Every football coach in America has a vision of how he wants his team to play.
In terms of style, scheme, tempo and talent, each coach has a preferred method of playing he feels will give his team the best chance to win.
Usually it takes years for a coach to build a team to the point where it is a true reflection of his philosophy. For University of Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, it took only a few months.
“That team last year played pretty much like I like a football team to look,” UW’s second-year coach said. “They were physical, they were tough, they believed they could win every game, they had their own identity, they did a great job of leading themselves. I liked that way that team looked.”
While all of that may be true, the UW team that went 9-4 during Andersen’s debut season didn’t have much in common with Andersen’s teams at Utah State. In fact, it looked more like recent UW teams under Bret Bielema.
That was no surprise. UW is a different school in a different conference with a different recruiting base and different expectations than Utah State. Historically, when the Badgers are good, their success is based on a power running game and a big, physical defense. Andersen’s Aggies, with their spread offense and fast, aggressive defense, were the antithesis of that.
Andersen wisely altered his preferred approach to fit the players he inherited at UW, but after losing a large senior class and having had almost two years to understand and add to UW’s personnel, he will field a noticeably different team this season. Version 2.0 of the Badgers under Andersen should have much more of his personal stamp on it.
And what is that? If Andersen’s vision is realized, UW will have more quick-strike capability on offense and will play with considerably more speed and aggressiveness on defense while maintaining UW’s tough, physical nature on both sides of the ball.
“I don’t even know if really my stamp on the program is important,” Andersen said. “But everybody understands each other, which is nice. On top of that, I think you get a real understanding of the commitment level, the importance of the traditions of Wisconsin. I don’t care where you’re at, if you’re an outsider walking in, if you walk into a business, it takes you a year to get it.”
Andersen’s friend, Urban Meyer, is going through a similar transition at Ohio State and it is not until this season — Meyer’s third — that the Buckeyes have the kind of team speed he wants. Andersen will try to accelerate the transition process in his second season at UW.
That doesn’t mean UW will employ four wide receivers on every down and throw the ball all over the field. However, Andersen will do more than tweak UW’s traditional marriage of a power running game and a pro-style passing attack. He wants an offense that can score in 15 plays or score in one and he’s hoping a few alterations can give the unit more game-breaking ability.
First, he will try to design an outside running game that has more ways to get the backs to the edges than just the fly sweep. Next, he recruited a sizable group of wide receivers and will try to develop multiple deep threats at the position. Finally, he will use some of the read-option he preferred at Utah State — no matter who starts at quarterback.
“You look at your team and you say, ‘What do you want to be?’ ” Andersen said. “We want to run the football. We want to have a great play-action game. We want to wear people down as the game goes on and we get in the fourth quarter. But there is a certain amount of a football game where you say, the field is 53 yards (wide) and we need to be able to play on that field. Then whatever is left of the end zone is what we’re playing on on offense. So if we’re going to do it with just tight ends, offensive linemen, running backs and no wide receivers out there, the game can get very difficult.
“Our need was to recruit receivers. When you recruit receivers, you want to have guys that can catch, they’ve got to be tough to play in our offense and then, yes, we’d love to have some elite athletes that can change the game in one play — whether they catch a slant and go 80 yards or they catch a fade in the end zone — and make those 10 or 12 special plays that are going to allow you to have a great season instead of a bad season or a good season.”
The key to much of Andersen’s offensive plan is having a mobile quarterback, one who can make plays with his arm or his feet. Incumbent Joel Stave doesn’t fit the description, but if Stave holds off the challenge of athletic Tanner McEvoy, you can expect UW to have Stave run more option or, more likely, employ a change-of-pace package with McEvoy at the controls.
“Somehow, some way, we’re going to make you honor the quarterback within the scheme at times with his feet,” Andersen said. “I don’t think it really matters who the quarterback is. I don’t think it really matters if it ends up being a package.”
On defense, Andersen switched to a 3-4 alignment when he took the job. But with every starter on last year’s front seven lost to graduation, the time seems right for a transition to smaller, faster players.
The difference starts at nose guard, where Warren Herring checks in at 285 pounds, some 40 to 50 lighter than last year’s starter, Beau Allen. The top four ends weigh between 259 and 277 and most came to UW as linebackers. And the top four outside linebackers — Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert, Leon Jacobs and Jesse Hayes — are built for speed.
Andersen hopes the defense is fast and versatile enough that UW can employ more packages because he feels that makes it harder on offenses.
“We feel like we’re going to be faster,” he said. “We feel like we have the ability to run well. We’ve got some athleticism. Last year, that front could hang in there with anybody in the country and say, ‘Let’s go, come and get us and we’re ready for you.’ We’ll have to move around a little bit more than we have, so we adjusted the scheme. You’ll see us do some more things within coverage that’s going to dictate how we’re able to disguise.
“The hope is that the man coverage and the zone coverages are not dissected as easily with the offenses that we play. The hope is that with the odd front continuing to develop that people don’t understand or know where we’re coming from.”
The obvious question is whether a smaller, faster defense can hold up over the course of a Big Ten Conference schedule. The Big Ten remains the nation’s most physical league and stopping the run is the first priority against most teams. Even Andersen admits going small on defense in the Big Ten is a concern.
Of course, the trick is to incorporate the new ideas and approaches into the program without sacrificing the elements that have made UW a perennial Big Ten contender. That is a fine line Andersen will walk as he moves UW closer to his vision.
The results can be disastrous if a coach strays too far from the Wisconsin way. For proof, look no further than Don Morton, whose veer offense wasn’t suited for the type of talent UW can get. On the other hand, Russell Wilson showed how a mobile quarterback can energize even a traditional offense like UW’s.
What UW does still works in college football, and Andersen knows that. But if he can diversify the offense and speed up the defense, it could take the Badgers to another level.