For The Future of Football Offense, Look to The Big Sky

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You may have missed it, given its overlap with similar events hosted by the ACC and Big 12, but Big Sky Conference media day kicked off Monday in Ogden, Utah.

Consider this fair notice: You will want to pay close attention to the FCS league in the coming season, especially if you’re interested in the future of college football offensive play. The Big Sky is home to some innovative offensive minds, whose influence is beginning to spill into the national consciousness.

Take Montana State offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. The overseer of the Bobcats’ potent offense (38.2 points per game in 2014) is rare branch from the Chip Kelly coaching tree, who can also be connected to the Nick Saban tree in just one step. Cramsey was offensive coordinator in 2012 under current Alabama offensive line coach, Mario Cristobal.

Credit Cramsey’s famous connections for a national spotlight suddenly pointing to Bozeman. Kelly’s name appears right in the headline and lead paragraph of FoxSports.com reporter Bruce Feldman’s feature on Cramsey earlier this month. Coincidentally, Cramsey’s moniker is nowhere to be found in the headline nor intro, but he’ll be known well soon enough.

The concepts Cramsey cultivated from his time first playing for Kelly at New Hampshire, then later coaching alongside him gave shape to Montana State’s hyper-speed scheme. It starts with a dual-threat playmaker at quarterback, whom the Bobcats have in Dakota Prukop.

Prukop passed for 2,559 yards, rushed for 946 and scored 31 touchdowns (18 passing, 13 rushing) to pace Montana State in 2014. He got some national love amid the Big Sky media day festivities Monday, courtesy of Dan Patrick Show producer Paul Pabst:

Cramsey described Prukop to Feldman as “a safety [who] played quarterback,” someone capable of running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash. Prukop could have easily fallen into the “system quarterback” label that haunts playmakers in systems like Montana State’s, and that followed various Kelly-coached players in his time at Oregon.

But Cramsey’s emphasis on Prukop developing as a pocket passer, using his speed out of the pocket as a complementary component and not a crutch, redefines the implementation of the scheme to the quarterback’s abilities — not the other way around. It’s much the same way Oregon restructured the offense to pass more with Marcus Mariota behind center than when Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas were running the system.

Speaking of Oregon, Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost — from the same tree as Cramsey — seek Mariota’s replacement in 2015. One candidate is Vernon Adams, the transfer from reigning Big Sky champion Eastern Washington.

Adams brings a whole different style of game to Eugene. He’s a capable ball-carrier, sure, but “Vernon Football” is a pass-first quarterback with a huge arm. Adams elicits comparisons to one-time Oregon prospect Johnny Manziel, but with a breakout season on the Pac-12 stage, he’s more likely to come away from Eugene sparking comparisons to Drew Brees.

A quarterback in the vein of Brees, who passed for 11,792 yards and 90 touchdowns in his time at Purdue, certainly deviates from the prototype most envision at Oregon. At Eastern Washington, however, Beau Baldwin and Co. developed a free-wheeling offensive style in which such gunslingers flourish.

Matt Nichols left Eastern Washington with numerous program passing records, only to have the bar raised immediately by Bo Levi Mitchell. Mitchell led Eastern Washington to a national championship in 2010, and followed it up by winning the Walter Payton Award as the subdivision’s most valuable offensive player in 2011. The Eagles were first in the nation in passing offense that season.

The wrinkles added upon Adams’ rise in 2012, utilizing his mobility, gave a new dimension to the prolific passing attack. Eastern Washington jumped from a point-per-game average of just below 33 points per game in Mitchell’s Payton Award-winning 2011 campaign, to an incredible 44.1 last season.

Vernon Adams Jr. EWU Highlight from Paul Fisher on Vimeo.

Vernon Adams Jr. EWU Highlight

Not far behind Eastern Washington’s nation-leading scoring output was Big Sky counterpart Idaho State. The Bengals long dwelt in the conference cellar, but a shake-up in the coaching staff and change in offensive philosophy woke them.

Head coach Mike Kramer — whose work at Montana State current Bobcats head coach Rob Ash and Cramsey are building upon — carefully built Idaho State into an 8-game winner last season, boasting the nation’s leading passer. Quarterback Justin Arias is gone, but the Bengals should have no trouble continuing to score points in bunches.

Idaho State’s warp-speed offense features almost equal parts pass and run: The Bengals passed 535 times, and rushed 457. Bengal running back Xavier Finney sees a workload not unlike that of a feature back in a traditional, pro-style offense. Finney said at Monday’s event that he’ll be a cornerstone to Idaho State’s pursuit of the Big Sky championship.

The nation gets a chance to see how Idaho State’s system translates at the FBS level this season. Offensive coordinator Don Bailey left Kramer’s staff in the winter to take the same job at Hawaii. Norm Chow is eschewing the traditional look for Bailey’s balanced take on the hurry-up spread, and the Rainbow Warriors have the personnel to bring some excitement back to the Island.

Big Sky influence is already making its way elsewhere into college football. Get on board to keep tabs of its continued spread, as the conference helps lead the way in offensive innovation.