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Noel Mazzone's Offense: An Expert's Opinion

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In this in-depth Q&A session, offensive football guru Dan Gonzalez shares his thoughts on the future of the Aggie offense.

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In the first part of this two-part series, I presented a broad overview of Noel Mazzone's offensive background. To wrap up the series, I had the honor of speaking with Dan Gonzalez about what Aggie fans can expect to see this coming year. Gonzalez, a former wide receiver at Texas and offensive coordinator at the college level for over a decade, currently runs a football consulting business. He describes his job very simply: "I study offense."

Gonzalez has written two books (Concept Passing: Teaching the Modern Passing Game is a fantastic read), has been featured on smartfootball.com, and is active on his blog and website. He's on Twitter (@Dan_Gonzalez16) and he joins us here to break down the Mazzone system.

Good Bull Hunting: Thanks so much for joining me. Let's jump right in. How would you describe what Noel Mazzone does offensively?

Dan Gonzalez: They came from different places but it's similar to the air raid offense. They do a little more in the running game and with RPO's (run/pass options) than typical air raid teams do. So I think it's going to be a more balanced type of approach. Especially from what a guy like Kliff Kingsbury did. He (Mazzone) doesn't do as much in the passing game as Kingsbury does. Pretty simple route concepts.

He relies on tempo for a lot of what they do. A lot of it is tempo and like I said, they will have more of an emphasis on running if they get a good box.

I've been a fan of the simplicity in which he does things. I think a lot of people are. I think a lot of people in the state of Texas run that system in high school too, and that's possibly going to help him even more in recruiting.

GBH: So a little more variety in the running game, but pretty similar in the passing game?

DG: Even though the pass game looks the same, it really didn't come from the same place. He kind of developed it separate from the whole air raid thing. I think he became more of an air raid guy when he went to N.C. State and inherited the offense that Norm Chow put in for Phillip Rivers. And Norm Chow is where the air raid came from when he was at BYU.

GBH: "Y Cross," plays like that, right?

DG: Yeah, y cross, mesh, all that stuff, that kind of came from Norm Chow. And then he (Mazzone) expanded on the spot or snag or whatever they're calling it now.

(Y Cross)

GBH: When did you first become aware of Noel Mazzone?

DG: I've known of him for a long time, like 20 years. A buddy of mine in coaching, he was the offensive coordinator at TCU (note: Mazzone was the quarterback's coach at TCU from 1987-1991). So that's how I knew of him and watched tape of him.

He was one of the first one-back guys, back in the early '90s and TCU was running what they call the "triple shoot." Houston was in the run and shoot, and Miami was a one-back team, and that was pretty much it. One-back teams were labeled that way because they were so odd, so I've known of him for a long time.

GBH: Mazzone is a guy that markets his system and sells it to schools, so he clearly has a very defined system that he can call his own. Is there anything that sets him apart, so to speak, or he is just the guy that has decided to share his info?

DG: Yeah there's nothing that sets it apart. It's really a straightforward system. It's easy to learn, the kids can play fast, and they do a lot of things that are good in the RPO game and things like that. It's good enough to be worth studying, and a lot of people go to that system and are successful, but I don't think you go "Oh, they won because of their system." I don't see that very often. Especially in college football, people win because of players.

I mean, Colt McCoy graduates, and all of a sudden, Greg Davis is a bad coordinator. People thought he was a bad coordinator anyway, and now he was at Iowa and he's in the Rose Bowl, you know? Coaches don't forget how to coach.

I read and hear people say "that was a bad play call," and it's like well what else was he going to do? Because as you're watching the game, very seldom are things not what you think. I mean, you pretty much know, they're probably going to try this at some point, they're going to do this, they're probably going to make this protection adjustment... And for all of these offenses, and this is why nobody clinics over this stuff, all the secrets and all the details are in how they're going to protect and adjust their protections. Those are the things people don't talk about (in clinics) because it's all about that. It's all about where you offset the back.

Like Christian McCaffrey on the first play of the Rose Bowl, he hit that option route for 75 yards. Well, you can do that if you know the defense isn't going to always blitz to the side of the back and get a free hit on your quarterback. So it's that kind of thing. You have to know and you have to be setup to where if you have a thing in mind that you want to do in the passing game, that every time you offset that back into the boundary, if they can just go "oh, this means something to us," you have to be able to adjust your protection to where the blitzers are coming from. And I think that's one of the things that Mazzone's system does well. I think they have some flexibility in the protection game that allows them to pick up blitzes and things like that.

GBH: And in his offense, is that going to be the quarterback's responsibility or the center's? Or both?

DG: They're going to coach all of them to do it. Sometimes it's all done by the center and a lot of times, it's done by the coach, where he's going to set up the formation and set everything up with all the speed sweep motion, that kind of stuff, to where it's going to be unsound for the defense to bring those kinds of things.

If you have a Speedy Noil running a speed sweep and you're blitzing everybody inside gaps and playing man coverage behind it, that's not the smartest thing to do because he's outside the whole defense. So you need to make them worry about those kinds of things.

GBH: As far as personnel is concerned, it looks like he does like to use a tight end and/or an H-back and shows a lot of different looks.

DG: Yeah, he uses the tight end and the H-back, and he can move guys around. It's really based on the people he feels he has on the roster and what they show him in spring practice, so he is very much in tune to adjusting to people.

GBH: What does Mazzone's offense ask of the quarterback? Is it reliant on having a big time stud back there or can it succeed with less?

DG: There's no such thing as an offense that's not quarterback-heavy now days. It's the expectations that are put on them that define whether they're good or bad. I think Trevor Knight is going to win that job. I mean (Jake) Hubenak is okay, I saw him play at Blinn and he was unbelievable at the junior college level, but he just looked like he couldn't process, that maybe things were moving a little too fast in the bowl game.

GBH: That's understandable, it was his first Division I start.

DG: I have the belief that if you can play, you can play. Let me put it this way. When I watched Texas this year, they had no chance to throw the football. I don't care how many yards the kid threw for, he had a game where he threw for 360 (Jerrod Heard threw for 364 yards against Cal), well, he held on to the ball for four seconds for half those big plays. You know, so he wasn't seeing things that were open in the time it should have been gone...

I think Trevor Knight is going to win the job, and I think he's going to be fine. He can throw it, and people forget that he's a very mobile guy. When he was competing with Blake Bell and he won that job, he was the mobile, athletic guy. He can run really well. So the key is just him not getting hurt.

GBH: You mentioned the running game, should we expect a lot of zone read?

DG: I don't think Mazzone's as much into the zone read as people think. It's not zone read with the quarterback running. You know, he had Brock Osweiler at Arizona State, and he was extremely productive (as a passer), and he had the kid at UCLA this last year, Josh Rosen, and he's a pocket passer. So it's not just zone read.

They do a lot of run/pass stuff, a lot of screens attached, a lot of quick swing routes, so your skill guys are the ones that are going to be the guys that can make those things happen or not. It's not like they're needing Vince Young back there to be successful. He does it most of the time with pocket guys and so having that dimension of being able to escape when people do play man coverage on you and are chasing receivers all over the place, then that's where the benefit comes into play.

GBH: A&M really struggled in short yardage this year. Will we see anything different with how A&M handles those situations?

DG: I can't remember the last time I saw him line up under center. They're a spread team, that's what they do. I think he has a few more wrinkles in the running game than typical air raid people.

GBH: It felt like opposing teams really "caught on" to Jake Spavital's offense this past year, both throughout the course of individual games and also over the season as a whole. Is Mazzone able to self-scout and do what he needs to do to stay ahead of the curve, so to speak?

DG: All offensive coordinators are. I think you get into a situation that A&M did last year where, first of all, they're playing really good people. Everyone plateaus a bit in October and November. Everyone does. If you look at production, it tapers at that time. And if you're playing the best part of your schedule, it becomes even harder. So that's a different kind of situation there.

I don't think you can expect miracles. It's what you can get at the quarterback position. Last year going into the year, I watched all of the 2013 UCLA tape, and Hundley was able to keep it going... And I think... a guy like Knight is smart enough, I think Knight's a good quarterback. I think you'll get good play out of him. It's a simple system. It's not going to be real hard to learn or a huge adjustment or anything like that. It just matters how healthy people can stay and whether they can get over all this craziness that's been going around.

GBH: I remember reading something you had written once, you were talking about how mirrored routes (the same route combination on each side of the field) and "pick a side" offenses don't always force the entire defense to be challenged on a given play. Is Mazzone's system more of a full-field passing attack or are there more pre-snap reads telling the quarterback which side of the field to work?

DG: He'll progress across the field like air raid teams will. I see a little of that. Not like how I structure my offense where it's in almost every play, but I mean, I do half-field stuff, two combinations for two different defenses, or read the mike linebacker and go opposite of his drop. I do that stuff too. The key is having all of it so the defense can't just play you one way.

GBH:  Mazzone seems to be a lifer as an offensive coordinator, doesn't seem to want to be a head coach. Sounds like he has tons of experience too, which can only be a good thing, right?

DG: Sometimes the smart guys don't want to be head coaches. I'm not going to fault him for that at all. He knows what he wants to do. I certainly think he's going to be fine. I don't think he's going to light the world on fire but they'll be steady, they'll get good quarterback play, and honestly, just the lack of all the drama, all that stuff, that will make everything better.

GBH: He's had a lot of success over the years in different conferences, from the ACC to the Pac 10. Is there any reason his successes can't be replicated in the SEC?

DG: Well it's a tougher league. But it's going to be about how good A&M's defense gets, right, if they can hold them in games.

The game where Kyle Allen went 0 for whatever is a fluke. That never happens. The whole thing right before the bowl game where two quarterbacks quit, that never happens. You look at those things, they're once in a generation type things, you don't worry about those. You throw out the high, throw out the low, and look at the average, and that's what normally happens. It's a tougher league, so I don't think he'll put up 600 yards a game but I think that if Trevor Knight is playing at his best, they can beat an Alabama... And it won't take a super-human Johnny Manziel effort, you know?