CHICAGO — They first met at the Chip and Zip golf tournament — a charity event in Maine for one their mentor’s childhood buddies.
You wonder if Scott Frost and Ryan Day guessed at the time they’d soon be two of the fastest-rising coaches in college football, each leading blue-blood programs in the same conference, each owing a part of their rise to the king of the no-huddle, up-tempo spread offense: Chip Kelly.
Day played quarterback for Kelly, now the coach at UCLA, at New Hampshire. Frost coached under Kelly at Oregon for four seasons. Later, Day worked under Kelly for the Eagles and 49ers in the NFL.
Frost can look at Day’s offense and see some of his own. The reverse is also true.
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“I think his roots are in Chip’s offense, same as ours,” Frost said at Big Ten media days. “Now ours has evolved a lot, his has evolved a lot — sometimes in the same direction, sometimes in a different direction — but you can definitely see the nuts and bolts of it coming from the same place. You trace both of those back to Chip.”
Said Day: “He’s like a father, brother, uncle to me. Known him since I’ve been 6 years old, spent some time with him again this summer. He’s meant everything to me in my career. He got me going.”
Day had other influences — Urban Meyer, for example. Frost had Tom Osborne and Mike Tomlin in the NFL. But it’s Kelly who put both of the right side of college football’s future with an offense that spreads defenses sideline-to-sideline, then creates big plays in the gaps that are created because of it.
Day’s offense at Ohio State did a lot of its damage through the air last season. Frost’s offenses at Oregon, Central Florida and Nebraska offer balanced carnage but are generally efficient on the ground.
Either way, they’ve produced big plays and helped reshape the landscape of the sport in the past decade. OSU quarterbacks — mostly Dwayne Haskins — tossed 51 touchdowns last season. That’s 23 more than any other Big Ten team.
“Those first couple years at Oregon, everybody was running old-school, pro-style offense under center, and people had no idea how to stop some of the things we were doing,” Frost said, describing the shift from a league dominated by Southern California to one run by the Ducks. “It’s hard to find a college football team now that doesn’t run that stuff.”
Including The Team Up North.
Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh wasn’t exactly an atheist on the zone-read or spread offense. He ran elements of it with Andrew Luck at Stanford and Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers.
But since he’d taken the job in Ann Arbor, it’d be fair to say Harbaugh believed — falsely as it turned out — he could load up on jumbo sets and power football and snatch the league from Meyer. In his first three years at Michigan, Wolverine quarterbacks had, by my count, 68 total yards rushing.
Michigan’s offense looked a lot like Wisconsin or Iowa. Methodical. Built around the running back and play-action pass. West Coast offense stuff.
In 2017, Michigan’s offense fell apart, averaging 5.18 yards per play. That’s about what 2009 Nebraska averaged. Michigan looked about as ugly averaging it, too.
With quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey, Harbaugh began to shift last season. Now he’s hired offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who is charged with running an up-tempo spread. He comes from Alabama, where quarterbacks threw 52 touchdowns last season. Video game stuff. The highest total since 2011.
“That’s the kind of systems that they are used to and come out of high school playing,” Harbaugh said. “And you could say that for most all quarterbacks now that are playing high school football, that’s really the trend there.”
He added that Gattis understands the “RPO” trend, too. Kelly probably isn’t the sole pioneer of those, but Frost in particular has taken the concept to high art.
The baseline run-pass option play might be a zone-read packaged with a slant pattern, in which the quarterback chooses based on what a linebacker does. Frost seems to have multiple passing options — plus two run options — on some of his RPOs. He busted one out at Ohio State — the long pass from Adrian Martinez to Austin Allen — that so long as Martinez got good protection, put the defense in an unwinnable spot.
It’s become harder, Frost said, for innovations to last more than a week in the sport. He’s seen the plays he draws up copied within a week. And he’s seen his concepts trickle down to all of the best high school teams and quarterbacks — that’s one reason why Harbaugh’s changing — and trickle up to the NFL.
The last two No. 1 NFL draft picks have been Oklahoma quarterbacks. One of them, Kyler Murray, is 5-foot-10. It was unheard of, a guy that short, going No. 1. Until now.
“A long time ago, football ideas often came down from the NFL through college to high school,” Frost said. “It’s just my opinion but, the last several years, it’s gone upstream to college to the NFL. You’ve see some of the unbelievable things — like the Chiefs and the Eagles and Bears — that people are doing that have their roots in college football.”
It’s fun to be on the right side of the future.
A school like Nebraska also has to be.
I recall a conversation with Penn State coach James Franklin in 2017 about the challenges of pro-style offenses. Franklin had tried pro-style for his first two seasons at Penn State with quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
The Nittany Lions averaged 20.6 and 23.2 points per game, respectively. So Franklin hired spread guru Joe Moorhead, who has since become the coach at Mississippi State.
PSU averaged 37.6 points in 2016 — won a Big Ten title — and 41.1 in 2017. Those teams won 22 games. Wise move, huh?
“I love the pro-style offense — what we ran in Green Bay, what we ran when we were at Kansas State, what we ran when I was at Maryland,” Franklin said in 2017. “But the reality is, it’s a great offense if you’re good up front and you’re good at tight end. That offense is dependent on being good up front.”
Frost’s system allows for a younger offensive line, or even a young quarterback, because he can create plays that rely more on design than five-star linemen who often stay out west or in the SEC.
If NU lands more Bryce Benharts and Turner Corcorans, all the better. But in Frost’s seven years at Oregon, four offensive linemen were drafted. Central Florida hasn’t had a lineman off the 2016 or 2017 offenses drafted, either.
Yes, Iowa and Wisconsin have had plenty of success against Nebraska with their old-school plows. But Oregon and UCF have had more success than Iowa and Wisconsin.
Over five years, Ohio State has had more success than any school not named Clemson and Alabama. Which makes Day’s presence there — even in the wake of Meyer’s retirement — a little scary for the rest of the Big Ten. There’s a chance the first-time head coach isn’t up to the significant task of succeeding Meyer. There’s a chance he is, though, with an offense that fits the future of the sport.
If so, look out — because the Buckeyes can get five-star recruits. At any position.