Tracy Claeys didn’t sidestep anything last weekend, when a fan watching his Facebook Live show asked what this year’s biggest hurdle is for the Gophers football team.
“It’s no secret — we have to improve on offense,” the coach said. “We can’t finish 102nd, 103rd, 108th, whatever [nationally] in scoring offense. We don’t have to go all the way to the top 10, but we need to get up there somewhere in the middle — 40-50, somewhere in there.”
The Gophers ranked 105th in scoring offense last year, capping a five-year grind under offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. So in his first major move as head coach, Claeys replaced him with Jay Johnson, from Louisiana-Lafayette.
Johnson is a 46-year-old Lakeville native who led the Ragin’ Cajuns to school records in total offense, much as he did last decade at Southern Miss.
What will his offense look like with the Gophers? What tempo will they use? How much will Mitch Leidner run? How often will Johnson let him throw deep?
“There needs to be a little bit of mystery there,” Claeys said with a sly grin, knowing Oregon State is just as curious heading into Thursday’s season opener.
Here are a few clues based on Louisiana-Lafayette’s film, numerous interviews and observations from Gophers practices:
This isn’t a revolution
It’s not the air raid. It’s not the wishbone. It’s not a warp speed attack like Oregon’s or Baylor’s.
Much as they did under Limegrover, the Gophers will emphasize the run, setting up the play-action pass. They’ll run the read option and variations of the jet sweep.
But Claeys thought the Gophers were too predictable, with a strong tendency to run with two running backs on the field and pass when they were in “11 personnel” — one running back, one tight end and three receivers.
“If you’re going to get into that type of personnel — which everybody uses to spread the field — it can’t just be to pass the ball all the time,” Claeys said.
It’s harder to break big running plays from a two-back set, since that formation usually draws more defenders into the box — between the tackles, close to the line of scrimmage.
“But when you spread the field, and [opponents] make a mistake, it’s going to get a lot of yards,” Claeys said.
Johnson, a quarterback from Northern Iowa who also coached at Augsburg, Missouri, Kansas, Louisville and Central Michigan, had four years of success and one year of frustration at Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns went 3-9 and ranked 92nd in scoring offense the year before he arrived. But they climbed to 32nd on that list in 2011, their first of four consecutive 9-4 seasons.
Gerald Broussard, a former Lafayette assistant, watched those seasons unfold as a radio analyst and came away impressed with Johnson.
“He’s going to spread you out, make sure you cover those receivers, and if you don’t, he’ll dink and dunk [with short passes] all day,” Broussard said. “He’ll throw the bubble [screen], throw the hitch.
“If you cover the receivers, it’s easier to run because there’s less guys in the box. And when you overcommit [to the run], he’s going to go play action and go for a home run. He’ll take his chances. He’s going to try to hit you deep a few times.”
‘Illusion of speed’
Controlling the clock to keep opposing offenses off the field was a hallmark of former Gophers coach Jerry Kill. That won’t change under his successor. Claeys wants Johnson to change speeds occasionally, to keep defense’s guessing.
“But you’re talking to a defensive guy,” Claeys said. “I’m not for speeding it up all the time.”
Sometimes, Louisiana-Lafayette looked like it was playing faster than it was. Similar to Ohio State, at least in approach, Johnson’s teams often forgo the huddle and line up quickly.
But the play clock keeps ticking, while players get the play call from the sideline. Then, with everyone set, the quarterback makes a series of critical pre-snap decisions.
“With Jay, everything is done with the illusion of speed,” Broussard said. “He’ll make [defenses] get lined up quickly and then adjust from there.
“At some time during the game, he’s going to see how fast you can get lined up. If he hits you with a 40-, 50-yard gain, you better be hurrying down the field because he’s going. It’s fun to watch.”
Louisiana-Lafayette ranked 22nd nationally in rushing offense in 2014, with the tailback tandem of Elijah McGuire (1,264 yards) and Alonzo Harris (807).
No wonder Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith were so happy after the Gophers hired Johnson. Those two combined to rush for 1,379 yards last year as freshmen.
“For us, it’s going to start with running the football,” Johnson said.
The Gophers have toyed with using Brooks and Smith at the same time, though those experiments must wait until Brooks returns from a broken foot.
“I think [Johnson] does a really good job of getting the ball in our best playmakers’ hands,” Leidner said.
Heavy load for QBs
The biggest difference for Leidner, a fifth-year senior, has been the added pre-snap responsibilities.
Johnson tasks his quarterbacks with reading the defense and adjusting the play accordingly. Limegrover had Leidner make pre-snap checks, too, but not to this extent.
“[Johnson] might have a run called, but if they don’t cover the screen, the quarterback can switch to the screen,” Broussard said. “You have an inside-outside run threat on almost every play — and a pass threat.”
The quarterback often stands in the shotgun, or the pistol (closer to the line), reading the defensive front, deciphering which blitz is coming, and studying the coverage scheme — all before finalizing the play call.
“You used to just go up there, snap the football, hand it off to the running back,” Leidner said. “Now you’ve got to be able to see everything that’s going on. I’ve really enjoyed that process, being able to become a student of the game even more than I already was.”
For three years at Louisiana-Lafayette, Johnson had Terrance Broadway, a 6-2, 220-pound dual-threat quarterback, who finished second on the school’s all-time passing list.
“The QB was always a run threat for Johnson,” Broussard said. “[Broadway’s] best games came when we’d run him early, get him lathered up and get that confidence going.”
Coaches have said the same about the 6-4, 230-pound Leidner. He could become a bigger running threat again after undergoing left foot surgery and dropping 20 pounds. The trick will be letting Leidner run, without getting him hurt.
“Every year, we had to have the backup ready because we’d run the QB, and he’d get nicked up,” Broussard said.
Lessons from 2015
Blaine Gautier set Louisiana-Lafayette passing records under Johnson in 2011, and Broadway followed with three terrific seasons, but the Cajuns had trouble replacing them last season.
“They never could settle on a quarterback,” Broussard said. “The old adage is, if you’ve got two QBs, you’ve got none. Well, we had three.”
The offensive line was hit hard with injuries as well last year and things unraveled, much like what happened to the Gophers. “It really affected us,” Johnson said.
The Cajuns had ranked near the top of the Sun Belt in scoring offense but plunged to ninth.
“I also think the rest of the league caught up to [Johnson] a little bit,” Broussard said. “That happens. I don’t think the head coach [Mark Hudspeth] ever blamed Jay. When Jay left, [Hudspeth] made the wide receivers coach the new coordinator.”
For Johnson to help the Gophers become a top-50 scoring offense, they’d need to add about nine points to last year’s 22.5 per game.
“I think we can be very productive,” Johnson said, noting Leidner’s veteran presence, the rebuilt offensive line and returning skill position players.
But Johnson didn’t return home, after a 20-year coaching journey, just to show off the kind of statistics he can post. He came back to help Claeys build a Big Ten champion.
Limiting turnovers, helping the defense by controlling the clock — those are critical aspects of this job, too.
“At the end of the day,” Johnson said, “the productivity [measure] for me is going to be in wins and losses.”