ASU Football: Examining the success of the zone-read at Arizona State part III

William Mancebo

The Sun Devils have established the ability to run the zone-read with success, and they're only laying the foundation at this point in Todd Graham's tenure.

Over the past 10 years, college football has seen more adaptations of spread offenses than in any other era of football.

The term "spread offense" is actually misleading, because there are so many variations of "spread offenses" that the terminology has lost some of its meaning. While spread concepts have been around football for decades, the philosophies of spread offenses now vary more than ever before.

Initially, the spread offense was designed to open up the field and force a defense to adjust its personnel to match up with an offense. With more skill position players in open space, an offense has a better chance of putting the ball in the hands of playmakers and allowing them to go to work.

When most people think of spread offenses, they probably think of pass-first attacks like Mike Leach's "Air Raid" that was popularized during his time at Texas Tech. While Leach isn't the father of the "Air Raid" offense, his quarterbacks broke and set NCAA records on an annual basis and helped popularize the concept of a "system quarterback."

At Arizona State, Taylor Kelly is, by definition, a system quarterback.

Kelly went from being the third option on the depth chart to a starting quarterback with a chance to set single-season school records because of Todd Graham's arrival in Tempe.

Kelly is the beneficiary of a spread offense, but like so many offenses in college football, it has been developed and honed during the past 10 seasons.

Arizona State's offense challenges conventional notions of what the spread looks like. Unlike Leach's "Air Raid," the spread offense the Sun Devils' employ is a run-first scheme that may best be defined as a spread-option attack.

Spread-options have gained in popularity throughout the college ranks in the past decade because they combine elements of two widely effective philosophies. The "spread" part of the spread-option indicates an offense's desire to spread the field and put athletes in space. The "option" part of the spread-option asks a quarterback to make split-second decisions and reads at the line of scrimmage and during the play.

Today, there are probably more spread-options that are classified as run-first offenses than there are pass-first offenses.

At Arizona State, the most important element of the Sun Devils' spread-option offense is the zone-read.

On Tuesday, we introduced part one of our series on the Sun Devils' zone-read attack that showed the origins of the spread-option offense employed by head coach Todd Graham.

On Wednesday, part two of our series discussed how Taylor Kelly became the starting quarterback at Arizona State and why the zone-read has worked for the Sun Devils against some teams and not worked against others.

Now, it's time to ask and answer question three of our three-part series.

Question: Why is the zone-read the offense of the future at Arizona State?

Answer: In Todd Graham's eight seasons as a head football college at the FBS level, Graham has enjoyed four 10-win seasons. While Graham is a defensive coach at heart, it has been his offense leading the charge during his best years.

Graham has made exceptional decisions in filling his offensive coordinator positions as he's worked with three of the brightest minds in college football during his eight seasons as a head coach. In 2007 and 2008, Graham's offensive coordinator at Tulsa was Gus Malzahn, who is now spending his days as a head coach preparing the Auburn Tigers for a national championship game.

After Malzahn left Tulsa, Graham endured a 5-7 season in 2009 and offensive coordinator Herb Hand left for a position as the offensive line coach at Vanderbilt. Needing a capable replacement, Graham turned to the high school ranks in Texas and found Lake Travis head coach Chad Morris. Under Morris' direction, Tulsa's offense finished sixth nationally with 41.4 points per game and averaged more than 500 yards of offense per contest.

Morris is now the offensive coordinator for a Clemson team competing in the upcoming Orange Bowl. Though he lost Morris, Graham had another horse to call on when he hired Mike Norvell as the offensive coordinator upon arriving at Arizona State.

Under Norvell's direction, the Sun Devils' offense finished 14th in scoring offense in 2012 and ranks ninth in 2013, which is ahead of both Malzahn's Auburn offense and Morris' Clemson offense.

Now that Norvell has a proven track record, the 31-year-old could be on the fast track to a head coaching position or a higher-profile offensive coordinator job.

With Taylor Kelly set to graduate after the 2014 season and Mike Norvell likely to depart, how can we be so certain that the spread-option, and specifically the zone-read, is the offense of the future at Arizona State?

For one, Graham's coaching hires reveal a particular pattern. Graham doesn't care how unproven you are (Morris) or how young you are (Norvell), he simply wants someone who can produce at the college level and make the most of the athletes he's recruited.

Would Graham consider going to the high school ranks again if Norvell leaves? Probably not, but his track record shows he'll look at unlikely candidates to find the best man to integrate the spread-option offense.

While Auburn's spread-option look is heavy on the zone-read and Clemson's offense is more of a pass-first team, Arizona State is somewhere in the middle. But based off of the Sun Devils' recruiting efforts, Arizona State is trending toward relying even more on the zone-read than ever before.

Taylor Kelly was practically the quarterback by default when Graham and Norvell arrived in Tempe. He was the only quarterback left over from the Dennis Erickson era who could run the zone-read, and Graham's reliance on the scheme helped Kelly earn the starting job.

Kelly is a solid dual-threat option, as he's amassed nearly 1,000 rushing yards in his two seasons at the helm. However, the Sun Devils have actively recruited quarterbacks who are superior rushers to Kelly.

Last year, the Sun Devils focused their recruiting efforts on quarterback Joshua Dobbs, a 6-foot-3, 190-pounder who ultimately spurned Arizona State and signed with Tennessee. Dobbs became the starting quarterback late in the season for the Volunteers, and he rushed the ball 38 times for 189 yards this year.

For the class of 2014, Arizona State has focused its recruiting efforts on another dual-threat who is an ideal fit for the zone-read attack. The Sun Devils have a verbal commitment from 4-star quarterback Manny Wilkins, who unlike Dobbs, is as sure a bet as they come to remain with Arizona State on signing day.

Wilkins is an outstanding runner who played at a high school (San Marin-Novato, Calif.) that asked him to carry the ball frequently on offense. Wilkins will also have the benefit of a redshirt season, assuming Kelly stays healthy, that will allow him to learn the intricacies of Arizona State's zone-read and develop chemistry with D.J. Foster and running backs from his recruiting class.

In an ideal scenario, the Sun Devils would also land another quarterback recruit for the Class of 2014 because they are likely to be short on scholarship players at the position next season. Arizona State has offered Bishop Gorman of Nevada product Randall Cunningham, Jr., whose name precedes him. Cunningham Jr. is a 3-star dual-threat quarterback and projects as a viable option in the zone-read scheme as well.

Of course, having an offensive coordinator willing to focus on the zone-read and a quarterback with the ability to run the ball aren't the only components to having success in the zone-read.

As part two of our series pointed out, the Sun Devils will need versatile wide receivers and a bigger, more physical offensive line to compete at an elite level in the future. Right now, Arizona State has only two verbal commits for the class of 2014 on the offensive line (Alex Anderson and Sam Jones), so that's an area that Graham and Co. will focus on in recruiting.

Another asset the Sun Devils have in their recruiting efforts is being able to appeal to top tight end recruits. Arizona State's 3-back position is a demanding spot that requires top-notch athleticism, but the results are rewarding. Recruits have seen what Chris Coyle has accomplished in Tempe, and the scheme is what helped convince De'Marieya Nelson to sign with the Sun Devils.

As long as Todd Graham remains the coach at Arizona State, the zone-read will be an integral part of the Sun Devils' offensive game plan. Graham has demonstrated a tendency to pursue spread-option specialists in hiring offensive coordinators, and the Sun Devils are recruiting players that best suit an attack that relies heavily on the zone-read.

When Mike Norvell and Taylor Kelly leave the Sun Devils to pursue greater aspirations, there is one thing that will remain a constant under a defensive coach like Todd Graham. And that's the zone-read.

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