Ed Orgeron may not have been able to land Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator at LSU, but he grabbed the next best thing in former Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Canada is an innovative coach who runs one of the most multiple offenses in college football. With all kinds of talent at his disposal in Baton Rouge, Canada will soon turn the Tigers into one of the SEC’s most creative and impressive units.
Canada is a “players not plays” coach. At every stop he’s adapted his offense to the personnel. Whether it’s a fully-fledged spread-option attack, a downhill power-run unit, or somewhere along that spectrum, Canada has done it all.
“I don’t like to pigeonhole us: We’re this or that,” Canada said during his introductory press conference on Wednesday. “Power team here. QB run team here. It’s the same offense. We find a way to maximize our talents.”
While the formations and looks may change, the philosophy remains the same: play physical, keep the defense off-balance through substitutions, and use constant pre-snap movement to create mismatches.
Attacking through personnel
Canada’s offense is as varied down-to-down as any you will ever see. He utilizes every conceivable formation and personnel package to keep the defense off-balance and to force constant communication: multiple tight end sets, extra linemen, eligible linemen, unbalanced lines, bringing in a fullback, spread formations, and varying tight end alignments (including X-Iso), it’s all there.
Running such a high-volume of packages and formations creates difficulties for the defense throughout the game week and on game day. First, it’s tough for them to figure out tendencies. Canada is willing to run foundational plays — like the slow-developing counter-trey that was a staple of his offense at Pitt — from a heavy package (extra linemen and multiple tight ends) as much as he is a spread one.
And once a defense has figured out what personnel grouping is on the field, and identified the formation, Canada uses constant pre-snap movement (motions and shifts) to make things even more difficult. Communication between the defensive staff and players is stressed, as is player-to-player communication. Making personnel decisions becomes just as important as a linebacker perfectly executing their run fit.
Conceptually, Canada runs a smashmouth-spread system: Emphasizing the run, unloading the box through spread formations, and running traditional power-running concepts.
“We do have a spread component. We can be spread,” Canada told Ross Dellenger of The Advocate.
It’s not a traditional spread system, with a quarterback dropping back 40 times a game and throwing the ball all over the shop. Instead, it’s designed to create as many 1-on-1 opportunities for running backs at the second-level.
Again, Canada attacks through formations to get the looks he wants. There are four- and five-wide receiver sets, lightening the defensive front as they’re forced into nickel or dime packages. And even when Canada uses heavy packages, receivers line up in plus splits (outside the numbers), spreading the defense as much as possible, and forcing the defense to defend the entire width of the field.
The true mastery is with the line movement and angle-blocking concepts. LSU fans will be used to some of these: linemen pulling and moving and distorting the different levels of the defense. It’s the perfect fit for Derrius Guice, an exceptional one-cut-and-go back who gets in and out of creases as well as any back in the SEC.
Where Canada’s run-scheme differs from the previous regime is the emphasis on slow-developing play designs. Counters, misdirection plays, and multiple pulling linemen — all of which require patience from the back in order to allow blocks to develop — were core components of Canada’s Pitt offense. The designs are intricate, requiring linemen to be great athletes as well as understand the nuances of angle blocks.
Getting the most out of Guice has to be Canada’s initial focus. And in many ways his system is perfectly built for the star running back.
Perhaps most importantly, Canada will bring an expansive RPO (Run-Pass Option) package to Baton Rouge.
Many had bemoaned the lack of creativity and explosiveness under Les Miles. One clear criticism was the lack of RPOs and packaged plays that would have made life easier on quarterbacks, and created more favorable matchups in the running game.
Canada’s system uses both pre- and post-snap RPOs. Pre-snap are essentially “kill” calls: two plays called in the huddle, the quarterback checks how many defenders are in the box and checks to the best possible play.
At Pitt, when he was using heavy formations and attempting to run the ball down the defense’s throat, Canada would use tight formations, with extra blockers, but split the receivers outside the numbers. From there, Pitt could use two plays. The concept was to lighten the box through the pre-snap alignment, but if the defense loaded the box regardless, the quarterback would “kill” the running play and check to a quick screen.
Pre-snap RPOs are a great way for an offense to ensure a 1-on-1 matchup, getting an athlete in space and giving him the chance to go make a play.
Post-snap RPOs are designed so that, in theory, the defense can never be right. They’re the natural evolution of option football and the play-action pass. The offense builds a running play and passing play into the same concept. As the ball is snapped, the quarterback reads a specific defender. If that player crashes to play the run, he throws the pass. If the defender sits or drops into a zone, the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back.
Watching Pitt’s offense from this year, I was surprised at how diverse Canada’s RPO attack was, particularly given the intricacies of the run game and the sheer volume of formations they ran (I really began to wonder where Canada got all the time to install this stuff).
Against Virginia Tech, Pitt isolated and attacked linebackers with second-level RPOs, preying on the Hokies’ aggressiveness against the run.
At the snap, the offensive line blocks for a run (even getting away with having an ineligible man downfield), the running back sets up for the rushing concept, while the receivers run routes (though the only real target is the slot receiver).
As the ball gets to the mesh-point, the quarterback reads the Virginia Tech linebacker.
The Tech linebacker read the play (the movement of the line) and drove down to defend the run. By doing so, he voided the middle of the field and gave acres of space for the slot receiver to run into. The quarterback pulled the ball and popped it to the receiver for an explosive play.
In recent years, RPOs have developed. Second-level (linebacker) reads are commonplace, and teams have begun to use third-level (secondary) reads in the red zone.
Like seemingly everything in his offense, Canada’s RPO package is vast, and will add a new dynamic to LSU’s stale offense.
Tempo or no tempo?
Another gripe folks had during Miles’ tenure was the lack of tempo.
As a football fan, you couldn’t help but look at LSU’s athletes and wonder what the team would look like if they ran a system similar to Oregon or Auburn: a spread, no-huddle, attack.
And that seemed to be the plan. “I do believe nowadays you have to run the spread offense” Orgeron said when he was officially unveiled as head coach. “But you have to have someone who knows how to run it.”
Well, Canada certainly knows how to implement spread concepts effectively. But don’t expect the fast-break, no-huddle style anytime soon.
“We are a huddle team,” said Canada on Wednesday. “We believe in huddling. There’s probably a game we didn’t huddle at all. I believe it comes back to the game, comes back to the situation. We will change the tempo at times. … But there’s merit to going fast.”
That “situation” is forcing more personnel concerns. When Canada finds a favorable personnel matchup, he sticks to it, abandoning the huddle and not allowing the defense to substitute. It’s one of the few times when the offense can set up a payoff play, knowing exactly what personnel will be on the field.
There’s certainly some mad scientist somewhere inside Canada. He likes to experiment and devise some wacky play designs.
One of his most infamous was the tackle throwback play he ran last year at Pitt for a touchdown (winner of the 2016 Piesman Trophy).
If it’s a legal play, you better believe Canada has scribbled it on a piece of paper somewhere.