Imagine your Jonathan Smith, walking out of the huddle to the line of scrimmage with supreme confidence. Flanked out to your left is Chad Johnson, to your right is TJ Houshmanzadeth. Behind you is All American running back Ken Simonton. Your offensive line is no slouch either.
On the other side of the ball is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Maybe the most storied program in College Football. You’re playing in front of thousands in the Fiesta Bowl. Yet, you know that the Beavers are bigger, stronger and faster than the opposing hallowed Irish. Can you believe that? I still can’t after some 17 years later. But it’s true.
Now present day, this same walk-on kid-now-man is at the helm of an Oregon State team that has regressed since his days as overachieving quarterback. He will be on the recruiting trail, hold team meetings, walk-throughs, etc. before the 2018 season. He won’t see that same talent (yet) that surrounded him circa ‘99. He’ll run his fingers through his hair, wondering how in the heck to get his team back to that elite level. The answer: talent and time — the same recipe it took Dennis Erickson to go from the Hula Bowl to the Fiesta Bowl.
The reason we all think he can do it? Coach Smith is cerebral. He thinks ahead, he sees ahead, he visualizes the game in advance much like a better than average chess player. Hell, as a QB he threw guys open when they weren’t open at all. He made throws well before a wideouts break. He’d often heave a questionable ball that often worked, allowing his receivers to make a play. He takes risks, has guts, and has that unique quality of ‘mind speed’ -- where he can see it happening before it actually does.
What he lacked in physical stature, he made up for mentally. It’s no wonder he’s made the smooth transition into coaching. It’s allowed him to jump from promotion to promotion around the Pacific Northwest. It’s quite the story. From undersized and overachieving quarterback to an up-and-coming coach. The reason for his climb in the ranks, whether it be on a depth-chart or in the coaching ranks lies between his ears.
Looking at his last gig as Offensive Coordinator at rival Washington, I’ve dissected some youtube clips and have watched plenty of Husky football over the past two years. His offenses were prolific, thanks to superb skill players.
His offenses were based either out of two base formations -- Shotgun and a one-back set. Both utilized the spread. The shotgun sets often had Miles Gaskin lined up next to Jake Browning. A core function of their offense was the zone-read, where Browning had the option to give or keep. That being said, Coach Smith thrived with the tools of Browning. He was/is an underrated runner that could take off if he kept the ball. The current Beavers don’t have that threat. McMaryion was that guy, but that ship has sailed. I imagine Smith will want more of a mobile threat at QB, so it’s no guarantee that Jake Luton is the guy going forward.
Next, it was noticeable that Smith liked to utilize a bigger back in the ‘Gun, whether it was a fullback or tight end. I can envision lots of sets with Noah Togiai as a featured H-Back. If Nall returns, both Nall or Togiai might lineup along side the QB. The offense was potent in the fact that U Dub had two stellar receivers: Dante Pettis and John Ross.
Coach Niner will be hard on the recruiting trail, looking for two receivers like this. He’ll either have to develop Seth Collins a bit more, or hope Hodgins becomes a legit threat at wide out. Collins may get another look at QB being that he’s mobile and played some before. He will definitely (if healthy) be used in gadget plays as coach isn’t afraid of calling the double-pass play.
The play-calling was very balanced at Washington, roughly 50/50 run to pass. I do not envision this team leaning one way or the other. The run style at Washington will look similar to the Beavs glory days as it will feature a zone-blocking scheme that Riley used. Remember that ‘Quizz game versus USC? We can only hope that the offensive line is shored up. I’ve seen clips where Coach Smith utilized the fly-sweep with Ross and Pettis, what a beautiful sight reminiscent of the Rodgers brothers days. Expect that to be more prevalent as well, whether it be a decoy or actually handing it off.
The offense is big on the use of play-action, specifically from the Shotgun formation. Again, a lot of it is based off the zone-read. Browning would often stick it in Gaskin’s belly, take it out, then throw a quick slant to a WR or a delayed tight end who disguised himself as a blocker. Togiai could thrive in this sort of thing.
The style of offense seems to go off a silent count/cadence. The quarterback ‘claps’ the ball is snapped, and the ball is out of the QBs hands fairly quickly. The idea is to get skill positions in space. Also expect a lot of quick throws to the perimeter, in hopes that the Beavs can make people miss and get big chunk plays that way. One gift that Smith had at UW and hopes to have at OSU, is a quarterback who extended pass plays with his feet. Browning was a master at the broken play as he and his savvy receiving core could turn a wasted down into sandlot football.
The only obvious time his offense was stymied in the past couple years was against Alabama in the playoff matchup. The reason for this was ‘Bama’s defensive line was just too damn good, and only needed four to bring pressure. Without having to blitz, Browning couldn’t find anyone open. I recall Smith using delayed screens and draws to draw Bama in, then go over the top, using their speed against them. They took the lead early in that game. They flashed to him in the Press Box with his head set on, stoic and steadfast in his play-calling. At that moment I wanted Smith as head coach. That showed his coaching proficiency, that even out-manned, his mental acuity and scheme recognition was giving them a chance against a superior opponent.
All in all, lets keep our fingers crossed that he lands some talent in the off-season as he’ll need it (understatement of the year). I feel like this offense will look like the 2008 offensive scheme under Riley — zone blocking schemes, lots of screens, fly sweeps, and the Shotgun wrinkle with zone-read action. Those teams were fun to watch and I expect something eerily similar. Like Smith said in his presser, his schemes will predicate on the talent that’s there. If it’s Nall and a monster o-line, expect a run heavy team. If it’s two great wideouts and a mobile QB, expect more passing and quick perimeter throws. In reality it will fall somewhere in between, ala the Lyle Moevao days. One thing we know for certain, Coach Niner will have this team overachieving just like he’s done his whole career.