Former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will be taking over that same position at Texas A&M in 2016. Mazzone replaces Jake Spavital, who left after two seasons marked by inconsistent results and turmoil at the quarterback position. In this two-part series, I'll give you as much info as I can, cobbled together from the web and from my own observations, along with an insightful interview from a successful coach/consultant/author.
Mazzone has been doing this for a long time. He'll turn 59 in March and has called plays for almost 20 years out of a coaching career that has spanned over three decades. The first thing you need to know is that Mazzone is one of the biggest names in the one-back, spread offense community. In fact, Mazzone and Kevin Sumlin are two of the leaders of the infamous "one-back clinic" that occurs every year. This 2010 article by Bruce Feldman shows just how entrenched Mazzone is:
The first one-back clinic was at Washington State in 1999 and was hosted by then-Cougars coach Mike Price. It has evolved similar to offensive football and variations of the spread attack during the past decade.
New Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was there in '99 with Gary Crowton, Gunter Brewer, Dana Holgorsen, Sonny Dykes, Larry Fedora and Mike Leach. Mazzone, who has bounced around from Auburn to Oregon State to NC State to Ole Miss to the New York Jets to ASU, has teamed with Houston Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin to take ownership of the one-back clinic and become a ringleader for the two-day event. He helped set up discounts with a local hotel and local restaurants and mapped out all the details. The role suits the gregarious Mazzone well. The former New Mexico quarterback has coached virtually everywhere and seems to know everyone yet is humble enough to ask questions of coaches with a résumé one-third as long as his to try to get a better idea for what they do and why they do it.
For Aggie fans sad about the fact that A&M didn't hire TCU's Doug Meacham, consider this: Meacham was at Oklahoma State from 2005-2012. Among the people he worked with there, Larry Fedora and Dana Holgorsen were offensive coordinators. Who else was at the one-back clinic Feldman wrote about? Fedora, Holgorsen, Sumlin... These guys are all one big fraternity and are sharing info every single year. Meacham isn't running secret schemes that a guy like Mazzone is unaware of. They run the same concepts with their own twists on them. Like everyone else Kevin Sumlin had to have considered for the job, Mazzone believes in the no huddle offense, up-tempo pace, with quick passes, packaged run/pass options, and traditional air raid concepts.
The "Nzone System"
Many Aggie fans bemoaned what seemed to be the lack of any coherent system under Jake Spavital. While I would argue some of the points of that criticism, rest assured that Mazzone won't fall prey to that criticism. Why? Because not only does he have a system, he actually has it named and packaged and sells that system to high schools and colleges across the country.
Head to www.nzonesystem.com if you're interested. Mazzone offers a full-service menu, with drills, plays, coaching points, video cut-ups, and more. Mazzone isn't the only coach to do this. California OC Tony Franklin also markets his system, called the Tony Franklin System. The systems are similar, if you're curious. (Aggie fans may remember the 2012 A&M-Louisiana Tech game in which the Aggies barely held on to win a shootout. Franklin was Tech's offensive coordinator that year.)
As you might expect from a coach who willingly gives his offensive system to anyone who wants it, Mazzone is also active on the lecture circuit and is not shy about sharing his offense with anyone. And he's not worried about that hurting his team's ability to still move the ball. "That's what this is all about. It's about sharing, it's about talking amongst yourselves. And I know you play each other... I think it's all bull****. I think you gotta go out and coach your guys, coach the **** out of them, and I don't really care if you know what I'm doing... I just love the game, I love to give back to it, and love to share."
How successful has Mazzone been recently?
In short, I'll say that with statistics, one could probably make a case for whatever agenda they wanted, but I'll try to avoid doing that by focusing on the same few statistics that I have used in many other articles. Mazzone was the OC at UCLA for four seasons. In 2012-2014, he had Brett Hundley at quarterback (redshirt freshman through redshirt junior years), and in 2015, he had true freshman Josh Rosen.
ESPN's offensive efficiency (UCLA/A&M):
- 2012: 32/1
- 2013: 13/5
- 2014: 17/9
- 2015: 29/62
Football Outsiders FEI Ratings:
- 2012: 33/2
- 2013: 11/1
- 2014: 23/15
- 2015: 39/85
From there, there are myriad other stats one can look at. I generally start with those because they are efficiency ratings that attempt to normalize for discrepancies in schedule, garbage time, etc. At a minimum, they appear to show that in four years, Mazzone had a level of consistency that was admirable and is generally capable of putting together a top 25(ish) offense.
What are his offensive philosophies and schemes like?
Play fast with a small playbook.
The Aggies seemed to gradually go slower and slower, tempo-wise, over the last few years. At UCLA, Mazzone's offenses followed the opposite trend. Their pace was similar in 2012-2014, then accelerated in 2015.
As is the trend with hurry-up no-huddle teams of the day, Mazzone believes in having a smaller number of core concepts and being able to execute them and play fast.
"It's orchestrated confusion. We really don't have a lot of football plays. We don't run a lot of different types of runs schemes or pass schemes. Pretty much we have a core of about 18-20 plays. But what we want to do is play fast, and then each week we just try to be the French chef, just kind of add a little pastry to each play. A little motion here. Or line this guy up here. But what we're trying to do is keep it as simple as we can for the players because you can't play fast if you're thinking. We don't want them to think. Ball gets snapped -- react.
"Now on my call sheet, there's usually never more than 50 (plays.) But maybe one concept has three different formations. Conceptually there's 18 or so concepts. ...I like to be on the sideline. As an old ex-quarterback, I like to feel kind of what maybe Steve's feeling out there. And play the game as much as I can from the sideline. He gives me a lot of input, and then when the others come off the field. 'Kerry, how's this guy playing you? Mike, what do you think about this? How is the strong safety?' I like to get that type of feedback from the kids."
Stick with whatever is working.
That was Mazzone's assessment of what happened in the Bruins' come from behind, 20-17 victory over Texas in 2014. Brett Hundley left that game with an injury in the first half and UCLA found themselves down 10-3 in the third quarter. They ended the game with nearly 450 yards and backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel threw for two touchdowns, no interceptions, and completed 77% of his passes that day.
Spread the defense out, run if the numbers allow, and throw screens to test the perimeter.
Mazzone has had offenses with big passing numbers, but has also had some very prolific running backs. Balance is the goal, but balance can mean different things. "Balance doesn't mean you run 50% and you pass 50%," Mazzone said. "It means you are efficient enough... to do either one."
But running is a priority, regardless of the ratios. "The spread offense was designed back in the day in order to run the football," Mazzone said. "If I spread the defense out of there and only have to block five people up front to run it as opposed to blocking seven or eight, I like my odds better."
Mazzone tries to use formations and quick passes to quickly get the ball into the hands of the most dangerous players (think Christian Kirk here). "I try to create space for playmakers," he said. "I'm going to get you the ball where all you've got to do is beat one guy man to man. I do that, then it's up to you."
According to rotoworld.com, in 2014, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley threw screen passes (of one variety or another) on a stunning 33% of his throws. Mazzone will likely make it a priority to get the ball out of the quarterback's hand very quickly and let A&M's talented receivers get to work. In 2015, UCLA threw slightly more screens than A&M did.
Common passing concepts.
Looking through Mazzone's playbook, in all honesty, there's nothing revolutionary on the surface. A lot of what I see in there is already done by most, if not all, of the one back, air raid, spread guys, including A&M under Spavital.
One aspect of the playbook that I do like, and that seems to be disappearing from other playbooks as packaged plays and RPO's (run/pass options) have spread through the sport, is the big section on the traditional quick game, three step drop passing. Hitch/seam, slant/flat, quick outs, fade/hitch, etc., are a big portion of the playbook. The three step passing game was one of the first things I learned about many years ago and have always felt that some of the traditional quick combos were being underutilized in current modern offenses.
The drop back passing concepts are things you'll see all over the country every week. The stick combo is the same one that A&M ran under Spavital and Kingsbury and the same one that practically every team in America runs out of their shotgun trips formation.
Same with the shallow cross, the drive route, the mesh concept (crossing routes), the all-curl play, flood, verticals, and others. Go to any air raid website and the drawings will be the same, and often the names will too.
If there's a difference between Mazzone's and the others, you could argue that it's the heavy use (and diversity) of screens, plus the different packaging of the concepts used. For example, the most common package of a run and a screen that A&M ran this past year was a bubble screen packaged with an inside zone handoff.
What Mazzone appears to do more of though is incorporate a greater mix of tunnel screens instead of just bubble screens. There are also examples of packaging a tunnel screen to one side and swing pass screen to the other:
Or packaging a screen to one side with the "snag" concept to the other, as shown here:
Much has been written already about the details of some of Mazzone's favorite concepts. Check here and here for more on the snag concept, here for more on the screens, and here for some of the other concepts he uses that I named above.
While many of the concepts in the offense are designed to attack the whole field with four or five routes that work off of each other, Mazzone also does a fair amount of three-man concepts to one side with a single route that can be adjusted to almost anything on the other side. Again this is common, something A&M does all the time already. Former UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley talks about one example here, on his episode of Jon Gruden's Quarterback Camp.
Looking at some film of UCLA, they do some creative things. In this play, it ends up being a screen to the running back, but they hide it by running their receivers on a normal shallow cross concept. As you can see, one defender chases the shallow crosser across the field while another runs deep with the outside receiver, leaving a huge void for the screen pass. This is a great example of using your core concepts to disguise what you're really doing.
In these two, UCLA packaged a run with a five step post that could be thrown if the middle of the field is left open by a safety that drops down into the box. Notice the line and running backs are executing a run all the way here. The QB reads the open middle and pulls the ball away from the running back to make the throw.
UCLA showed more diversity in their scheme than A&M recently has. They use more formations, more motion, more variety in misdirection, and more variety in the passing game. There is a lot to like when you start watching cut-ups of their offense.
Check back soon for Part 2 of this series, in which I present a Q&A with Dan Gonzalez. Gonzalez (@Dan_Gonzalez16) has years of experience as an offensive coordinator at the college level and is currently a consultant and author who has been featured on smartfootball.com and has helped numerous schools install a modern, successful passing attack.