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FILM ROOM: What Northwestern is getting in Zach Lujan’s offensive scheme

The Wildcats’ new OC has a lot of tricks up his sleeve.

Dave Eggen/Inertia

Two-time national champion. 29-1 record. Two straight seasons scoring 34+ points per game. FCS Coordinator of the Year.

That resume is fairly impressive for any coach. But by 28? That’s almost ludicrous.

Those marks are exactly what Zach Lujan, South Dakota State’s offensive coordinator since 2022, has accomplished by that sprightly age. Despite never having coached anywhere other than SDSU — where he finished his college career playing quarterback in 2016 — that resume was more than sufficient to attract the interest of Northwestern. Per multiple reports, the Wildcats are in the final stages of hiring Lujan to be their next offensive coordinator, replacing the controversial Mike Bajakian.

Lujan’s surface-level honors speak for themselves, but so do the peeled-back layers. Having worked as the quarterbacks and running backs coach (and OC) for the Jackrabbits, he’s churned out a deeply impressive contingent of players not just occupying NFL roster spots, but actively contributing to playoff teams. Packers rookie tight end Tucker Kraft and Browns running back Pierre Strong Jr. are just two examples of players who made a rather seamless journey from Brookings, South Dakota to the big stage, in large part because of Lujan’s coaching.

It’s not just talent development, either. Lujan’s unit had the highest Pro Football Focus grade (95.0) among any FCS or FBS team in 2023, meaning his offense was the best out of 261 nationwide. Last year, it ranked 22nd in that grouping, ahead of even Alabama (with No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young). Clearly, something is going right with Lujan at the helm.

What particularly allows Lujan’s offenses to flourish so greatly? Revisiting tape from the last two years tells a rather robust story.

Offensive Fundamentals

It seems as if nearly every play from Lujan incorporates some type of motion or shifting. While some of them might seem superfluous, most shifts are done in an effort to determine if a defense is playing man or zone coverage, at which point a quarterback/coach can audible. Additionally, motion late in the play clock forces defenses to have pointed communication about assignments.

Another staple of Lujan’s gameplan is the run-pass option, affectionately known as the RPO. It’s not necessarily a coincidence that some of the NFL’s best offenses/coaching staffs (e.g., Dolphins, 49ers, Colts) have regularly implemented the play, because it allows for quick and easy completions that can be for big gains. Here’s a strong example of Lujan turning to an RPO with a backside slant for a pickup of nearly 15 yards.

Motion and RPOs are fun, but they’re (admittedly) not super unique in either the college or pro levels of football at this point. Even Bajakian utilized them, although probably not as frequently as he should’ve. What really separates Lujan, in my opinion, is his creative personnel looks.

Although concrete data isn’t readily accessible, I’d estimate that the Jackrabbits operated out of 12 or 13 personnel (meaning utilizing multiple tight ends) on at least 60% of the plays that I watched. Typically, that type of heavier personnel — with fewer receivers on the field — indicates that a team will run the ball, which Lujan certainly did a fair bit from those looks (more on that in a second).

But, Lujan isn’t afraid to sprinkle in impressive passing concepts with more than one tight end on the field, either. Pretty much everything about this play screams “Run!” presnap; instead, Lujan dials up a play action pass, utilizing a deep crosser for a huge gain. There’s a reason that the opposing defense looked totally out of sorts.

Furthermore, it’s difficult not to observe the level of synergy with which Lujan’s offense plays. The team’s offensive line was largely masterful, surrendering just 61 pressures all year, good for the sixth-best PFF pass-blocking grade among those 261 aforementioned programs. Quarterback Mark Gronowski, the 2023 FCS Offensive Player of the Year, frequently operated out of clean pockets.

Beyond that, SDSU’s offensive line executed blocks in the run game with precision and power on almost a play-by-play basis. Positioning and leverage was often sound, no matter the concept. Just take a look at this humongous rushing lane.

This detail can easily go unnoticed, but to me, it speaks to the tone set by an offense’s mentality. South Dakota State’s blocks by non-offensive linemen, especially receivers, tight ends and fullbacks, reflect high intensity and success, even well downfield. Even Gronowski himself isn’t necessarily afraid to throw a block. This explosive run against UAlbany in the FCS Semifinals perfectly exemplifies that notion of blocking well beyond the initial assignment.

Diverse Run Game

The Jackrabbits’ run game was prolific this year, averaging a gaudy 6.3 yards per carry and nearly 228 yards per game. It’s no surprise, then, that Lujan leaned on it more heavily than the pass: SDSU ran 541 total times, compared to 342 throws, plus had 22 more first downs gained on the ground.

Lujan featured classic run plays like inside and outside zone, which typically act as the backbone for most zone running games. Here’s a nice example of strong blocking on inside zone, and an unreal cutback by Isaiah Davis, a star ‘back in his own right.

But what makes this run game distinct is the umpteen wrinkles thrown in by Lujan.

Consider this play, also against the NDSU Bison (with David Braun as their DC, no less). The Jackrabbits run outside zone, but incorporate orbit motion behind Davis for added deception. Plus, FB/TE Michael Morgan secures the backside with a strong wham block. This isn’t merely a typical OZ run (in part because of Davis).

Other common plays utilized by Lujan are counters and powers, which get linemen out in space as pullers. Below is a nice instance of a touchdown run on a counter with the center and tight end out in front, hitting their assignments excellently.

Despite having three capable and talented running backs, Bajakian rarely put two in the backfield on the same play. Lujan, though, did so on this snap, starting in the I before motioning to Pony personnel and having Morgan lead the way for Davis right up the B gap. Again, another unique touch leading to success.

The Wildcat formation has lingered as a bit of a sore spot to Wildcat fans after its disastrous reign during the 2022 season, but Lujan didn’t merely run straight up the middle with whoever received the ball. This clip showcases motioning both Gronowski and Davis over; a fake pitch from Davis to his QB; and pulls from the center and TE.

This running clip may have been my favorite in studying Lujan. The Jackrabbits motion over WR Jaxon Janke and TE Zach Heins. From there, RT John O’Brian pulls across the formation, something that causes the playside DE to hesitate. That, and nice perimeter blocking by the receivers, creates a hole for Davis.

The quarterback run game was another major component to South Dakota State’s offense under Lujan. Gronowski had 93 designed runs in the last two years, per PFF.

As you may have expected, read options constituted a big portion of those. This example, with Janke leading, is read and performed well by Gronowski.

Likewise, Lujan utilized Gronowski’s legs on draws and even options and counters. This third down carry is a phenomenal pin and pull, using Heins as the down block and pulling RG Evan Beernsten, plus getting Davis out in front. In case it wasn’t already clear, pretty much everyone is expected to block in Lujan’s offense, particularly tight ends.

Sound Pass Game

It wasn’t as if passing was a total afterthought for Lujan’s Jackrabbits, but it is noteworthy that Gronowski had just 310 attempts in 15 games. For context, Northwestern QBs amassed 390 tries in 13 matchups. Even then, Lujan still flashed his understanding of coverages and mismatches through the air.

A common theme was putting Gronowski in a position to succeed by attacking soft cushions to flats, typically through out routes. After a rough first half in uber windy conditions against Villanova, Lujan called a simple pitch and catch for Gronowski to find his slot man with the slot corner in outside leverage, gaining seven quick yards.

As alluded to earlier, play action was also a noteworthy element of the Jackrabbits’ aerial endeavors. 31.9% of Gronowski’s passes came with a playfake this season, a figure which was 8% higher than Bryant. This PA corner route attacked the hole in Cover Two beautifully for a huge gain against Iowa.

Tight ends aren’t only a focal point of the run game for Lujan; they’re also integral in the pass. Heins had 27 catches for 410 yards and seven touchdowns in 2023. The year before, Kraft and Heins each exceeded 27 catches for 347 yards and three scores.

Lujan’s ability to put tight ends on crossing routes or up the seam enables easy mismatches on smaller DBs or slower linebackers. Heins had two end zone trips against the Great Danes in December because of two nice calls by Lujan: the first on a stick and nod and the second on a seam strike. It might not be a coincidence that both were out of 12 personnel, too.

Although to a lesser extent, running backs were also encapsulated in SDSU’s passing game. This option route by Davis helped convert a first down. Collectively, Davis had 23 catches for 199 yards as a receiver this past year.

Finally, this pass is a good indicator of Lujan’s aggressive approach to calling plays. Already leading 28-0 midway through the second quarter, Lujan keeps the foot on the pedal with a first-down deep corner (and great YAC), which only sustains SDSU’s momentum even further.

Final Thoughts

Despite only being an offensive coordinator for two seasons, it’s difficult to envision someone reaching greater heights than Lujan did in Brookings. The fact that Braun and Northwestern were able to convince the 28-year-old to leave South Dakota State is impressive in and of itself, not to mention ward off other potential suitors.

It’s also tough to dislike Lujan’s scheme, which is creative, deceptive and asks almost all 11 players on offense to perform at a multifaceted level. Not every game was flawless, such as when the Jackrabbits scored just three points at Iowa and ran the ball too often. Yet the overall synchrony mixed with execution, balance and scoring output is highly encouraging.

Of course, an adjustment period should be expected of Lujan in his first few months and year in Evanston. Competing against the Hawkeyes, Buckeyes and Wolverines is not even close to matching up with the best FCS defenses, and that needs to be acknowledged.

On top of that, I’m not quite sure how Northwestern’s current personnel will fit what Lujan operated at SDSU. The Jackrabbits featured a dual-threat, accurate quarterback; an elusive running back with good vision; receivers that were physical at the catch point, tough to bring down and unreal blockers; two-way talents at tight end; and one of the better offensive lines in the FCS.

Right now, NU lacks a clear answer at QB (unless Gronowski transfers in, of course) and will probably need work at WR/TE/OL in the transfer portal. Likewise, I’m curious to what extent Lujan will mirror his South Dakota State scheme, compared to tailoring it to Northwestern’s strengths and weaknesses. For context, running, blocking and tight end play were not incredibly impressive last year, although better coaching could ameliorate that.

In spite of a lofty transition and roster transformation, Lujan brings the undeniability of a proven offense fortified by a high-level, seldom replicated scheme. After two seasons finishing below 23 points per game offensively and with numerous shortcomings, Wildcat fans should be very eager to see what Lujan can do in his first stint outside SDSU.