 10 he hated. Anything over about a 6, I took out of the game plan, unless I really loved it. Obviously I knew better than he did.
Martin: It’s very important. When I was a player, my communication with the coordinator was vital. Having that trust, that bond, that understanding of the expectations of the play. I meet with the quarterbacks on Thursdays and sometimes on Fridays to hear what they like, what they don’t like and what they are comfortable with. Not only that, what they like called more. Sometimes you feel like you’re calling something a lot but then your quarterback is like, “Coach, I want more of that.’
DeBord: I talk with Nick Sheridan, our quarterback coach, about the things that players liked and quarterbacks liked, and then I also talk to the quarterbacks. I’ll say, ‘Is there anything you don’t like? What do you like better?’ I feel like it’s very important to have a great relationship with the quarterback so when you call a play, he loves that play and he’s not thinking, ‘Oh, no, not that one.’ I think it’s very important.
Taylor: A lot. I want the QB to have the same understanding of our opponent and game plan as I do.
Spavital: A lot. I do a lot of the game-planning with the staff on Monday and Tuesday, and [the quarterback] will bring in more open-field ideas to me, like anything he sees that he’s comfortable with. I like to implement those in the game plan. And then later in the week, around Thursday, we go through the third-down list of what he’s comfortable with and what he enjoys the most. Really all situations: red zone, score zone, goal line, third downs, and just get what he’s comfortable with so I collaborate a lot with them. I’m big on making sure that quarterback is as comfortable as possible.
Likens: A lot. More than what you think. I’m not going to call a play he doesn’t feel comfortable with just because it looks good on the board. I’d rather call a play twice that he likes than call another one he’s iffy on.
How many different plays on offense do you install do you have for a game week?
Ludwig: We carry approximately 80 to 90 plays per game. It’s about the same throughout the season. Maybe a little less at the beginning of the year, a little more at the end.
Mazzone: I’m going to say the max number of plays on the sheet -- that includes red zone, third down, goal line, all that -- is somewhere around 38 to 45 plays. We’re not a big scheme offense as far as having different schemes for every game plan. We’re more don’t change the play but change the presentation.
Lindgren: I would say... 70 to 80. Maybe a little less, 60-70.
Spavital: We typically go in, probably overall, depending on who we’re playing, anywhere from 75 to 100. It’s a lot. You have a lot of those trick plays and special-situation plays that carry over week to week. I typically go in with around 30-35 open-field plays, and then you end up getting about five plays for every situation.
Martin: We’re well over 100. Now, with Sam [Darnold], we were really extensive. But well over 100.
Taylor: We have a few new wrinkles each week. I really believe in running our concepts that we have practices throughout the year. But we will disguise those concepts by mixing up the personnel and formation and shifts and motions that we use.
Likens: I would like to have three major runs, two auxiliary runs, three progression reads. You’ll have basically two quick game passes. And probably two half-field concepts. I’m not keeping count? Are you keeping count? You’re probably going to take two bootlegs. Two play actions. Probably, at the most, you’ll run three trick plays but usually two.
Would you rather face an elite drop back passer who can’t run or a mobile QB who struggles to throw the ball?
Aranda: Mobile quarterback. You can be a great mobile quarterback, but there’s an element of team defense that you can implement to defend that. Whereas, if you’ve got a quarterback who can see pressure and he sees the tilt of the defense and he knows what the coverage is and he’s throwing guys open, it’s like, what can we do? It’s almost a helpless feeling that comes with it.
Elliot: That’s tough because both can really hurt you. I’d rather face the drop-back passer. There are so many plays an athletic quarterback can make that you can’t account for. When you play the drop-back passer, he may be able to throw the ball on a dime but at least you can prepare for it. With an athletic quarterback, it comes down to can your person tackle him or not.
Diaz: I’d rather go against a mobile quarterback who struggles to throw. There’s no defense for the perfectly thrown pass.
Tibesar: A mobile quarterback who struggles to throw the ball. You can always put more guys in the box.
Shoop: Elite drop-back passer who can’t run. Every day. No question.
Gonzales: I would much rather go against a pocket passer, an elite quarterback who cannot scramble. We can design a bunch of defenses to get pressure on a quarterback, and we can cover them just long enough to get to him, so he’s going to be like a sitting duck back there. An elite mobile guy? Those guys are scary. You miss one tackle and -- like Arizona’s Khalil Tate -- he’s going to take it 80 yards for a touchdown.
Scalley: I’d rather face a mobile quarterback who struggles to throw the ball. You can commit to the box, and I feel that we have good enough corners that we can play man-to-man coverage and commit an extra guy to the box. If I were on a team that didn’t have confidence in their corners, maybe not. But the mobile QB, you just treat him as an extra back and you commit guys to the box and knock out the run. Whereas an elite passer, if he can fit things into tight windows, he just gives you problems. You look at the NFL, the majority of guys are elite passers.
Do you think defenses are catching up to the spread or Air Raid-type offenses?
Elliot: I think so. We definitely know how to defend it better than when it first came out. The game of football goes in cycles. However many years you want to go, one offensive scheme is popular then we figure out how to stop it and then they go back to the old scheme. Defenses are better against the spread now.
Shoop: Yes and no. I think if you asked an offensive coordinator the question, they would say that it doesn’t matter what the defense does because the theory behind the RPO and the spread offense now is two-fold: One, we have so many options within the framework of a single snap, whatever you do we are going to be in the right play. If you rotate a safety down to stop the run, there is a built in pass to beat that situation. If you keep two high safeties to depend the pass, then we will run the ball. Defensive coordinators know what the plays are and have a decent idea how to defense them, but you have to make the decision to make a team beat you a certain way. Make them beat you by throwing the ball or make them beat you by throwing the ball. And if they are still good enough to beat you that way, then they are going to win. Five or six years ago, it was like ‘What are they doing.’ Now it’s like ‘I know what they are doing and here is what we are going to try to do to stop it.’
Gonzales: Yes and no. You’ve got to give 90 percent of the credit [for innovation] to high school football coaches. Any new things in football come from high school football. They have to come up with so many fancy ways to be innovative on offense because they don’t get to recruit. The spread, which was designed in high school, was almost impossible to stop. But I give Coach Long credit: What we did against the spread -- and we’re going to implement it here -- the last few years is as good as anybody in the country.
Scalley: Yeah. I think there is progress every year. Whether or not you can say we’ve effectively stopped every spread offense, you can’t say that. I do believe teams have gotten more equipped. Recruiting changes. I think you’ll see this happen now that you’re recruiting more mobile backers, maybe lighter defensive linemen. Now you’re going to get teams like Stanford, that just pack the box and say, ‘OK, just go ahead and use your light linebackers and your light D-line and we’ll pound the rock on you.’ It seems to be cyclical that way. But I don’t see [spread offenses] going away anytime soon, but teams have gotten better at knowing what are the weaknesses of a defense when facing a spread offense.
Diaz: There’s always a constant push-pull with offense and defense. I don’t think anybody’s ever gotten so far ahead or so far behind. Just the actual snaps over the course of the game has led to fact that there’s more yards and more points. If baseball went to 11 innings, I’d be surprised if runs and home runs and all that didn’t go up. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to where we were, where a 300-yard day was a breakthrough for the offense. Youre seeing the evolution of the trends come and go much faster, so something will come about and you’ll see one team do it, and suddenly it will be everywhere, and as quick as it’s here, it’s gone. The trends of the game are moving very fast right now because everybody’s got access to all the video and the information.