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Northwestern Will Major in the Option, but Offensive Philosophy Remains the Same

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

To the untrained eye, last year’s Northwestern offense may have looked a lot different than the NU offenses of years past, run by C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka and Dan Persa. The Wildcats ran the ball with the quarterback — particularly the option — more than they ever have in Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, a far cry from the days of Mike Kafka throwing for over 500 yards in a game.

But really, despite those differences, NU stuck with the same school of thought — it just chose a different major.

“We just like to spread the offense and spread the defense — that’s always been our philosophy,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “But we’ve always had (the option), it just hasn’t been something that we’ve majored in.”

This year, as it was in 2012, the option will be NU’s major on offense. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be the Wildcats’ major in 2013 when Trevor Siemian presumably takes the reigns of the offense. NU’s major will depend on its personnel, and this year, that means we’ll see plenty of option.

“We’ve always had (the option) available, it’s just we know have a guy we feel like we need to run that with, and get Venric (Mark) out on the perimeter with it,” McCall said. “And all of our guys can do it. Kain (Colter) does it better, of course, but all of our guys can do it. That will always be a part of what we are.”

While the option will play a major role in this year’s offense, it’s not the focus of NU’s offensive identity, nor is this an “option offense.” The Wildcats run the spread, meaning they try to spread the defense out to the perimeter to open up the field. When it comes to deciding which plays to run out of the spread, that depends on matchups and personnel.

“I think the biggest thing is, we find out who our best players are; that’s No. 1,” McCall said. “For each situation, we’re always looking to figure out who our best guys are. And then we put them in situations where they can be successful.

NU isn’t going to try to tailor its players to its offense; rather, McCall designs his gameplans around the players he has.

“So if we don’t have a tight end, then we’re not going to line up too much with tight ends,” he said. “If we have some running backs who can run around and they need to be in the game, then we’re going to find ways to get them in the game, too.

“We may run option off of the zone, we may run bootleg off of the zone, it doesn’t matter — we’re still running the zone play or the power play, it just depends. We keep the same things, but we get different guys in different situations, I think, and that’s the biggest key.”

When NU looks for players to recruit, it isn’t necessarily looking for a player to run the option with, nor is it looking for a gunslinger. Rather, it focuses on finding a quarterback who can fit the spread, and then McCall figures out the offense’s identity on a year-by-year basis.

“In the spread offense, you’re always looking to have a quarterback who can throw the ball first, No. 1, and then he’s got to be a threat to run,” McCall said. “Now, each and every quarterback’s a different threat, but they all have the ability to make yards with their feet if they need to.

“We’re taking a guy that’s a winner, that we know can come in here and lead our team — be the focus of our team from the very beginning, he can take all that on — whether he’s a great option guy or a great passer, it doesn’t matter.”

Once NU finds out what it wants to do with its personnel, the gameplan surrounding that player can evolve while they’re on campus. Colter’s role has changed since he started seeing significant playing time in 2011, and his role within the option has even evolved.

“A lot of these option plays, the kind of mental aspect has grown, and there’s a lot more emphasis on me reading things now,” Colter said, “and I’m able to make some calls in the option game that I probably didn’t have in year’s prior.”

NU will continue to mix in little wrinkles with its offense this year, and Colter will do things that weren’t part of the gameplan last year. But even though the option will be a big part of the offense — a double major, of sorts, to the spread — the base offense will be similar to what NU ran with Bacher, Kafka and Persa.

“We’re going to major in spreading the field,” McCall said. “And we’re a zone team — that’s who we are — and then we’ll run everything else off of that, what becomes who’s in the game, what we’re doing and who we’re trying to get the ball to.”

Practice Notes

- Colter said he doesn't know who will take the first snap this season, but, "I'd like to say it will be me."

- Colter also said Zack Oliver has the best arm on the team, and that he can throw it 70 yards.

- Colter on arm strength: "I think a lot of it is getting my torque down, getting my core stronger." Said he's been told by people that this is the strongest his arm has looked.

- Fitzgerald said Malin Jones and Stephen Buckley both look good at running back, and both bring something different to the table, since Jones is a bigger back and Buckley is smaller and shiftier, like Venric Mark. They're both playing doing well catching the ball, too.. However, Fitzgerald said he won't judge them too much until they've seen a the field in a game.