Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: UVa's spread offense equals fresh thinking

College football preview


Gregg Brandon looks like college. Sounds like college. Probably smells like college, too, if you stand close enough to him.

This is the best thing about Virginia's offensive coordinator: He is entirely collegiate. Never spent a day on an NFL coaching staff, and you get the sense that this is the way he wants it. His spread system, developed alongside Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, is built for college.

The NFL wouldn't touch a scheme this wacky. Somebody tries the Wildcat up there, like the Dolphins did last year, and people are floored. My goodness! Where's the fullback?

Forget throwing a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks in there at the same time -- like Brandon is proposing this year with Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell -- and stringing a bunch of receivers to the sidelines while going no-huddle. That's something only a college would do.

"This offense sucks," says UVa defensive lineman Nate Collins. That's a college word -- sucks. But in this case, Collins means it in a good way.

"It sucks playing against," said Collins, who's been practicing against it since the spring. "Fast-tempo. They're running up to the line and sometimes when we're looking for our signal and before we even get the signal, we can hear the cadence going already."

So a college program is adopting a college offense. So what, right?

Here's what: It represents a monumental shift in Al Groh's thinking. And it's positively refreshing.

The UVa head coach has never seemed comfortable with the whole "college" thing. Just listen to him. He mentions his NFL coaching ties -- Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, et al. -- every chance he gets. Ask him about a stud player he's got now, and he's liable to make a reference to Lawrence Taylor, the Hall of Fame linebacker Groh coached as an assistant with the New York Giants.

For years, he trumpeted the UVa staff's many seasons of combined NFL experience (Groh has 13 himself). At first, this seemed like no big deal. Maybe even a good thing. But after a while, Groh sounded like a guy who felt like he belonged at a higher place, that he was too good to be coaching his alma mater.

But that's changing. Hiring Brandon and signing off on Hall as a quarterback -- who at 5-foot-9 would never take a snap in the NFL -- shows progress.

It shows that he's trying to win at this level however he can.

You know, like the other college coaches do.

Granted, the NFL rhetoric hasn't disappeared entirely. At media day, when somebody asked Groh about defensive back Chris Cook returning to the team after a one-year absence, the coach made an analogy to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. And when somebody asked him about Brandon's system, Groh downplayed the drastic change by saying he used the spread offense as the head coach of the Jets in the "Monday Night Miracle" of 2000.

That was an emergency-only moment, though. What Brandon brings is full time.

If you heard Alabama coach Nick Saban talking about the spread earlier this month, you'll know that the system disgusts NFL personnel people.

Saban said he had a 13-page letter in his office from an NFL general manager complaining that they couldn't evaluate spread quarterbacks. Spread quarterbacks, the letter argued, don't perform the same tasks as signal-callers in the league.

The proper response to this is, "Buzz off, NFL general manager, and take your 13-page letter with you."

For obvious reasons, the NFL wants college football to be its minor league. Groh long has been a good soldier when it comes to that, moving guys to positions where they best project at the next level. But this is supposed to be about winning now, even at the occasional expense of a player's draft position.

Brandon gets this. And it appears Groh does now, too.

Imagine that. College football has finally come to Charlottesville.

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