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Butch Jones Doesn’t Know What a Spread Offense Is, But Does Anyone Really?

It seems like everyone in college football is using a spread offense these days.

Teams such as Ohio State, Texas Tech, Baylor, West Virginia, California, and Clemson – among many, many others – have made the term “spread out the defense” well-known over recent years, using different variations of the system to exploit opponents’ weaknesses, get the ball in open space, and ultimately score a lot of points.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones recently hired Mike DeBord – the two had coached together as assistants at Central Michigan back in 2000-03 – as his new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The move was made in order to “enhance” the Volunteers’ offense, which is predicated on three- and four-wide sets with short passes, the inside zone run, and an up-tempo approach.

Sounds like a spread offense, right? Well, don’t tell that to Jones – he doesn’t even know what that is.

“I hear the term ‘spread offense.’ If anybody can give me the definition of spread offense, I’m all up for it,” Jones said at DeBord’s introductory press conference on Friday. “I think it’s the most misused term in all of football. I think it rivals the term of the ‘West Coast offense.’ I don’t know if people think you’re in the gun, you’re a spread offense. I don’t know if its personnel. I don’t know if it’s no-huddle.

“Growing up, when I heard the term ‘spread offense,’ right away, you thought of a finesse offense. We’ll never be a finesse offense here at the University of Tennessee,” he continued. “We’re going to have attitude running plays within our scheme. Everyone uses the term ‘spread offense.’ I don’t think anyone truly understands the true definition, because every individual spread offense means something different.”

OK, now I’m confused. This changes everything.

What is a spread offense? What is an audible? What is a quarterback? What is football? What is the meaning of life? Someone help.

“The word ‘spread’ has come to describe about 38 different styles of offense in college football,” wrote Bill Connelly of SB Nation early last year. “If you line your tight end up detached from the line, you’re a spread. If you utilize mostly four wideouts, you’re a spread. Hell, if your quarterback lines up mostly in the shotgun, you’re a spread.

“These all have kernels of truth in them, but at this point, the spread has mostly lost its meaning. Saying a team runs a ‘spread’ offense tells you almost nothing about what kind of offense the team actually runs.”

By definition, the spread offense was initially employed by placing the quarterback a few yards back from the center to give receivers more time to get open, thus also providing more options to move the ball. It typically means running with tempo – a lot of the time with no huddle – and can feature wider splits with offensive linemen, with other forms and variations such as the read-option and all-verticals passing approach.

“At its heart, though, the spread ethos is about putting playmakers in space and giving them room to make plays,” said Connelly. “It originally developed as an underdog tactic of sorts, as a way to spread out and harry more talented defenses and hopefully force some mistakes.

“But there is a certain level of tactical superiority to the idea, and after a while, a lot of the most talented teams in the country began to employ more and more spread tactics.”

If you take into account what Jones, Connelly, and the standard definition of a spread offense says, then you can say that pretty much all 129 FBS college football programs run the spread – or at least have a package that takes up a chunk of their playbook. (A fun stat to look at here is that in 2008, five teams ran over 1,000 plays; in 2014, there were 21.)

It’s either that we need to completely re-define the true meaning of the spread. Considering the variables, that could take awhile.

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