Adapting to Your Personnel in an Emergency Situation

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It seems like every season I’ve been a play caller we have evolved offensively in some aspect that I couldn’t have foreseen. Whether due to a player’s development, matching and adjusting aspects of our scheme to different defenses each week, or injuries , we’re always forced to adjust personnel in some fashion. Some years there are very subtle adjustments, others are more extreme.

One of the most important lessons and most valuable experiences I’ve had has an Offensive Coordinator came in 2015. In 2014, my first season at Montana Tech, we went 1-9. We were in almost every game, but couldn’t find ways to win. We flipped it around in 2015, going 10-2, winning the Frontier Conference title, and advancing to the quarterfinals of the NAIA playoffs. We improved from 23.0 points per game to 33.2, and 334.2 yards per game to 445.8. We were able to do that with a lot of the same players from 2014, but how it happened was the special part.

In 2015 our starting quarterback, Quinn McQueary, was injured in the third game of the season. Then, our backup was injured in game four. Heading into game four we had some emergency-situation schemes ready in case our backup went down, which worked out for us as we were able to survive. But we needed to overhaul our offense heading into game five. Our starting tight end, Andrew Loudenback, was our third quarterback, so he was going to get a lot of snaps. We realized we were going to have to utilize a big mix of a slot receiver and a running back at quarterback in our run game. We used those two in our wildcat offense in games three and especially four, but now we were going to go all in.

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Fortunately, we had a bye week to prepare for our fifth game. We ended up using what we now call alternative quarterbacks (a running back or wide receiver taking snaps) for 63 percent of our snaps. Out of 81 snaps the next game against Rocky Mountain College, we used 20 different formations and 17 personnel groups. We scored 38 first-half points and were able to hold on for the win.

Our starter came back for just over one game, but was re-injured. We knew we had to be prepared for that; we adjusted right back into alternative quarterbacks mode and had a huge day running the ball with 323 yards on the ground, beating our rival Carroll College in the process. An aspect that was unique for that game was that I had told Loudenback that if he had to go in at quarterback to stay on the field as a tight end for our 12 personnel when we called for an alternative quarterbacks personnel group. That way the defense would have difficulty identifying who was going to take the snap when he stayed on the field. I don’t know how much of a direct effect that had, but we definitely had less of a tell.

For seven games, the element of surprise was absolutely on our side, and for the majority of the rest of the season we tried to ambush our opponents with what we had planned. We had a base scheme to operate, but how we dressed things up was the key. We ended up sixth in the NAIA in rushing per game with 275.2 yards per outing, and that was with defense knowing we had to run the ball to be successful. A lot of what I learned and developed as a coordinator were aspects of game planning that we carried into 2016. I really believe having to be more analytical improved my ability to game plan as a whole; more importantly, it has improved our ability as a staff to prepare our players to be successful.

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Here are some of the key areas that I focused on going into that fifth game in 2015, where we really had to alter our attack – even more so as our season progressed:

1. Clarity for the players

My No. 1 goal as a play caller is for all 11 players on the field to have clarity about what their job is within a play call. We definitely pushed the line with our players on what we were doing each week, but a huge aspect for me was being increasingly methodical throughout the week with what we were asking of them. If there was confusion on a call, a scheme, or a communication aspect of a play, we were not afraid to throw it out. Our level of preparation really helped put us in a position to win.

Specifically, we had a few plays that we utilized late in games that helped lead to wins. One was on the road against the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, Southern Oregon. We were able to get into the red zone with a few minutes left, down by three. We had a red-zone pass play that we had struggled to hit all week, but schematically we felt strongly it would be open. I stressed to our quarterback that we were going to call that play and score on it, and I knew he trusted me. We were very thorough on when we would call it and why. The time came and our guys executed. Virtually the same thing happened the next week against No. 10 Montana Western for the conference title. With under two minutes left and the game tied at 17, we ran a play-action play we put in late in the week. I’m usually not big on late week additions, but we felt strongly that it would be wide open and I knew our guys could execute it. The normal rules go out of the window when you get into a desperate situation. What I loved hearing from our players was that they knew what was going to be called. They were able to execute because they had prepared themselves well.

2. Communication

The importance of communication in football cannot be emphasized enough. That became even more evident for us in 2015. With all the personnel groups we were using, we really needed to have attention to detail. Our head coach, Chuck Morrell, was adamant about us being on point with our communication, which really helped us make it more of a priority. I prefer to be up in the booth on game day, so I made it a point to not be the main communicator in practice when the personnel was called each play. We tried to get our players to simulate our game-day sideline communication and echo the personnel call. From there, we emphasized to whoever was running onto the field that they needed to make sure it was known what we were in. We did a great job and had very few problems.

3. Be analytical and specific with your Quarterback(s)

For me, this is always important in general, but it’s looked at through a different scope in a disaster-plan situation. I took time to analyze what exactly I felt comfortable with, with all of the players who were going to take snaps. Even more importantly, I made sure those players were comfortable with what we were asking of them. There were some things I felt they could get better at that initially they didn’t love, but picking our battles was important. In preparing multiple guys to take snaps, we really had to maximize the reps and be very specific on what exactly each was going to run. Every guy we utilized, and it was up to four in some games, knew what their game plan was each week. Our next emergency quarterback happened to be our kicker. He could throw it, and we had a specific plan for him if we had to go that route.

4. Personnel

Defensive coaches are always trying to identify personnel. We will usually mix up our personnel, just to make the defense adjust. If an offense doesn’t, they better be playing with tempo or have much better players than their opponent, otherwise they’re making it pretty easy on the defense. We had to mix up our personnel by necessity. We went from normally having 6 to 8 personnel groups each week to anywhere from 12 to 18. There were times we looked like a line change in hockey with guys running off and on the field, but there was a method to what looked a little like madness. That made it difficult to gauge what we were going to do with who was in. Defenses either had to be base in their call or guess, because our specific tendencies were all over the place.

Not only were our changes dramatic, but as our season progressed, we began to tweak things within our initial adjustments. Instead of just utilizing our running back and a slot at quarterback, we added another slot back there, just to bring another package to the table. It fit us, and I knew it would potentially make us more difficult to prepare for.

5. Formationally

Personnel tendencies primarily reveal formation tendencies. We’re rarely going to carry the exact same group of formations from one game to the next. Going into the mode of tweaking our attack mid-season, we went from about 10 to 12 formations a game to around 15 to 18 on average. The extremes are important: empty, bunch, and unbalanced. Those three aspects of formations force defenses to adjust, and we made them a part of what we were doing. We didn’t necessarily invent a bunch of new plays, we primarily used base scheme, or extensions of our base scheme, and matched that to different looks.

6. Be creative

Having creativity in our offense at all times is definitely a priority. In 2015, we had to take it a step further. Being creative can just be taking base run plays and dressing them up with fly motion, or shifts from one formation to another. Whatever it is, unless you have a bunch of draft picks, you have to constantly be looking for the next progression. Being open minded enough to come up with something you haven’t even seen, or borrowing an idea from someone else, is vital. There were no limits to what we were going to come up with.

One aspect that can’t be overlooked is that we had the players to make the adjustments work, as well as a defense that had our back. After being a backup in 2014, Nolan Saraceni led the NAIA in rushing as a junior and was Frontier Conference Player of the Year, as well as First Team AFCA All-American in both his junior and senior seasons. Clay Cavender was a decent slot receiver for us, but was phenomenal as a wildcat quarterback, rushing for just under 700 yards and 8 touchdowns on 7.9 yards per carry. Those two guys flat out took over games for us.

Our quarterback turned tight end, then back to quarterback, Andrew Loudenback, continuously made huge throws in big situations. He ended up throwing 9 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. Overall, we averaged 7.1 yards per play in our alternative quarterback scheme and scored 15 touchdowns.

We emphasize team football here at Tech. Our defense really kept us in games and gave us a shot offensively to put points on the board in important situations. Our entire team bought in all the way. They were special for what they were able to do; they were very unique in how they won games. All the creativity in the world doesn’t mean anything without major buy-in and having players with the ability to execute.

Doug Schleeman, our wide receivers coach, and Ryan McFadden, our offensive line coach, were also big reasons for our success. They were very in sync with the vision we created offensively.

In 2016, we felt going into the season that we would have a chance to be successful while being more conventional. We were able to go through the majority of our season with a healthy quarterback. After breaking the school record for rushing offense in 2015, we broke it for passing offense in 2016. In the past two seasons, we set or tied 17 offensive school records, and 7 individual offensive records. It’s been fun to see our players thrive in different ways.

With Clay Cavender having used up his eligibility, we didn’t use our alternate quarterback scheme near as much. However, we still scored six touchdowns off of it and did it enough to make people have to prepare for it.

We were able to repeat as Frontier Champions, to again finish 10-2, and to advance to the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Unfortunately, critical injuries happened at the end of the season this time around.

Nolan Saraceni broke his leg in the fourth quarter of game ten. Quinn McQueary, our starting quarterback, went down with a broken hand in the first round of the playoffs against Dickinson State after hitting it on our right tackle’s helmet. In the final four regular season games we averaged 597.5 yards per game and 51.3 points, so we were really starting to peak at the right time. We didn’t know we wouldn’t have those two until the Monday night before the second round versus Reinhardt, down in Waleska, Georgia. We had to adjust quickly.

After not taking a snap at quarterback all season, we again moved Andrew Loudenback to quarterback from tight end. It was not an ideal situation, but we had no choice. The result wasn’t what we were hoping for, but it wasn’t for a lack of preparation or belief. It was close going into the fourth quarter because of our defense. We were able to move the ball at some points, but weren’t able to get over the hump offensively. We adjusted as best we could with the players we had.

Coaches, always have a plan, because there’s the chance that what you come up with can allow your players to be successful.

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Pete Sterbick joined Montana Tech in January 2014. Before the Mining City, Sterbick was the Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator and coached the quarterbacks and wide receivers for McPherson College. Prior to McPherson, Sterbick was the Offensive Coordinator at Grand View University helping the Vikings launch their football program in 2008. In 2011, their fourth season in school history, Grand View won the Mid-States Football Midwest Conference, qualified for the NAIA playoffs and finished the season ranked 18th in NAIA. Sterbick was an Offensive Graduate Assistant at Washington State under head coach Bill Doba from 2005-2007. He earned his Master’s  degree from Washington State in Higher Education Administration in 2008. Sterbick coached the tight ends as a graduate assistant at the University of North Dakota in 2004. He began his coaching career at Missouri Western, coaching wide receivers in 2003.

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For more information about the AFCA, visit www.AFCA.com. For more interesting articles, check out AFCAInsider.com and subscribe to our weekly email.

If you are interested in more in-depth articles and videos, please become an AFCA member. You can find out more information about membership and specific member benefits on the AFCA Membership Overview page. If you are ready to join, please fill out the AFCA Membership Request Form.

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