Spread Offense Q&A With Brian Flinn of Villanova University

By Mark Colyer,
June 10, 2010
Q&A With Brian Flinn - Villanova University
1.       Tell us a little bit about the spread offense you run at Villanova? (Run first philosophy? balanced attack philosophy (run/pass)?  Play Tempo? Gun vs. under the center, Etc…)
We are a shot-gun, no-huddle spread with an emphasis on running the football.  If you look at the spectrum of teams that run this style of offense, we are on the end of "run first" teams (App State, Michigan, WVU) more so than the "pass first" teams (Hawaii, Texas Tech, SMU, etc.)  We spread you out to run the ball.  We want to establish the inside zone and run the ball in the A-Gap.
There are a lot of "smoke and mirrors" in our scheme that give the illusion of complexity - when the reality is we are trying to get you to empty out the box so we can hand the ball off.  Football is still a tough man's game for us.  Job #1 for our version of the spread is to be a physical and win the battle up front.
One thing we do a little differently is that we run more zone option and zone bubble than most teams.  If teams do decide to crowd the box and outnumber us we want to give our quarterback the option to take what he is being given without having to check out of plays.  The zone option and zone bubble also allow us to get the ball on the perimeter to our best athletes.  Oftentimes we will get one of our slot receivers with the ball on the edge against a linebacker or a 5th or 6th defensive back.
 2.       Based on this philosophy, what do you and your fellow offensive coaches look for when preparing for an opponent every week?
 Week to week we try to keep our game plan as simple as possible.  Our goal is to play fast - in both the operation of our no-huddle and our players understanding of the scheme.
We believe that we run this offense all season and a defense only has a week to prepare for us.  Our primary focus has to be building a plan that is easy to execute/understand and at the same time gets the ball to our best players in the best situations.
From an Xs and Os standpoint, we always start with formations and determine what is the best way to run the football that week.  We then build our play action and dropback packages off of our base run game.
We also take a close look at our own tendencies out of each formation and try to present the defense with some different variations of things we have done previously.
3.       What type of student-athlete do you guys target at Villanova offensively when recruiting?
 We are very fortunate at Villanova that we have an excellent University with a storied football tradition located in a great city.  There are not a lot of places in the country that can offer what we do.  Our most recent recruiting classes (the past 5 years or so) have been filled with guys who have talent and are also willing to do anything it takes to win games.  We need to continue to find guys who fit our scheme and our "team-first" culture we've built here over the years.
4.       How has the spread offense evolved in college football since you began coaching?
 When I started coaching, the early versions of the spread were primarily Run and Shoot teams.  I had a lot of fun as a young kid staying up late and watching Hawaii or BYU in those great shoot-outs on ESPN.
The one thing the spread lacked early on was a way to consistently run the football.  That all really changed with the zone option.  In 2003, we broke down every game that Utah played and put it into our computer.  It was really an eye-opening experience for me.  What Coach Meyer and his staff did with those teams, along with the WVU teams of around the same time, was change what it meant to be a spread team.
You could dominate the line of scrimmage and impose your will on a defense -- and do it from a 3 and 4 wide receiver sets.  The spread no longer meant soft or pass happy.  It became a way to limit the looks you could get from a defense and run the ball into a 6 or 5 man box.  You could force a team to decide if it was going to play run or pass - and then attack the defense accordingly.
Another big step in the evolution for us was the move to the no-huddle.  I made a couple of trips out to Central Michigan and had a chance to visit with their staff (now at Cincinnati) about the way they run and practice the no-huddle.  Watching them practice you got the feeling that this is what a great football team should look like/do everyday - playing fast, everyone from managers to injured players involved, the pace continually being pushed, game-like conditions in every drill.
Their no-huddle operation (and the speed of their operation) was the perfect fit for what we were trying to do with the spread.  If you are executing your offense, the no-huddle allows you to control the speed of the game and wear down your opponent.  Those have been 2 critical elements of our success the past couple of years.  There have been several times over the past two seasons where the speed of our operation has created explosive plays would not have been there had we played slow.
I read a great quote from John Wooden the other day that said: "Everything you know was taught to you by someone else."
It sums up how I feel about the evolution of the spread.  In just the past 5 years we have visited some great places - Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Missouri, Florida, App State, Wake Forest, Purdue, Indiana - who were completely open and helpful. 
There is no way our offense evolves like it has - or we have the subsequent success we have had - without their help.
5.        Explain to us what you’re seeing on the defensive side of the ball by defensive coordinators trying to stop yours and other spread offense attacks?
 The teams that give us the most problems are teams that are great up front.  I don't think that changes much regardless of the scheme that you are running.  Games where you are unable to run the ball (or consistently give up four man pressure) are usually games where you get beat.  Run or pass, the key for us is blocking the down lineman.  
Our recent success can be directly attributed to our offensive line winning the battle of attrition up front.
6.       What are the biggest weaknesses you see in the spread offense in college football? What do you and your offensive staff discuss and plan for in order to combat these weaknesses?
 An issue that a lot of spread teams have is developing play action passes out of the shotgun.  Naturally, when you are under center and your quarterback fakes with his back to the defense your action passes are going to be better.  We have worked to develop a play action game off of our base runs - inside/outside zone, bubble and option - and are still trying to evolve that package to where it needs to be.
Like a lot of offenses, we are never satisfied with our screen game.  Because we are a run first and an option team, we get a lot of square shoulder/slow play type of defensive ends.  Without rushers up the field it has been tough trying to establish a consistent screen package.
7.       When the run oriented spread offense first arrived on the national spotlight, a lot of critics called it a fade or ‘gimmick’ offense, what made the offensive staff at Villanova keep your conviction in your beliefs?
 If you look at the principles of zone option they are almost identical to the philosophy of the veer or wishbone schemes that were so popular in college football decades ago.  You know the scheme behind the zone option was sound because you had seen it succeed for years. 
Teams got away from "option football" because defenses could outnumber two tight end or double wing sets by dropping safeties in the box.
What spread teams did was use formations to get the safeties out of the box and make it easier on the offensive line.  Rather than running a veer scheme out of a double tight end set - and have all 22 players lined up in between the hashes - they used spread formations to force defenses to cover down.
While it may seem "flashy" when Pat White pulls the ball and runs for 70 yards or Jeremy Maclin catches a bubble for a touchdown, its based on some of the soundest of football principles - being tough, establishing the run, forcing teams to play assignment football, taking what the defense gives you.
8.       Look into your crystal ball and tell us what the state of the shot-gun spread offense will be in high school, college, and professional football in five years?
I think you will see more elements of the spread at all levels of football. 
As the sample size grows, I think you will see more "spread quarterbacks" have success at the next level.   The best QB right now is a college shotgun spread quarterback who was allegedly "too short" (Drew Brees!).
The success of a guy like Wes Welker - a spread guy who has really blown up the myth that spread WRs don't or can't run the "route tree" - only goes to show that this style of football can and does translate to the NFL.
There has been such growth in this offense this past five years that I really look forward to what the next five years will bring.
9.       Coach, what would be your advice to a high school or youth football coach looking to install and implement a shot-gun spread offense for the first time?
 Two things: Keep it simple.  Keep it fun.  One of the great things about the spread is it has the ability to distribute the ball to a bunch of different players in space.  You can do so using a limited number of schemes with some simple reads and options off of them.
The best thing my youth coaches did for me was keep the game fun.  I never felt like I "had" to practice - I always wanted to be there because my coaches made it such a great experience for me.  One of my best memories from childhood is waiting at the door with a ball for my dad to get home from work.  The youth coaches I had did a great job of growing that type of passion for the game.
10.   How can high coaches get in touch with the staff at Villanova? What’s your annual spring clinic schedule like for a little X’s and O’s (chalk talk)?
 All of our practices are open - in season and out.  You are welcome to talk ball with us, sit in meetings or stop by and watch film any time.  My e-mail is [email protected]
11.   Coach, final question. You have one game to play to save planet earth vs. the University of Mars and the President of The United States has chosen you to run the offense.  You need to pick a dual threat quarterback to lead your spread offense to victory. You have 4 weeks to prepare for this game, and the only rule is you can’t choose a quarterback that you currently coach… who’s in the gun for you for this game?
Great question!
Since our current QB Chris Whitney is unfairly disqualified (he'd rush for over 100 yards and win that game for sure), I will list my runner(s)-up first - Pat White, Vince Young, Zac Collaros, Armanti Edwards, Ricky Santos, Major Applewhite (not really dual-threat but such a winner!), Dan LeFevor, and Troy Smith.
I have to go with Tim Tebow as my starter.  He would find a way to get it done.
About Coach Brian Flinn:
Brian Flinn returns for his fifth season as Villanova's wide receivers coach in 2009. Flinn will also oversee Villanova's national recruiting efforts as the program's Recruiting Coordinator. He is currently in his second stint on the Main Line. He was previously at Villanova from 2000-01 where he coached the tight ends and assisted with the offensive line. His specific recruiting area will consist of Western Pennsylvania and Northeast Ohio.
Last season, Flinn coached sophomore wideout Matt Szczur to second team All-CAA honors and senior wide receiver Phil Atkinson to third team All-Conference distinction.
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Flinn arrived at Villanova from Eastern Illinois University where he served as an assistant from 2002-05. In addition to coaching the wide receivers and tight ends at Eastern Illinois, he was also the school's pass game coordinator and recruiting coordinator.
He has also had coaching experience at the University of Maryland (graduate assistant, 2001-02), Drake University (wide receivers, 2000), and Mount Union College (linebackers, 1999/wide receivers, 1998).
As a player, Flinn was an All-Ohio Athletic Conference tight end at Mount Union College where he was part of Division III National Championship teams in 1993 and 1996. While at Mount Union, he earned a double major in Business Administration and Philosophy in 1997.
Flinn and his wife Sheri reside in Fairless Hills, Pa., with their two-year old son, Austin.

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