By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: This column was originally published on Oct. 18, 2010 in the College Sporting News and is part of a feature that we hope will be a popular one with our new readers at College Sports Journal. It is called FCS Classic and will feature articles from David Coulson, Chuck Burton and others that give you a historical perspective of the earlier days of I-AA and FCS.
BOONE, N.C. — In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. Solomon wasn’t talking about evolution of football strategy, but he could have been.
Which brings us to Saturday night’s 39-10 Appalachian State victory over The Citadel before 29,519 fans at Kidd Brewer Stadium.
In winning their 24th consecutive Southern Conference game game, the Mountaineers got a dress rehearsal for playing assignment football on defense against the Bulldogs’ fledgling option attack and showed some interesting offensive wrinkles of their own as the SoCon continued its interesting trip back to the future.
ASU, which improved to 6-0 for the first time since its 12-0 start in 1995, used its preparation week for The Citadel to reacquaint itself with defending the option, knowing that while the Bulldogs didn’t present the most explosive attack, they did provide a lab experiment for what the Mountaineers will face when they meet Georgia Southern in three weeks and Wofford the following week.
THE ROOTS OF THE OPTION
The option and Southern Conference football had been joined at the hips for years, with the development of this offensive innovation actually starting before two current members were even in the league.
The under-appreciated father of SoCon option football is Jim Brakefield, who spent a head coaching stint at his alma mater Wofford before moving to Appalachian State from 1971-1979.
“Brakefield ran the option better than anyone at that time,” said Steve Brown, the starting quarterback at ASU from 1978-80 and the current color man for Mountaineer radio broadcasts.
Brakefield’s humble influence was felt throughout the south and still can be seen today throughout most of the Southern Conference. He impacted such legendary coaches such as Bear Bryant at Alabama and Erk Russell at Georgia Southern.
The main protege of Brakefield was Fisher DeBerry, who became such a respected offensive coordinator at ASU that he was soon giving clinics around the country. DeBerry developed such a friendship with Air Force coach Ken Hatfield that DeBerry replaced Hatfield when Hatfield moved to Arkansas.
Hatfield eventually hired an assistant named Jerry Moore at Arkansas, who added his option influences as the one-time Nebraska offensive coordinator and head coaching stops at North Texas and Texas Tech to that original Brakefield wishbone DNA.
DeBerry’s success with the option at Air Force was a much-copied recipe for military schools such as Army, Navy, Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel.
The Citadel rode the wishbone to the heights of a No. 1 regular-season ranking in I-AA football in 1992 under coach Charlie Taaffe, winning a SoCon title and stunning I-A schools from Arkansas and South Carolina.
Furman started building itself into a Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse under coach Art Baker with the I-formation power option as its centerpiece. Coaches like Dick Sheridan, Jimmy Satterfield and Bobby Johnson furthered that development.
When Georgia Southern started to build its football program from scratch in the early 1980s, the defensive-minded Russell decided that an option-based offensive system was what was needed to make the Eagles successful.
Russell recruited a young assistant named Paul Johnson, who had grown up in the shadow of Appalachian State as a schoolboy sports star at Avery High in nearby Newland, N.C. before going to Western Carolina on a basketball scholarship.
Johnson developed the double wing option, a wishbone hybrid, and helped the Eagles to six national championships as an assistant and later as the head coach of the GSU program. He has moved on to tremendous success at Navy and Georgia Tech and is considered by many peers to be one of the best coaches in the business at making in-game adjustments.
Another Brakefield assistant, Buddy Sasser, took his knowledge of the wishbone to East Tennessee State, where a young assistant named Mike Ayers came under his influence. Ayers spent three years as a Sasser assistant before taking over the East Tennessee State program from 1983-87.
When Ayers moved to Wofford in 1988, he took his version of the option, a double wing set he called the wingbone, to the Terriers. He also utilized elements of the Delaware Wing-T, popularized by such coaches as Blue Hen hall-of-famer Tubby Raymond.
Ayers has built the smallest-enrollement school in Division I football into one of the best coached teams in America, with two league titles and playoff appearances in 2003, 2007 and 2008.
And, of course, Appalachian State became heavy on the Nebraska power I option when Moore arrived on campus in 1989
SEEDS OF CHANGE
Ironically, it was the military schools, VMI and The Citadel, that first moved away from the option in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Don Powers began to switch the Bulldogs to a more conventional attack when he took over for Taaffe, while the Keydets began their transition slowly under Bill Stewart and then became more pass-oriented with Cal McCombs.
Personnel played a bigger role to changes at Appalachian State and Furman.
ASU had to adapt to the strong-armed, but slow-footed Joe Burchette as the new decade unfolded after first discovering the benefits of the forward pass with Bake Baker a few years before.
Furman couldn’t neglect the passing game when Billy Napier and Ingle Martin took hold of starting QB jobs.
Neither of these teams completely disavowed the option, but it was something that definitely took up fewer places on each week’s game plan.
Ironically, it was Appalachian State forced the next set of changes in offensive philosophy.
MEET THE SPREAD
When Richie Williams grabbed the controls of the Mountaineers fulltime in 2003, ASU had another quarterback who was capable of being both a running and throwing threat.
Appalachian State continued to dabble with both the power option and the passing game when Williams was a sophomore, but when the Mountaineers narrowly missed the playoffs in 2003, they looked for ways to expand their offense.
During the off-season, ASU coaches began to examine trends that were going on at Bowling Green under Urban Meyer and West Virginia with Rich Rodriguez.
Both of these programs were using systems that would become know as the spread.
The spread was an ultimate hybrid. It took elements of the old single wing formation and added some Houston veer option from Bill Yeoman, a dash of Mouse Davis run and shoot and then sprinkled in some of the philosophies of Paul Johnson’s double wing option.
This new offense did several important things. It made it more difficult for defensive teams to load up the box to support the run, while making the pass more of a threat in an option-based system.
The spread also brought some interesting layers of deception back into offensive football and created and X’s and O’s guru’s dream of multiple formations and creative looks.
Appalachian State initially tried the spread during spring 2004 practice as an alternate look from the I formation, a way to change the pace of the game and give defensive coordinators something more to prepare for.
But by the start of the 2004 season, Moore and his assistants had decided that they would junk the I and dive whole-heartedly into the spread. There were growing pains that first year, as ASU fell to 6-5 overall and struggled to get the running attack untracked.
The Mountaineer offense proved to be one of the most dangerous in the country, with College Sporting News national player of the year DaVon Fowlkes smashing all sorts of records as a receiver and returnman.
But a number of key defensive injuries derailed Appalachian State and the coaching staff saw the need to address the running game as a way of shortening and controlling games.
THE NEXT STEP
Sophomore running back Kevin Richardson solved that problem the next season in 2005, giving balance to the talents of Williams and forcing opponents to play the Mountaineers more honestly.
The read option/zone play became a staple in the App State offense, with Williams either keeping the ball, or handing to the equally dangerous Richardson.
The next thing the FCS world knew, ASU was hoisting three national championship banners and had unleashed quarterback Armanti Edwards on the country.
Even the BCS-No. 5-ranked Michigan, with its NFL-caliber roster, was not immune to the power of the spread. When ASU beat the Wolverines 34-32 in the opening weekend of the 2007 season, the whole football world took notice.
The only thing that seemed to slow the Mountaineers down was the health of Edwards, as teams began to target him for hits as a way of neutralizing his vast talents.
If teams couldn’t beat Appalachian State, maybe they could join them.
EVERYONE DOES THE SPREAD
By the end of the decade, nearly every team in the country was instituting some form of the spread at least part time, except for a few dinosaurs like Wofford.
The most shocking change was at Georgia Southern, where the Eagles fired Mike Sewak in 2005 and dumped their double wing option in favor of Brian VanGorder’s more pro-styled sets.
A year after that, VanGorder had turned that 9-4 2005 playoff team into a 4-7 squad in 2006. The biggest mystery was how VanGorder moved future Payton Award winner Jayson Foster from quarterback to wide receiver, pretty much wasting the abilities of perhaps the most dangerous player in FCS at the time.
Georgia Southern gratefully lost VanGorder back to the NFL the next season. New coach Chris Hatcher brought the Hal Mumme-designed Air Raid attack from Valdosta State to Statesboro, GA. in 2007 and moved Foster back to quarterback.
The Eagles had modest, but erratic success under Hatcher before deciding to bring their traditional option back this year.
The Citadel became the next team to return to its roots this season when Kevin Higgins switched from the spread to an option attack that is similar to both Wofford’s and Georgia Southern’s.
THE IMPACT OF THESE CHANGES
So with a full third of the Southern Conference going back to more traditional-looking option approaches, the element of diversity for a school such as Wofford has been lessened.
You would have to think that three solid weeks of practice against true triple-option teams will make it easier for Appalachian State to defend.
If the win over The Citadel was any indication, the Mountaineers should be primed for those showdown games against Georgia Southern and Wofford next month.
ASU limited the Bulldogs to 197 yards rushing, 10 first downs and 3.7 yards per carry. And for the first time in Mountaineer history, an opponent failed to gain any yards passing.
The Citadel was 0-of-6 passing, with ASU free safety Mark LeGree coming away with his 21st career interception. The previous low passing figure in an ASU game was when Western Carolina completed 1-of-11 passes for three yards on Sept. 25, 1965 — a game the Mountaineers ironically lost, 7-0.
“It was frustrating during practice,” LeGree said. “We kept seeing the same stuff all week.”
But that frustration bore fruit during the game.
“It is just about memory and being disciplined, because after awhile, you are eventually going to make a mistake,” LeGree added. “But since we practiced so much, we did really well today. We didn’t have too many big plays and we just played well.”
And in LeGree’s mind, all of this practice will make perfect when the Mountaineers face bigger option tests.
“It is a lot easier to prepare for Wofford and Georgia Southern,” said the three-time Buck Buchanan Award finalist.