New Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone isn’t just confident in the scheme he has molded over more than three decades as a coach; he sells it. The “NZone System” is marketed as a championship-caliber spread offense that has revolutionized football, and lessons demonstrating how to implement it are sold to coaches online.
In the last 20 years, Mazzone has been an offensive coordinator for Ole Miss (twice), Auburn, Oregon State, NC State, Arizona State and UCLA before joining Texas A&M in January.
It was welcomed change for the Aggies after a significant dropoff in offensive production following the Johnny Manziel era. With the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner running the show, Texas A&M finished in the top five in the FBS in scoring in back-to-back seasons, but dropped to No. 28 in 2014 and plummeted to No. 71 in 2015.
An offense that averaged more than 44 points per game in each of Manziel’s seasons at the helm managed just 27.8 points per game in 2015, despite talented players like Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil.
The transfers of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray also cast a cloud on the Aggies’ ability to turn things around, but the additions of Mazzone and Trevor Knight could make for a union that turns the Texas A&M offense around in a hurry.
The Mazzone offense asks playmakers to be playmakers
At first glance, Mazzone’s offense looks like a typical up-tempo, air-raid offense. Knight will be asked almost exclusively to be in shotgun with four wide receivers split out wide. The goal, like any spread offense, is to isolate matchups for his best players.
“That’s the whole thing, he’s trying to get his playmakers in space and get in one-on-one situations with defenders,” former UCLA running back Jordon James told Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News upon Mazzone’s arrival in 2012. “We believe, with all our skill guys, if we get in one-on-one situations we should beat the guy and score.”
Yards after catch is heavily emphasized in Mazzone’s offense, and more often than not, the ball will come out of the quarterback’s hand following a short, three-step drop. It’s a rhythm offense that doesn’t ask the passer to go through too many progressions, if any, before getting the ball into the hands of a receiver.
Even when pushing the ball down the field, the Mazzone offense typically doesn’t ask a quarterback to wait very long to get the ball out of their hands. That was especially true when Mazzone dealt with freshman quarterbacks Brett Hundley — in the GIF above from a game in 2012 — and Josh Rosen in 2015:
But what makes Mazzone’s offense different than most spread attacks is that it’s built around the run game, a rarity when four wide receivers are so often on the field.
“The misnomer to me about spread offenses is that it’s to throw the football,” Mazzone said in March, following a spring practice at Texas A&M. “We’re a little bit different in that we like to run the football. The last three or four years we’ve had the leading rusher in our conference and I’m really excited about the group of running backs here to do it with.”
With defenses spread out to cover four wide receivers and extra defensive backs on the field, UCLA’s Paul Perkins averaged 5.7 yards per carry with 14 touchdowns in 2015. Mazzone especially loves pulling guards across the formation to free up isolated situations for the running back with only a linebacker to beat.
That’s really not much different than the Texas A&M offense under Jake Spavital, though. The Aggies finished with 505 rushing attempts and 482 passes in 2015. But Allen and Murray accounted for 118 of those rushing attempts, while Rosen took just 37 of UCLA’s 459 rushing attempts.
Still, Hundley was much more of a threat with his legs than Rosen, and he took 159 of the Bruins’ 557 rushing attempts in 2014.
Sure there are differences between the offenses of Spavital and Mazzone, but it will be far from a reinvention for the Aggies. Spavital likes zone read option plays a bit more than Mazzone, while the latter is more prone to send receivers in motion to help a quarterback with their pre-snap read. But both rely on balanced attacks and plenty of bubble screens to keep defenses honest.
Mazzone’s offense is a little less complicated than Spavital’s, though, and a little more focused on beating defenses before the snap, rather than asking a quarterback to identify the weakness after the snap.
Trevor Knight can thrive in an offense that doesn’t ask too much
Knight first captured national attention as a redshirt freshman at Oklahoma, when he shredded the Alabama defense in the 2014 Sugar Bowl to the tune of 348 passing yards and four touchdowns, completing 32 of his 44 attempts. Even his lone interception of the night was an impressive throw made after a quick decision following a three-step drop.
He managed to throw three touchdown passes in only one game, and suffered multiple injuries during the season, including getting carted off the field against Baylor. It caused him to miss three games and when he returned for the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, he finished with three interceptions in a 40-6 blowout loss to Clemson.
It was a stark contrast from the poised and confident freshman who passed in rhythm against Alabama one year prior. He instead looked hesitant against Clemson, afraid to pull the trigger and falling away from the pressure when he did.
Texas A&M’s 2016 season relies tremendously on Mazzone’s ability to get the Sugar Bowl version of Knight, rather than the one who struggled in the Russell Athletic Bowl. And he seems like the perfect man for the job.
Mazzone’s simplified offense helped UCLA find success with freshman passers, but has the luxury of bringing along a senior quarterback who has already seen the speed of a Nick Saban-coached defense. And so far, the results have been positive.
Knight shined in the Texas A&M spring game, looking comfortable with Mazzone’s system as he completed 25 of 36 attempts with 282 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
The former Oklahoma quarterback has already shown his potential, as well as his weaknesses. If Mazzone can get the most out of his new passer and keep him out of uncomfortable situations, something the offensive coordinator has excelled at during his lengthy coaching career, the Aggies could be as well set up as any to surprise in 2016.