Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Know Thine Enemy: Washington's Tyrone Willingham | by Michael

(This is part 4 of a series on the newly-hired coaches ND will face this year.)

Last week we profiled new Stanford head coach Walt Harris, and this week we'll stay in the Pac-10 to review former Stanford and Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham, who has assumed the reins of the Washington Huskies. You may have heard of him before.

Tyrone Willingham, University of Washington

Bio/record: Check out Willingham's Husky bio. Or his Irish bio. Or his Cardinal bio. Willingham amassed a 21-15 record at Notre Dame during the last three years; prior to that he was 44-36-1 in seven years at Stanford. He replaces Keith Gilbertson, who resigned after a 1-10 season in 2004. Willingham worked as a running backs coach in the NFL and college, and when Dennis Green left Stanford, Willingham was promoted to the head coaching position.

Notable staff:
Tim Lappano was hired as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Lappano is best known for working with Dennis Erickson at Idaho, Oregon State, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, and he also has coached at Cal, Wyoming, Purdue and Washington State. Most of the remaining Husky assistants are a who’s who of the old ND staff: Mike Denbrock will be the sole offensive line coach. Kent Baer will be the defensive coordinator. Trent Miles will coach running backs (as opposed to wide receivers at Notre Dame). Steve Wilks will coach defensive backs. Bob Simmons will coach tight ends and special teams. Former Irish punter Joey Hildbold was also added as a defensive graduate assistant.

Offensive Philosophy:
Seven weeks is how long it took Willingham to hire an offensive coordinator and, in my opinion, there are two ways of looking at this. The first, gracious viewpoint is that Willingham patiently and thoroughly evaluated his candidates for OC, and the process legitimately took seven weeks. The second, more realistic take is that the candidate pool was limited (I'll come out and ask it: is Willingham viewed as being on the downswing of his coaching career?) and Willingham needed seven weeks for viable candidates to emerge. Some internet rumors even suggested that Willingham was trying to hire his coordinator at Notre Dame, Bill Diedrick, against the wishes of a Washington administration who remembered his first tour of duty under Jim Lambright, and more specifically, the 1994 Oregon game. I seriously doubt that was the case. Ultimately, the delay may have cost Washington some recruits who didn’t want to sign for a program with no offensive identity, but Willingham hired Lappano, who has an extensive offensive background and appears to be a very good fit for the program.

Lappano has a strong coaching resume, and I think a variation of the one-back, spread offenses he developed with Erickson and Joe Tiller may eventually emerge in Seattle. With that in mind, so far Lappano has remained a little secretive when asked about the offense’s identity (Scout.com subscription needed).
“I can’t tell you guys too much. That’s one of the advantages that we have…no one knows what we are going to run.”
Of course, all coaches say stuff like that during the spring practice although this year was a little different since Willingham, unlike previous Washington coaches, closed practices to the media and fans.

Ironically, Lappano has strong ties to deposed Husky head coach and offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson, so what they run in 2005 could be fairly similar to last year's offense. Gilbertson worked with Lappano for one year at Idaho (under Erickson), for three years at Cal and finally, for one year with the Seahawks (under Erickson again). This will probably mean a relatively easier transition to the new offense since most of the terminology should be the same, and a lot of the playbook should be similar. While greater use of a fullback has been discussed in the new offense, it wouldn’t make sense for Willingham to hire a coordinator like Lappano if he didn’t want a one-back, spread offense like the ones Erickson and Tiller have made popular. After all, that's Lappano's bread and butter.

Two great Scout.com articles (subscription required) from Dawgman.com reveal more. The first discusses offensive philosophy and the second includes Lappano’s thoughts on the Huskies’ personnel:
“I think the more looks we give the defense, the more we have to make them prepare for different formations and personnel groups, the more difficult we’ll be to defend...I do NOT want to be known as a finesse offense. We will run the ball and we will use two backs. I want a fullback at times to lead a power running game, to go with some one back...When we can stretch the field vertically and THEN get into two backs and run the ball physically, we’ll be hard to stop.”
Washington stopped itself quite a bit last year with turnovers and miscues. A similar lack of execution was one of Willingham’s pet peeves at Notre Dame and, looking at the Huskies' offense, there is nowhere to go but up. Quarterbacks completed a paltry 40% of their pass attempts, threw 24 interceptions and averaged 5.2 yards per pass attempt. Their running game managed a paltry 3.2 yards per rush. Those numbers are pathetic, and what compounded the problem was that they had 42 team turnovers (-19 differential). I expect that number to improve dramatically in 2005.

The option has been removed from the base offense, so that will help cut down on the fumbles, and because of their desire to control the ball and limit turnovers, I would expect a short passing attack featuring lots of screens. It’s what Lappano did with Jim Chaney and Tiller at Wyoming and Purdue, and it’s what he did with Erickson at Oregon State. Despite all the talk about the Huskies developing a power running game, I think the one-back spread will be their calling card this fall and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Oregon transfer Johnny Durocher ultimately win the nod at quarterback. He may be the best fit for Lappano's offense, although reportedly Isaiah Stanback is ahead of the other quarterbacks at this time.

The biggest question I have about Lappano is whether or not he's prepared to take over the reins of an offense. How will he do without Erickson or Chaney (Tiller's offensive coordinator) looking over his shoulder? I have some concerns but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, for now. Lappano is an intriguing pick, and his return to the Pacific Northwest should be mutually beneficial for both the Huskies and Lappano. (One thing's for sure, he's a helluva fisherman. He caught a 26-lb king salmon back in 2000, when he was working at Oregon State.)

On a final note on offense, two of Washington’s quarterbacks (Stanback and Carl Bonnell) may be better suited to run the option or a variation of the Bowling Green/Utah/Florida spread/option hybrid. Is Tyrone Willingham trying to fit a square peg into a round hole again?

Defensive Philosophy:
Yes, there was an actual philosophy behind the Irish defense the last three years. Defensive coordinator Kent Baer favors a 4-3 defense with multiple fronts, and his defenses want to take away an offense's rushing attack in an attempt to make them one-dimensional. While Notre Dame had a great rushing defense the last few years, at times this strategy completely backfired because the Irish couldn't defend the pass. In the Pac-10, where more offenses are built around the passing game, it should definitely be interesting to see how Baer adapts. Even at Stanford, Baer's defenses were criticized because of their soft zone coverages, and these same soft zones were abused last year by Irish opponents.

With that in mind, I actually tend to believe that Baer's defenses at Washington will be better than what most might predict. At Notre Dame, Baer's best defense was in 2002, when he had an extremely quick weakside linebacker in Courtney Watson, who was pretty good in coverage. Last year, two of his three starting linebackers were recruited as middle linebackers (Mike Goolsby, Derek Curry), and the third, who was the fastest, was poor in coverage (Brandon Hoyte). At Washington, Baer will have smaller, more athletic linebackers, just like the linebacker recruits the Irish were landing before the staff was fired. For example, Evan Benjamin, the starting outside linebacker, is a converted safety and measures in at 215 pounds. Joe Lobendahn, who played middle linebacker last year, has apparently moved to the strong side, and he's undersized at 5'11 and 230 pounds. Then there's Scott White, who was heavily recruited out of high school; at 230 lbs, White is a small middle linebacker. All three of these players have extensive experience (they totalled over 280 tackles last year combined). Size isn't the only factor that contributes to speed but it would appear that this year's Husky linebacking corps will be faster and more athletic than what Baer had at Notre Dame.

If the linebacker talent is as good as I believe it to be, Baer should be more successful with the soft zones he favored at Notre Dame and Stanford. I can't imagine he would radically depart from this philosophy, especially with a team that had serious turnover problems last year and struggled moving the football on offense. Washington will play soft zones to take away the big pass play; they'll force teams to throw to the underneath and drive the length of the field in order to score. Additionally, the linebackers will have some experience behind them in the secondary, which could really come together by the end of 2005. The top three corners all have experience, and they return both safeties. If their free safety plays well, he could be the key to the Huskies' ability to mix and disguise their coverages; having a rangy centerfielder can make a huge difference, something Irish fans didn't see last year with Quentin Burrell, who appeared to play hurt.

Finally, one of the big problems the Huskies faced in 2004 was their inability to stop the run, but they have some young talent along the defensive line. This group gained invaluable experience last year when they were thrown into the fire, so to speak. As every Notre Dame fan knows, Baer will make it a priority that his defense stops the run. This is a no-brainer. If the Husky line is able to keep blockers from getting to the linebackers, Baer and the Huskies could have a very surprising defense in 2005.

The excitement level is high in Seattle, and the Washington administration is trying to milk the hiring of Willingham for all it's worth. For instance, check out these weird commercials on their athletics site (for those that heard the rumors about how much Willingham enjoyed golfing in lieu of recruiting, there's a driving range commercial which will draw a chuckle).

I like the possibilities for the Huskies' offense and defense in the years to come, but there's one thing that Willingham did that would really bother me if I were a Huskies fan. Why on earth did he hire Bob Simmons to coach special teams? This hire is emblematic of the worst of Willingham: his irrational loyalty to incompetent assistants, to such an extent that it actually endangers the job security of everyone else. For example: in January 2002, Buzz Preston was given the task of coaching Notre Dame's special teams, although he had very limited experience. For the last three years Irish fans held their breath with every punt and kick-off, and closed their eyes on every kick-off return; special teams were abysmal. Now Simmons has been charged with coaching special teams for the Huskies, and guess what? He has zero experience. When there are plenty of hungry, qualified coaches at various levels waiting for an opportunity to coach special teams at a D1 school, this is the best Willingham can do? Why? To put it bluntly, under Ty, Stanford sucked at special teams, Notre Dame sucked at special teams, and now Washington will suck at special teams. In fact, it would be wonderfully ironic if the Irish scored a special teams touchdown against their old coach this year.

In the end, I'm left thinking that Willingham is headed for another round of his typical inconsistency at Washington. There will be bad seasons, and there will be good seasons, as I think Willingham does have some talented, smart, hard-working coaches on his staff who will recruit the Pacific Northwest and California fairly well. While a Rose Bowl bid isn't out of the question (if Willingham could win one at Stanford, there is no reason he can't do it at Washington, although the rebuilding job in Seattle will be much more arduous), I don't think he'll ever turn them into a dominant program. He makes too many poor staffing decisions (like the Simmons hire); similar moves were his downfall at Notre Dame, and they will prevent him from making Washington a consistent Pac-10 championship contender a la Don James and Jim Lambright.

If there is one thing Husky fans can hope for, it's that after one strong season the NFL finally comes calling for Willingham, and the school hires someone else...someone who can continue what Willingham may have started. He'll turn around Washington to a certain extent, and get them back into the middle of the Pac-10, but that's about it.

The Weis Factor:
Weis has never faced a Willingham- or Baer-coached defense, although it's worth mentioning that the offenses which gave Baer the most fits were the balanced ones capable of running or passing. On the other side of the ball, Rick Minter has never coached against Tim Lappano, although he has certainly seen his share of spread offenses -- if that is what the Huskies decide to implement.

And let's be honest: Irish fans are looking forward with a lot of anticipation (and bemusement) to September 24th in Seattle. Extremely high expectations have been set that an ass-whooping is in the offing...preferably by more than 31 points, the magic number during Willingham's brief run in South Bend. That said, I'd be really surprised if such a blowout occurred. It's a road game, Washington won't be as bad as they were in 2004, and the game will be incredibly emotional for many of our Irish players.

And if Ty somehow happens to beat Charlie...?