Former Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs was asked by NFL team representatives at February’s Scouting Combine whether he could handle a playbook.
An aeronautical engineering major, Dobbs took offense at the question.
“My senior year I was taking astronautics, propulsion and an aerodynamics class all on the same day at the same time as football season when I was leading an SEC team,” Dobbs reportedly said. “I think I can handle it.”
OK, so grasping a football playbook isn’t exactly rocket science.
But it does take some studying and attention to detail to learn offensive and defensive concepts. Like that stern physics professor, head coaches expect their players to know the playbook well enough to execute on game days.
For the first time in 10 years, Baylor’s offense will have a playbook this season under first-year coach Matt Rhule.
Former Baylor coach Art Briles didn’t use a playbook, preferring instead to teach his players through practice repetition and film study. It’s hard to argue with the results since the Bears annually ranked among the national leaders in nearly every offensive category in Briles’ imaginative spread attack.
Rhule is only 42 but is decidedly old school. His spring practices have been extremely physical in an age when many teams shy away from hitting in practice. The Bears run “gassers” at the end of workouts. Even some of the coaches run sprints with the players.
So it’s not surprising that the new Baylor staff has a playbook. Rhule likes the way his players have soaked up his coaching staff’s principles so far.
“These are smart guys and they’ve done a nice job of learning and memorizing and buying into the learning process,” Rhule said. “That can be voluminous for any team any time when you have to learn a new offense and defense.”
Baylor’s offensive playbook is still a work in progress and bound to get thicker since new co-offensive coordinators Jeff Nixon and Glenn Thomas are combining elements of the spread and pro-style offenses.
Nixon has an extensive NFL background since he spent the last 10 years as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, and last season as the San Francisco 49ers tight ends coach.
Thomas served last season as Temple University’s offensive coordinator under Rhule after spending the previous four years as an offensive assistant for the Atlanta Falcons. His star pupil was quarterback Matt Ryan.
Though the new coaches have thrown a lot of offensive schemes at the players this spring, Rhule believes they’ve picked them up quickly. The Baylor players have seen a lot of the plays before with different terminology.
“There’s only so many plays you can really run in football,” Rhule said. “We have coaches who represent eight, nine, 10 NFL teams on our staff. What we call Ride 34, someone else calls 15. It’s the same play.”
With 34 years of coaching experience, Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow has probably seen every play since Pop Warner began drawing up formations for Jim Thorpe.
Snow has NFL coaching experience with the Detroit Lions, but he’s also worked at a lot of colleges like UCLA, Washington, Arizona State and Boise State. The Bears have mostly employed a basic 4-3 defense this spring but they’ll almost certainly need to convert to the 5-2 defense a great deal against the wide open teams in the Big 12 next fall.
“Coach Snow’s (playbook) is pretty thick,” Rhule said. “But lots of it is because he starts out by making the kids learn the offensive formations, the offensive routes. So if you play for Coach Snow you learn offense before you ever learn how to play defense. That’s part of the comprehensive building of a player.”
The Bears take their playbooks home with them but they also cram before practice like they’re getting ready for a test.
“A lot of guys on the offensive line are in treatment,” said Baylor offensive lineman Blake Blackmar. “We’re in the training room a lot, and that’s what you do in the training room, cram with the playbook, review stuff. It’s almost like taking two more classes.”
Nobody has more to learn than the quarterbacks who need to know every position on the field. But every player has his hands full with a new system to learn.
“I know the quarterbacks have 12,000 reads,” Blackmar said. “This is definitely a lot larger offensive scheme for the offensive line to handle, and I think it’s coming along well. We have 2½ hours of meetings on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That’s all putting in stuff in the playbook.”
The Baylor coaches probably won’t have all their offensive and defensive schemes installed until the season begins in the fall. Rhule isn’t completely sure what his coaching staff will add to the playbook next.
“I think they hide parts of it to me so I don’t see it,” Rhule laughed.