Sunday, November 8, 2009

Adapting an Offense for Masoli a Tall Order

Oregon coaches describe quarterback Jeremiah Masoli as a work in progress. And coaching Jeremiah Masoli? That's a work in progress, too.

Ducks coach Mike Bellotti and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly know that "coaching up" Masoli won't make him taller; so, they are continually searching for X's and O's that make a shorter quarterback more effective.

"It's the same thing as if you have a quarterback who doesn't run as well -- you change your protection up," Kelly said. "You've got to try to compensate a little bit."

Masoli, a dangerous runner who has struggled with the passing game in his first year at Oregon, is listed as 5-foot-11, and probably isn't that tall. One of Masoli's issues is vision -- he simply can't see over the taller linemen in front of him.

"It's tough, man," said 6-5 center Max Unger. "I think I might be the shortest one out there. There are some big bodies flying around out there."

Kelly likes to quote former coach Lou Holtz, who, when asked how tall his quarterback has to be, said: "Tall enough so his feet touch the ground."

Kelly put together a highly effective game plan for 6-6 Justin Roper in last year's Sun Bowl, where Roper threw for four touchdowns in a 56-21 win over South Florida.

In the offseason, the coaching staff began searching for ways to best use a much-shorter quarterback. They were thinking of Nate Costa, the 6-1 sophomore who would suffer a season-ending knee injury in fall camp. Masoli fit that thinking, too.

A sophomore who came to Eugene after one season at City College of San Francisco, Masoli arrived at a good time for a shorter quarterback. Chase Daniel, a 6-foot native Texan who went basically unrecruited by Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, was making a run at the Heisman Trophy at Missouri. Todd Reesing (5-11) was doing the same thing at Kansas.

So the Oregon coaches' search led them to Columbia, Mo., where the Tigers have turned Daniel into a towering offensive weapon. Like the Ducks, Missouri uses the no-huddle spread offense. The Tigers rank fourth in the nation in passing (352 yards per game) and scoring (45 points per game).

But the talks with Missouri's coaches didn't accomplish much. To use Masoli as Missouri uses Daniel would have required a revamping of the running game -- the Ducks' strength (they rank fifth in the nation at 274 yards per game).

"They put (Daniel) at a different depth," Bellotti said. "They deep drop him. They separate him from the line of scrimmage, but they don't have the running game we do. It changes the mesh point for a lot of the run stuff. It also puts a lot more stress on your tackles. They do a lot more two-tight end stuff, too, for that exact reason -- to eliminate the tackle being one-on-one with a defensive end.

"Are you going to change that and change your running game to match it? Because right now, the depth of our quarterback and our two open edges give us two areas to attack and we can spread people. If you bring them back in, you create more opportunities for the defense to run their stunts and blitzes and that type of thing."

Bellotti said to expect some new wrinkles in the bowl game. In the offseason, Kelly will hit the road again, doing research and development. It's all part of the job for Kelly, who is also UO's quarterbacks coach: To go where ideas are working, and then "borrow" them.

"Show me a coach who isn't stealing from somebody else -- they're lying," Kelly said. "If you weren't in a room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne, then you got it from somebody else."

So what would make Masoli more effective? Experience. Beyond that, opinions differ.

Tight end Ed Dickson, whose production has suffered along with the passing game's struggles (one catch for four yards in the past four games), said he'd like to see Masoli roll out more -- to his side, of course.

"In my opinion, we need to get him out of the pocket a little bit more," Dickson said. "He's a great scrambler, and he's great rolling and throwing.

"We think we got our guy, we just have to find a system that works for him. That's where the offseason comes in handy. If he's our guy, we're going to find something that fits him. We're going to make it work, basically."

In the Civil War, Masoli's counterpart will be 5-11 Lyle Moevao. The quarterback who was most effective against the Ducks this season was Boise State's Kellen Moore, a 6-footer.

"I'm not the only quarterback who's not 6-6," Masoli said. "It's just passing lanes. It's not really seeing over the line as much as through the line."

The Ducks are a run-oriented team, but they spread things out to do it. And that spread formation, with bigger gaps between the linemen, helps create passing lanes. When the offense is clicking -- even if it's Roper doing the throwing -- the passes are thrown through the lanes.

So it's a matter of getting Masoli to see through those lanes. And if Kelly has to fly a few thousand miles to help complete a 10-yard pass, then so be it. You can only do so much on the ground.

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