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

The Arizona State offense thrives because of personnel who make up ideal fits for offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's system.

Taylor Kelly keeps his eyes up on the defensive end in the zone-read scheme.
Taylor Kelly keeps his eyes up on the defensive end in the zone-read scheme.
Jennifer Hilderbrand-US PRESSWIRE

After a disappointing effort produced just 14 points against the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday, it's easy to forget just how dominant the Arizona State offense was this season.

Under the direction of second-year offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, the Sun Devils posted at least 50 points in six of their 12 regular season contests en route to an average of 41.0 points per game heading into their bowl game against Texas Tech.

If you watched the Pac-12 Championship game from home on Saturday, you might have flipped through the channels and caught part of the SEC Championship game featuring the Auburn Tigers against the Missouri Tigers.

Auburn ultimately won that game in a stunning display of offense that featured 59 points and more than 300 yards rushing from running back Tre Mason. The Tigers own the most unstoppable offense in football at the moment, and it's because of principles that are familiar to the folks at Arizona State.

The Tigers' quarterback Nick Marshall is a dual-threat with game-breaking abilities in the running game while Mason is a Heisman trophy finalist for his outstanding work as a tail back this season. This season, the Tigers averaged 40.2 points per game in the rugged SEC because of their mastery of one key component of their offense: the zone-read.

Reads and options have been integral parts of offensive game plans since the beginning of football, but not until the new wave of spread offenses and shotgun formations did the zone-read take full effect.

At its core, the zone-read lines the quarterback up in shotgun formation with a running back flanking him on a side of the offense's choice. At the snap of the ball, the quarterback is reading the edge rusher (in most cases it's the defensive end) and making a determination as to where the ball is going to go based on the play of the edge rusher.

If the edge rusher holds his position on the end of the line of scrimmage, the quarterback will give the ball to the running back who follows his offensive line up the middle. If the edge rusher crashes inside toward the running back, the quarterback will keep the ball and make a play with his feet on the outside.

The zone-read is far more complicated than the description above, and we'll dive into the intricacies of the play over the course of the next few days by answering key questions regarding the Sun Devils' scheme.

When looking at the origins and success of the Arizona State offense this year, there are three main questions to consider.

1. How did the zone-read originate under Todd Graham?

2. Why is the zone-read successful at Arizona State?

3. Why is the zone-read the offense of the future at Arizona State?

Today, we'll examine question one and determine how the Sun Devils compare to an offense that is in position to win a national championship and has a running back making the trip to New York as a Heisman trophy finalist.

On Wednesday, we'll look at the evolution of the zone-read at Arizona State over the past two years and why it is more successful in year two.

On Thursday, we'll determine how the zone-read will remain a focal point of the Sun Devil offense beyond the graduation of Taylor Kelly and the possible departure of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell for a head-coaching spot.

Let's get started with our first question.

1. How did the zone-read originate under Todd Graham?

Answer 1: Though he's known as a defensive coach, Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham is an innovator on the offensive side of the football. His willingness to try new formations and combinations has made his teams some of the premier offenses in college football over the past eight years. And most of Graham's success has to do with making outstanding hires.

Prior to Arizona State, Graham's top achievements as a coach came at Tulsa where he engineered three 10-win seasons in four years. At Tulsa, Graham's first offensive coordinator was Gus Malzahn. You might recognize that name because Malzahn is the head coach of the Auburn Tigers. That potent attack that set SEC Championship records this year, yep, that was Malzahn calling the offense.

In Malzahn's two seasons at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricanes won 10 and 11 games respectively and led the nation in total offense in both seasons. In 2008, Malzahn's offense finished fifth in the FBS in rushing and ninth in passing which is unprecedented balance. Malzahn left Tulsa after the 2008 season for the offensive coordinator position at Auburn, where he helped guide the Tigers to a national title under Cam Newton and returned as head coach for this season's national championship run.

In 2009, the year after Malzahn left Tulsa, the Golden Hurricanes finished 5-7, which remains Todd Graham's worst season as a head coach. Graham made personnel decisions, and the following year, he introduced Lake Travis of Texas High School head coach Chad Morris as the offensive coordinator.

With experience at five Texas high schools but no track record at the college level, Morris was a risky hire for Graham. But in 2010, the decision paid dividends. The Golden Hurricanes finished 10-3 with an offense that averaged 41.4 points per game. Perhaps most amazingly, Tulsa had an even 32 passing touchdowns and 32 rushing touchdowns in 2010.

As Graham left Tulsa for the head coaching position at the University of Pittsburgh, Morris left Tulsa for the offensive coordinator position at Clemson, which he still holds today. Clemson will play Ohio State in the Orange Bowl this year, and feature the nation's 11th best scoring offense.

After a 6-6 season at Pittsburgh, Graham left to become the head coach at Arizona State and he named Mike Norvell as the Sun Devils' offensive coordinator. Norvell began his coaching career as an assistant at Tulsa in 2008, where he worked under both Graham and Malzahn. By 2010, Norvell was the passing game coordinator Chad Morris' attack, and ready to assume command of his own offense.

Norvell's first opportunity as an offensive coordinator came in 2012 at Arizona State. Today, Norvell boasts one of the most impressive offenses in the country, and he's using a playbook that combines the best of his own ideas, Malzahn's principles, and Morris' schemes.

So why are Arizona State and Auburn (and Clemson) so similar on offense? Because Todd Graham has always wanted a particular brand of offense, and the coaches he's asked to call that offense still use the same formula at their respective schools

The zone-read demands a smart quarterback with great instincts, and each of the three schools has an outstanding leader making decisions at the line of scrimmage. The zone-read also requires a play-caller who recognizes the limitations of his offense, and makes adjustments based on personnel.

The zone-read at Auburn and Arizona State will look different at times based on personnel and opponents, but at their very core, both offenses are founded in the exact same principles.

What's the most remarkable part of the similarities between Arizona State, Auburn and Clemson? While Auburn and Clemson compete for BCS bowls this season, the Sun Devils may be next in line. Todd Graham has reiterated throughout the season that Mike Norvell is the best offensive coordinator he's worked with in his head coaching career. And considering the success of Malzahn and Morris, that's some pretty lofty praise.

Stay tuned as tomorrow we look at the success of the zone-read offense at Arizona State and how offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has adapted the scheme to fit the Sun Devils' needs.