In Part 1 of this series, we analyzed what Kalen DeBoer’s offenses looked like at Eastern Michigan and Fresno State. In Part 2, we considered how IU’s current offensive personnel would fit in Coach DeBoer’s system. Today, in the third and final part of the series, we try to answer the all-important question: will Coach DeBoer’s offense in 2019 constitute an improvement over the units fielded by his predecessor, Mike DeBord, in 2017 and 2018?
First, if you are expecting something vastly different than the offense deployed by Mike DeBord, you’ll probably be disappointed, at least on the surface. At its core, DeBoer’s offense is about staying on schedule and moving the ball efficiently down the field with short-to-intermediate passing and a strong running game. DeBord’s offense also fits that description. But beyond that surface-level similarity, I think there are a few key distinctions that could lead to different results.
Coaching at a Talent Disadvantage
Unlike Mike DeBord, Kalen DeBoer is accustomed to — and has found success while — coaching at a talent disadvantage. His teams at EMU featured less talent than almost all of their opponents. Fresno State may have drawn even or possibly passed a few opponents in skill position talent, but in general they were in the same ballpark, if not a little behind, their main Mountain West opponents like Boise State and San Diego State. As a result, DeBoer should be relatively comfortable stepping into a situation at IU in which, despite recent improved recruiting, his offense will be at a talent disadvantage in most B1G games.
In contrast, Mike DeBord never demonstrated an ability to field an effective offense without a decided talent advantage. His Michigan teams were stacked with NFL players, and even his more recent Tennessee offenses had Alvin Kamara, Josh Dobbs (a backup QB in the NFL) and Jalen Hurd. At IU, Coach DeBord never demonstrated the creativity – from both a schematic and personnel standpoint – necessary to field an effective offense when you don’t have the horses to line up and impose your will.
Making In-Game Adjustments
Second, recent history suggests DeBoer is better at in-game adjustments than his predecessor. As the chart to the right shows, in the past two seasons, Fresno State and IU were roughly equal in terms of 1st half scoring. In the 3rd quarter, however, Coach DeBoer’s offenses outscored DeBord’s by an average of more than 4 pts. If you factor in DeBoer’s two EMU offenses, his 3rd quarter average only drops to 9.0.[ref] The average comparison with DeBord gets a little closer when you add in his Tennessee offenses, but DeBord’s offenses were still outscored in the 3rd quarter by DeBoer’s offenses over the past 4 seasons.[/ref] Admittedly, this is a rough measure of a coach’s ability to adjust, but I tend to think there is something valuable here. I imagine IU’s poor scoring average in the 3rd quarter – and 2nd half generally – will not surprise many IU fans. Too often it seemed that the IU offense moved the ball well when operating on the game-opening script, but once the defense figured out what the Hoosiers were doing — generally after halftime — DeBord & Co. simply didn’t have answers.
On the other hand, DeBoer’s offenses seem to have a knack for putting points on the board after halftime.[ref] Maybe he’s a disciple of K Dub’s “Swedish Fish at halftime” strategy.[/ref] The most likely explanation for that ability is probably the next point – that Coach DeBoer utilizes an offensive system with built-in countermeasures, while DeBord appeared to deploy a collection of plays. Those countermeasures tended to kick in during the 3rd quarter. While there’s no guarantee that DeBoer’s ability to adjust will follow him to Bloomington, I like his odds to improve over DeBord’s 5.0 points per 3rd quarter average.
A System Vs. A Collection Of Plays
Finally, Mike DeBord’s offense, as far as I could tell, was less a system and more a collection of plays. When I use the term “system,” I mean an offense with a specific identity that seeks to run a handful of base plays and then has built-in counterpunches when the defense inevitably takes those base plays away. Take Kevin Wilson’s offense: K Dub was content to run inside and outside zone[ref] And some gap run concepts.[/ref] as his base. Bubble screens were used heavily as a way to keep the defense honest, as were playaction deep posts behind cheating safeties. If a defense starting jumping bubble screens, Kevin would call a bubble-pump deep pass to a receiver who had been a bubble screen blocker. If the defense was jumping a split zone play, you could be sure that Wilson would call a play-action and slip the normal split zone pulling tight end into the flat…and he’d almost always be open. In general, one play or concept built on another.
It never seemed like that with DeBord. Instead, DeBord’s system seemed like more of a Frankenstein, in which he borrowed a handful of plays or concepts from different systems. Everyone seemed to be running RPOs, so he’d add some basic RPOs. Coach Allen wanted to throw it deep, so DeBord would throw one-on-one vertical routes and back-shoulders to our outside receivers. There was a certain level of unpredictability to DeBord’s offense that might have helped it at times, but on the whole, it simply did not work. If an offensive coordinator is going to go the “collection of plays” route, he had better be an excellent play-caller. At least at IU, DeBord never demonstrated that skill. His offense lacked an identity, and it almost never demonstrated an ability to counterpunch.
Turning to Coach DeBoer, his EMU offenses seemed a little like the DeBord “collection of plays” model, albeit with a better play-caller at the helm. At Fresno State, however, perhaps with the input and tutelage of Jeff Tedford, DeBoer’s offenses had a much more apparent identity. This was a modern update of the West Coast offense. Plays built off each other. Receivers were open down the field as a product of scheme. If the defense was intent on taking away his star receiver, DeBoer, with the help of his stud QB, was comfortable getting the ball in the hands of his backs and tight ends.
In the end, I suspect the experience at Fresno under Tedford helped DeBoer in terms of implementing an offensive system. Even if it didn’t, the offense should benefit from having a better play-caller. In sum, it is safe to say that IU has an upgrade at offensive coordinator. At the same time, simply being better than an OC who was subpar in virtually all respects probably won’t lead to the sort of breakthrough that Coach Allen is seeking. So the question becomes just how much better DeBoer will be? There is evidence to suggest that he might be a major improvement, but it’s far from a guarantee. If Coach DeBoer ends up succeeding, his creativity in working with a talent disadvantage, his ability to adjust, and his use of a true offensive system will play a part.