Commentary

Various factors go into possible system change

Originally Published: August 1, 2007
By Jim Donnan | ESPN.com

Every football coach has his own philosophy on all phases of the game. Players come and go but most coaches usually don't make radical system changes.

Jamelle Holieway
John W. McDonough/Icon SMIQuarterback Jamelle Holieway led Oklahoma to a National Championship in 1985.

I always felt that I needed to establish my offensive and defensive schemes based on what it would take to beat the top teams in my league. Obviously, talent and the recruitment of players who fit those needs play the most prominent role, as do preparation, teaching, weight training and physical conditioning.

When a new coach takes over a program, he must decide if he'll adjust the offensive system to the quarterback's strengths and weaknesses.

These assessments, however, aren't made in a vacuum. You first must evaluate the strengths of the defense and kicking game, then the skill players on offense and finally the ability of the offensive line to run and pass block.

If you have a really good defense and a really good kicking game, you have a tendency to, as you're setting up your offense, be a little more conservative, especially if you're breaking in a new player. But that also depends on the level of your skill players.

If you don't turn the ball over and give the ball to the other team in easy field position, your offense can play around your defense. But if your defense gives up a lot of points and a lot of big plays, then you've got to set up your offense with more risk taking.

In setting up any offense, you always look at your passing game and how you're going to launch the ball because if you can't protect the passer you have no shot. If you have good one-on-one blockers and one-on-one pass protectors, then you can utilize more people in the routes.

There's always going to be a certain amount of leeway on both sides of the ball, but the bottom line is I'm always going to look first at how good my defense is.

As for the quarterback himself, I'm not too big on experience compared to talent, but you must factor in the QB's maturity and athleticism.

Chad Pennington
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesQuarterback Chad Pennington fit right into the Marshall system.

Certainly you would want an experienced guy because he's had the practices, but even beyond the practices is the meeting time. The guy has been on the trips and he's done the preparation -- that's invaluable. At the same time, when it gets down to the kind of athletes you play in the SEC, Big Ten or Big 12, a guy has to have the physical ability regardless of what kind of decision-maker he is.

A good example is Georgia's Matthew Stafford last season. He made some early-season mistakes and turnovers but it was obvious he had the talent and as he got more experience, he took over the job because of his physical ability. A lot of times I'm going to err on the side of letting the guy make a few more mistakes because of what he can do to help you win.

Jamelle Holieway took our team to the national championship in 1985 at Oklahoma and Chad Pennington took my Marshall squad to the final game for the I-AA championship. Both of those guys were true freshmen! Our systems were flexible enough to utilize our existing personnel and blend in the young quarterbacks' abilities.

At Oklahoma, it was really a backup system that Holieway ran because we had made the move earlier toward emphasizing more of a passing game with Troy Aikman and tight end Keith Jackson. We ran some option with Troy, but when he broke his leg we went back to the pure wishbone with Holieway.

Pennington was recruited to fit our system -- the one-back offense -- at Marshall. But we didn't know Pennington would be called upon so quickly to be our starting quarterback after Larry Harris tore up his knee in the second game.

No matter what style of quarterback is under center, your best chance of winning comes from having a good audible attack, having an insurance plan for injuries and preparing your players for every situation in practice.

Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.

Jim Donnan

College Football
Jim Donnan was the head coach at Georgia and Marshall and is an ESPN college football analyst.