Rich Rodriguez hasn’t been a coordinator in nearly two decades, dating back to being the offensive coordinator at Clemson from 1999-2000.vHe was the youngest head coach in college football when he was named the head man at Salem College in 1988 at just 24 years old.
“I was the youngest to get fired at 25 the next year when the school decided to drop the football program,” Rodriguez quipped at his introductory press conference on Wednesday.
With all that said, this is relatively unfamiliar territory for a man that spent the last year out of coaching after an unexpected and abrupt exit from Arizona in 2017. On Wednesday, he spoke like a man eager to get back into the game after a tumultuous year away from it, one he described as “a nightmare in a lot of ways.”
His return sees him join a staff that features a young head coach in Matt Luke and, much like himself, a veteran coordinator on the defensive side of the ball in Mike MacIntyre, who he faced for five years from 2012-2017 when MacIntyre was the head coach at Colorado.
“When I was an assistant for four years at Tulane and Clemson I really enjoyed it,” Rodriguez said. “It was some of the most enjoyable time of my life. Maybe as a former head coach I can give Matt and the program a kind of a world view of everything and I’m sure Mike MacIntyre can as well. I have a role and because of the respect I have for Matt, Ross (Bjork), and the department I don’t think that will be difficult.”
In some ways, being a coordinator takes Rodriguez back to his roots. It relieves him of a lot of the administrative and off-the-field responsibilities that come with running a major college football program and will allow him to solely focus on running his offense, a scheme and philosophy that helped him soar up the coaching ranks and become known as a pioneer of spread-option in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Over the course of the last two decades, he’s his offenses have been captained by the likes of Shaun King at Tulane, to Pat White at West Virginia, to Denard Robinson at Michigan and Khalil Tate at Arizona.
One doesn’t have to look far to find traces of Rodriguez’s success and offensive philosophy being used elsewhere in the college game. Just glance 230 miles southwest of Oxford in Lorman, Mississippi, where Alcorn State is coming off a SWAC Championship with former Mountaineer lineman Ryan Stanchek as the offensive coordinator and Pat White as quarterbacks coach.
“It is numbers, angles and grass,” Stanchek said describing Rodriguez’ system. “Where do you have numbers? Where can you get angles with your offensive line and skill guys? You are usually going to run towards grass and throw towards grass because the sideline is another defender. I think that has been the premise of his offense for a long time and it has certainly been successful.”
Numbers, angles and grass, what does all of that that entail exactly? Shanchek — who is in his fifth season at Alcorn and just finishes his first as the Braves’ offensive coordinator — equated it to simple division at its core.
“It is almost like old backyard football,” Stanchek said. “If you split the center in half and there’s five people on one side of the center, then there are six on the other side of the center, you are going to roll the dice and go towards the five-man side. We are going to formate you and then where do we have numbers that. Do they bring that safety over? Or do they leave him backside. That is the numbers side of things.”
Rodriguez was utilizing the run-pass option concepts that dominate college football today over a decade ago, with a shotgun handoff option and a bubble screen on the perimeter. It’s since been duplicated and tweaked by many, as well as becoming more nuanced, but he was one of the first to use it.
The same is true with tempo.
“He was one of the first guys to have a tempo menu,” Stanchek said. “Now, most people in the country have some form of a tempo menu. He was one of the innovators of that. Switching up tempo is very important and he has done a great job of that.””
Rodriguez was named head coach at Glennville State in 1990, inheriting a program that was winless the previous season and put the ball in the end zone only a handful of times. He knew he had to do something different, so he ramped up the pace of play.
“At the time I thought it was the two-minute drill,” Rodriguez said. “I said ‘alright, we are going to run the two-minute drill the whole game.’ We put this in there and it evolved into the zone read and some other stuff. It didn’t really get too much attention until we were over at Tulane where a few games were on television and then more at Clemson and West Virginia. It has evolved from college and now the NFL so it has gotten more attention. There are no patents on schemes. Nobody has all of the answers. But for me, at least I am comfortable in that world. To me it is comfortable because it’s all I’ve done for 20 years.”
White knows Rodriguez’ system all too well. He was one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football from 2005-2008. He held the FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 4,480 for his career (later broken by Robinson when Rodriguez was at Michigan). White accounted for over 100 touchdowns in his career, threw for 5,576 yards in his career won 35 games.
“Play specifics,” White said. “Do I have the numbers? My box count. Can my lineman block the guy? Reach him or cut him off? To put it simply: find space. Go where the defenders aren’t.”
Rodriguez is famous for the number of dynamic, dual-threat quarterbacks he’s used to steer his high-octane system, and rightfully so. Stanchek says the common thread with every defensive coordinator he talks to regarding difficulty in scheming for Rodriguez system is quarterback mobility.
“You can put on a board who has what gap, but you can’t account for the mobility of the quarterback in the running game,” Stanchek said. “You obviously don’t want to do a ton of that, but do it when you need it and that is where he’s has been tremendous over the years.”
But White thinks one of Rodriguez’ greatest strengths is shaping a system to what he is currently working with, particularly the quarterback.
“He can adjust his offense to the player, whether the guy is mobile or wants to sit in the pocket,” White said. “The guy needs to be a leader, a hard worker and someone who is fiery. The rest he can work around.”
So what does that mean for Matt Corral? Corral ran the ball six times for 78 yards and a touchdown in his most extensive action last season against Louisiana Monroe. Rodriguez said Corral is the first player he reached out to and his initial impression leads him to believe Corral will be a good fit.
“You don’t have to be the fastest runner but you have to be a willing runner,” Rodriguez said. The certain traits are being competitive, loving football, being able to execute certain plays. You don’t want a recruit that likes football, you want one that loves it and needs it.”
Aside from scheme, what drew Stanchek and White to West Virginia at 18 years old to play for Rodriguez?
“Just the toughness he preached about and lived,” Stanchek said. “Players can see BS. They can see through that and I think he’s always been himself and that is why people gravitate to him. Growing up in West Virginia as a coal miner’s son, growing up with that life and that toughness, it always resonated with us.
“To think of the athletes he is going to get at Ole Miss, I can’t wait to break out the popcorn and watch what happens.”