Saturday, June 25, 2005

Know Thine Enemy: Stanford's Walt Harris | by Michael

(This is part 3 of a series on the newly-hired coaches ND will face this year.)

In the first two posts, we looked at rookie head coaches Bronco Mendenhall and Greg Robinson. Now we'll move on to the more experienced guys, starting with the "Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football at Stanford", Walt Harris.

Walt Harris, Stanford University

Bio/Record: Take a look at Harris’s bio. Stanford is his third head coaching position; Harris went 11-24 in three years at Pacific and 52-44 in eight years at Pitt. Although Stanford’s firing of Buddy Teevens came as a bit of a surprise, Harris’s move west isn’t a shocker since many predicted his departure before the Panthers made their Big East title run, which culminated in the Fiesta Bowl appearance. Even Harris, back in September, sounded like he wanted out.
"This is a pro city with a pro mentality. Nothing is ever good enough. I know that goes with the territory here. That's our challenge. I'm not complaining. I'm just telling you how it is...I'm not worried about my job. I know there's always going to be a job out there for me."
Known as a QB guru, Harris actually spent the 1970s as a defensive coach for Cal, Pacific, Air Force and Michigan State. In 1980, Harris took a job coaching QBs for Illinois, and he used that position as a springboard to similar positions at Tennessee, the New York Jets and Ohio State.

Of additional interest, Harris has strong ties to John Gruden (on Harris's Pacific staff and a graduate assistant at Tennessee) and Pete Carroll (whom Harris recruited to Pacific and for whom he coached the Jets QBs in 1994).

Notable Staff: The most recognizable name is undoubtedly John McDonnell, who coached interior OL last year for Notre Dame. Harris has him coaching tackles and tight ends for the Cardinal. Tom Hayes, who won three Rose Bowls as the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach for UCLA during the mid-80s, has been hired as the defensive coordinator. Hayes also has significant experience coaching the secondary for the Washington Redskins (1995-1999) and Texas A&M (1989-1990, under Bob Davie) and he served as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma (1991-1994) and Kansas (2001). Additionally, Harris retained two of Teevens’ assistants, and brought two from Pitt with him, Wayne Moses and Tom Freeman. Both Moses and Freeman have strong west coast ties, and Moses actually coached under Teevens in 2002 and 2003 before joining Pitt in 2004.

Offensive Philosophy: Bill Walsh coached at Stanford before winning Super Bowls with the 49ers, and Harris considers himself a disciple. One of the immediate changes in the new West Coast offense will be the return of the fullback, which went on the endangered species list in Teevens’ more wide-open attack. One player who won’t be able to take advantage of the new offense is former Irish recruit Jerod Arlich, who is MIA on the spring roster. Harris has asked defensive lineman Nick Frank to fill this void, and he’s already moved ahead of another former Irish recruit Emeka Nnoli.

That said, the West Coast offense is all about the quarterback, not the fullback, and Harris has two good ones in Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander, who played well down the stretch last year when Edwards was hurt. Harris did not name Edwards the starter despite his edge in experience, nor was a starter named after spring practice. Our bet is that Edwards will eventually beat out Ostrander. Both are EA Elite 11 quarterback camp alumni, and Harris won’t have to build the offense from scratch, like he did at Pittsburgh.

To get a better sense of his offensive philosophy, check out what Harris said at a 2003 Nike camp clinic:
“It is important to understand the impact of the quarterback position in winning. I grew up on the West Coast and I was always a San Francisco 49ers fan. I am a big Bill Walsh disciple. Why? I love to run the football, but the hardest part of coaching is to get good linemen. Linemen win championships and they are hard to get. We try to control the ball with the forward pass. We have gotten better at running the football. Anytime we can run the ball we are going to be hard to beat.
If you want to read more, check out the 2003 Coach of the Year Clinics Manual. Are linemen hard to get? For a school like Pitt, especially when many other schools are raiding Pennsylvania for the elite offensive linemen recruits, I could agree with that statement. Also noteworthy is that in his eight years at Pitt, only two linemen have been drafted: Kris Anderson, a 7th round pick (261st overall) in 2003, and Rob Petitti, a 6th round pick (209th overall) in 2005. One thing is for sure; at Stanford it will be easier to recruit OL, who generally seem to have much higher grades and test scores than other recruits. For this reason, I think Stanford will eventually have the running game that Pitt’s offenses always seemed to lack. J.R. Lemon hasn’t lived up to his recruiting hype, and David Marrero has been hurt quite a bit, but like the rest of that offense, they’ve also had to suffer though the Buddy factor.

Harris also mentions wanting to “control the ball with the forward pass.” There are two concurrent ideas here. First, when it comes to controlling the ball, even without a running game, Pitt has generally been at the top of the Big East when it comes to time of possession. Second, the forward pass has been very kind to Pitt. They have had two Biletnikoff winners in Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant, and Greg Lee emerged last year as the next in the great line of Pitt wide receivers. Their offense also heavily utilized the tight end, and Kris Wilson was a 2nd round draft pick in 2004. Stanford won’t have any problems recruiting receivers, and they’ve always had success finding and developing tight ends. That shouldn’t change, especially with talented young players waiting in the wings to replace 3rd round draft pick Alex Smith. At wide receiver, former Irish recruit Mark Bradford could have a big year as the go-to guy for Stanford. Harris has the weapons at his disposal for a dangerous attack, and from what I’ve read, his system isn’t overly complicated compared to other West Coast offenses; the Cardinal should be able to pick it up easily, especially whoever steps in at quarterback.

Defensive Philosophy: Stanford suffered a hit when the 49ers lured A.J. Christoff away from Harris to be their new defensive coordinator. Christoff, the coordinator under Teevens, had been announced as one of the members of the new staff and Harris quickly needed to fill the gap.
Enter Tom Hayes, whose previous experience suggests that he’s a capable candidate for the job. However, Hayes also seems to be on the downside of his coaching career. Perhaps he simply wanted to take time off, but the two gaps on his resume – from when he was released in 1999 by Washington (after Steve Spurrier was hired to bring in his new staff) to when he was hired in 2001 by Terry Allen as the defensive coordinator for Kansas, as well as the 2002-2004 seasons (Allen was fired at the end of Hayes’ first season). During the last five years, it appears that Hayes has only coached twelve college football games.

That concern aside, what Hayes will bring to the Stanford defense probably won’t be a dramatic difference from what they’ve been doing the last few years. Harris and Hayes are going to keep the 3-4 defense, whose philosophy will probably mirror what Hayes said at Kansas.
"There are only so many ways you can play. You can undershift, overshift, zone, man. All offensive coaches say they like to be balanced, and that's a great word. I like to be balanced. That doesn't mean 50-50 zone/man, 50-50 blitz/drop back. That means doing what you want to do when you want to do it. The best way to describe it is to say it's complex for offenses, but not too complex for us. It's a lot for offenses to get ready for, but it's not complicated for our players."
Keeping the 3-4 is a smart move for two reasons, in my opinion. It's simply much harder to consistently recruit defensive tackles than it is to recruit linebackers, and Irish fans know firsthand that tackles with grades, let alone the grades that Stanford requires, are hard to find. Secondly, the Pac-10 is and has been a QB/passing conference. The 3-4 allows more opportunities to drop 8 defenders into coverage or send different blitzes than the 4-3.

One of the differences in Stanford's schemes for next year should be regarding their coverages, as T.J. Rushing mentions in one of the series of great articles chronicling spring football:
"He's giving us a lot more mixed up coverages. Last year was predominately zone; now we get to run a lot of man and zone. Mix it up a lot so the offense just doesn't know: 'Third and four - they are going to run zone every time.' Now we get to mix things up on the offense." even sat down with Hayes for an insightful interview that’s definitely worth checking out. One interesting thing is Hayes’ decision to designate positions by “left” and “right” as opposed to using the strength of the offensive formation (“strong” and “weak”). As an aside, this seems to be a growing trend in college football as I’ve seen other teams move away from using the formation strength to determine the alignment, including Notre Dame. It appears defensive coordinator Rick Minter is using field/boundary designations, and last year he similarly used left/right for his defensive ends at South Carolina.

The internet only contains so many articles on coaches before 1995, so unfortunately there’s little insight into his philosophies from his UCLA, Oklahoma and Texas A&M days. As a result, it’s more difficult to assess what offenses can expect from Stanford this year. When it comes to Stanford's defense, I think the most important thing to remember is that Walt Harris, despite being known as "offensive-minded," has a lot of experience coaching defense. It was seen at Pitt, where Paul Rhoads developed aggressive schemes that generally included an 8-man front to stop the run and man-to-man coverage. An 8-man front may not be as necessary in the pass-happy Pac-10, and given Rushing’s comments about more man coverage and Hayes' Wrecking Crew experience under Bob Davie, I'm going to infer that the Cardinal will have one of their most aggressive defenses since at least before the Tyrone Willingham era, which seemed to prefer soft zones and "bend but don't break."

Predictions: Stanford represents a return to Harris’s west coast roots since his first coaching position was as the head coach at El Camino High School, just south of San Francisco. Now that he’s returned, I think he could be at Stanford for a long time.

Harris has never been known for his recruiting prowess, but he has several things working in his favor that will make this task easier. First and foremost, his reputation as an offensive “guru” and the success of Rod Rutherford, Tyler Palko, Antonio Bryant, Larry Fitzgerald and now Greg Lee should ensure that Harris has little difficulty recruiting QBs and WRs. Second, there is simply a ton of talent in California and, considering the talent outside the state, it’s generally much easier to recruit to a more attractive climate than to a cold one like Pittsburgh. Third, players who are sincerely interested in academics now have a legitimate reason to expect Stanford will start winning again.

Those who criticized Harris in Pittsburgh often cited his bad decisions, and in this case, the critic was Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook, who clearly wanted Harris gone. Others chronicled the ups and downs of the program in recent years. However, considering the poor condition in which Harris inherited Pitt from Johnny Majors, and what he has subsequently done to rebuild the program, I think the Pittsburgh media and fans who wanted to see Harris leave were wrong. The top talent in western Pennsylvania had too many better opportunities to pass up outside the state, and yet Harris was able to take a team that had gone 3-7-1, 6-5, 3-9, 3-8, 3-8 2-9, 4-7 in the last seven years and transform it back into a winner. That’s coaching (and admittedly, some scheduling).

Teevens recruited much better than Willingham did, and the cupboard definitely has some attractive talent. Harris was ready to take Pitt football to the next level when he had gained verbal commitments from Anthony Morelli and Andrew Johnson, two of the best players in Pennsylvania, only to lose them to bigger schools when rumors started circulating about the Big East's loss of Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College. That won't happen at Stanford. Harris should be able to utilize the roster in ways that will make the embarrassing three years of Buddy Ball (be sure to read Lemming’s prediction) easier for Cardinal fans to forget in the years ahead. Although reaching the Rose Bowl will be a more arduous task than winning the Big East’s automatic bid, Stanford should immediately become a more competitive program in the Pac-10 under Harris.

If you don't believe me, listen to Jon Gruden:
“I consider Walt Harris as good a coach as there is in America.”
The Weis Factor: Weis and Harris have never squared off. Nor have any of Charlie’s defensive assistants played against Pitt in recent years. In fact, looking at the Panthers' schedule under Harris, it seems like they played every other Ohio non-major (Toledo, Bowling Green, Ohio, Kent St) except Rick Minter’s Cincinnati squad.

In my opinion, last year’s high scoring affair against Pitt may have been an omen of sorts. It’s certainly reasonable to believe that the back-and-forth Holtz-Walsh battles of the early 1990s may return under Weis and Harris. In addition, when this year's game rolls around during Thanksgiving weekend, more may be at stake - for both schools - than what the pundits are currently guessing.