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Sports >  WSU football

With the backing of those who pioneered it, Nick Rolovich is ready to lead a run-and-shoot revolution at Washington State

The headline came from a 2014 article in Grantland, depicting the inevitable demise of an offensive system that kicked around for a number of decades, changed the way many looked at football, but never had the stamina or substance to grab a permanent seat in the NFL, let alone grow in popularity at the college level.

“June Jones’ Retirement, and the Lasting Influence and Likely End of the Run-and-Shoot Offense.”

One year later, Grantland, the sports and pop culture blog owned and operated by ESPN from 2011-15, closed up shop.

And the run-and-shoot? Its vitals are stable, and the offense derived from a 1965 hardcover book written by Glenn “Tiger” Ellison is preparing for one of its most important auditions yet, more than a half-century later.

“Well, whenever it’s been somewhere, it is the top offense,” Jones, the former SMU, Hawaii and NFL coach – and subject of the aforementioned headline – said over the phone recently. “The problem is, you have to have coached it to understand all the intricacies and know what to do.”

Enter Nick Rolovich.

The offense conceived by Tiger, popularized by Mouse and refined by June is now left in the hands of Rolo.

The first-year Washington State coach, a run-and-shoot pupil in more ways than one, played in the offense two decades ago at the University of Hawaii, peaking as a college quarterback in 2001 with eight touchdown passes in a historic 72-45 win over BYU. He taught it as an offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in Honolulu from 2008-11, then resuscitated it as a head coach at his alma mater from 2018-19, leading the Rainbow Warriors to 18 wins, a Mountain West title game appearance and plenty of run-and-shoot revelry.

That springboarded Rolovich to Washington State, where in less than 48 hours, he’ll not only be the first coach to unveil the offense in the modern Pac-12, but also the first with a chance to establish its validity in a Power Five conference. The Cougars, with a freshman quarterback, Jayden de Laura, who’s fairly articulate in the run-and-shoot himself, will open against Oregon State in Corvallis at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on FS1.

“I think there’s a lot of guys who’ve played in it, who are trying to get into coaching and right now, I don’t know how many other people are doing it,” Rolovich said. “There’s the Air Raid family, there’s the run-and-shoot family. … Once you’re in it, you’re a true believer, there’s really no other way to do it in your mind.”

Rolovich was baptized in the run-and-shoot, as were two of his WSU assistants, offensive coordinator/running backs coach Brian Smith and quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann – both teammates of the head coach at Houston in the late 1990s/early 2000s. The run-and-shoot’s lineage may not be too extensive, but its followers are fully immersed.

“I think there could be a time where the offense could find its way more and more to the NFL, but I’m not sure how many people know it well enough to really believe in it and kind of stand by it. I think that’s what’s helped us in recruiting, to be honest with you,” Rolovich said. “Brian Smith said it on a virtual (recruiting) visit one time. He said, ‘Listen, this is how I came up, this is how Stutz came up, and more importantly, this is how the head coach came up. And I tried to do it other ways, but we’re committed to this, so you know what you’re going to be in your college career.’ ”

Even if most aren’t using it, they’ve respected it, and more than likely stolen a few of its core ideas. Hal Mumme’s Air Raid, and most spread concepts used in college and the NFL, draw from the four- and five-wide formations Ellison wrote about in his book, “Run-and-Shoot Football: Offense of the Future.”

Like any wacky idea, though, it took time for the offense to gain traction. In many ways, it still is.

• • •Mouse Davis, a spry 88-year-old who’s rarely caught without a golf club in his hands these days, sat on a couch in Texas last Sunday, flipping back and forth between multiple NFL games. While watching Seattle play San Francisco, the man who led one of the game’s most important offensive revolutions couldn’t help but marvel at Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and his top target, wide receiver DK Metcalf, who’s already a generational talent in his second year.

“He’s a stud, isn’t he?” Davis remarked of Metcalf. “He runs like a little kid.”

Metcalf’s speed, size and force make him an outlier, even in the talent-laden NFL, but he’d look like a robust redwood next to a row of ficus trees if the Seahawks receiver stood beside the “itty-bitty” wideouts Davis relied on when he brought the run-and-shoot to Portland State in the late 1970s.

The run-and-shoot’s most well-known visionary, Davis read through Ellison’s book, picked the brain of the late coach, made his tweaks, then launched the offense in Oregon at Hillsboro High – not far from where Rolovich will be debuting it in the Pac-12 – before taking the run-and-shoot to Sunset and then Milwaukie. Early signs were positive. Over 15 seasons of coaching high school football in the greater Portland area, Davis went 79-29.

Why was he infatuated with the idea of spreading out the field using four or five receivers? Why did he prefer to spray the ball through the air rather than hammer it on the ground? Why was he so intent on introducing skill, speed and space to a game that wanted nothing to do with any of those things?

Curiosity and necessity.

“Even before I started running the stuff I was running, everybody believed the only way to win was 3 yards and a cloud of dust,” Davis said. “… We got a lot of little guys that could really run that no one wanted. It was college, but nobody wanted them. And the ball isn’t heavy, so they could catch that thing and run with it, and we had a lot of success with them. And I had little bitty guys, but they could all run. Didn’t have any slowpokes.”

Critics didn’t like the way he was mucking up the game’s tradition, but Davis was all-in.

“What Mouse does, for anybody that’s met Mouse … you will have no denial in his ultimate belief in the offense,” Rolovich said. “That’s why we like to bring him in every year just to talk – talk to the receivers, talk to the quarterbacks. Not that he’s teaching the offense, but you can feel the passion and belief in the offense ooze out of him as he talks about it.”

Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan and Mouse Davis, left, best known for his run-and-shoot offenses, talk with defensive coordinator Greg McMackin in Metairie, La., before the start of practice for the 2008 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against Georgia.  (Associated Press)
Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan and Mouse Davis, left, best known for his run-and-shoot offenses, talk with defensive coordinator Greg McMackin in Metairie, La., before the start of practice for the 2008 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against Georgia. (Associated Press)

One by one, the run-and-shoot’s opponents started to phase out. Davis took the job at Portland State in 1975, averaging 32 points per game his first season – just the tip of the iceberg. With savvy quarterbacks and small, agile receivers who’d adjust their routes midplay to exploit the defense’s coverage, the Vikings continued to pile up yards and produce lopsided scores.

In 1975: 51-0 over Eastern Washington. In 1976: 87-6 over Eastern Montana. In 1978: 63-7 over Sacramento State.

“For example, how awesome the offense was there, they had a quarterback there and he was terrible,” said Mel de Laura, a Vikings slotback and the uncle of WSU’s freshman QB. “But he was third in the country in passing and he was terrible. When we went there, all of the sudden it went to the next level.”

The run-and-shoot had seemingly reached its zenith at Portland State in 1980, when the Vikings put a 93-7 smackdown on Cal Poly Pomona.

Delaware State came to town two weeks later.

Without modern technology at their fingertips, teams traded film by shipping canisters to one another. In this instance, from one coast to the other. Davis had a good feeling about the game when Delaware State’s reel came in.

“Delaware was misspelled,” he said. “I knew we had a chance.”

It was a run-and-shoot clinic from the get-go. The Vikings struck for 49 points in the first quarter and even as Davis pulled his starters, then his second-stringers and third-stringers, the score continued to grow. The coach even ran the ball to even things out. That was to no avail either.

The final score read Portland State 105, Delaware State 0.

“It really was like taking candy from the baby,” Davis said, “because nobody had an idea how to defend it at that time.”

• • •On the island of Oahu, they wanted to hang Ron Lee from a flagpole.

No, wait: That’s actually what happened.

“I was a big joke,” he said.

Lee is the longtime offensive coordinator at Honolulu powerhouse Saint Louis – as of February, the head coach, too – but before tutoring the likes of de Laura, Tua Tagovailoa, Jason Gesser, Timmy Chang and Darnell Arceneaux, he was a mad scientist at work, trying to concoct the right offense for a physically inferior roster of players at Kaiser High School, located in the East Honolulu community of Hawai’i Kai.

Loaded with big, mighty Polynesian athletes, most Hawaiian high schools preferred the classic I-formation, vowing to beat their opposition with a tough, physical running attack. But in a community that didn’t churn out football players who looked like Popeye, Lee reinvented his playbook, deciding to split a back out and employ four wideouts – the first documented attempt by a coach on the island to try something that vaguely resembled Davis’ run-and-shoot. Similar to Davis, Lee ran into some initial resistance and the move didn’t play well among parents and supporters, especially when the offense struggled in its trial stages.

“I’ll never forget, I took my daughter – I used to wash the uniforms, so I went on a Sunday to wash jerseys and as I was driving to the parking lot, I saw this guy hanging,” Lee said. “I was with my daughter and she was oh, 5, 6 years old, I guess. She said, ‘Daddy, that looks like you.’ I was hanging from the flagpole. I couldn’t help but laugh. … They painted this thing, they wanted a change. They thought I was crazy with what I was doing, hanging me in effigy.”

But Lee eventually had a stroke of success, beating a heavily favored Farrington team, and told one of his brothers, Tommy, how he’d changed the complexion of Kaiser’s offense, aligning three receivers on one side of the formation with another on the opposite side. Tommy, coaching in the Pacific Northwest, suggested that Ron travel to the mainland and meet someone who could expand his knowledge of the modern-day spread offense.

“There’s this guy up here coaching in Oregon that’s just driving us nuts,” Ron was told by his brother.

Lee spent a week shadowing Davis at Portland State practices, combing through film and filing ideas in his head. When he returned to the island, Lee continued to close the gap on Kaiser’s physically superior opposition using the run-and-shoot as his primary offense, winning two state championships before he and another brother, Ron, moved on to Saint Louis. The pair won 14 consecutive Oahu Prep Bowls or state championships, launching what’s easily been the most successful run of high school football in island history.

• • •Right or wrong, the litmus test for the legitimacy of any football strategy – offensive or defensive – is the NFL. Spread schemes that have been a roaring success at lower levels often run into a cement wall when they reach the pro game, unable to exploit space the same way they do in college, with bigger, faster defenders covering more ground and constricting the playing field.

The run-and-shoot wasn’t a platinum hit in the NFL, but it wasn’t an outright disaster. Teams haven’t used it as their primary mode of attack, but most of the league’s top offensive minds are still relying on its principles. New England coach Bill Belichick recently gave the run-and-shoot props, comparing the Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs to the 1989 and 1990 Detroit Lions, who excelled in the offense with Barry Sanders in the backfield and Davis as offensive coordinator.

Jones is considered a luminary for his work with the run-and-shoot, but it took some negotiating to get others on board – if you’ve yet to figure out, a common experience for most proponents of the offense – when the now 67-year-old became a quarterbacks coach for the Houston Oilers in 1987.

“I had guys on my staff say that will never work,” Jones said. “I had the running back, the receiver coach who’d been to the Super Bowl saying, ‘This is never going to work. You can’t do this in this league.’ On my own team. That’s just how it is.”

The run-and-shoot vaulted the Oilers to 9-6 in ’87, one year after going 5-11, and in ’88 they had the NFL’s second-best scoring offense at what may now seem like a pedestrian 26.5 points per game. Jones linked up with Davis in Detroit for the ’89 season and the Lions, who’d averaged 13.7 points in ’88, improved to 19.5 points per game in ’89 and 23.3 ppg in ’90.

The offense didn’t spread in popularity, but most realized its merits.

“I don’t think they accepted it,” Jones said, “but I think they respected it a little bit more.”

Jones’ next project was reintroducing the offense to the college game. He accepted Hawaii’s head coaching job in 1999 and recruited a tough, confident junior college transfer quarterback from the City College of San Francisco the same year to compete with Chang. Rolovich’s transition to the run-and-shoot understandably took longer than his competitor, due to Chang’s experience at Saint Louis, and Jones thought the Californian’s adjustment to island life took some time, too.

But even as he sat behind the eventual NCAA passing leader, Rolovich committed himself to excelling in the run-and-shoot. Because the offense requires telepathy between quarterbacks and receivers – with the latter having the freedom to alter routes midplay – at Jones’ request, Rolovich and one of his top targets, Ashley Lelie, would spend countless hours under the broiling Oahu sun synchronizing their timing.

“I remember June telling me, you’re going to take Ashley out there right now onto the field, and the decision’s based on coverage, but he said, ‘Just throw what you think he’s running, because you will begin to see the tiny aspects of his body language and you will anticipate that,’ ” Rolovich said. “And it was frustrating. I’m throwing an out, he’s running a post. I’m throwing a post, he’s running an out.”

Hawaii head coach June Jones goes over a play with quarterback Nick Rolovich, who replaced the injured Timmy Chang early in the Rainbows’ 2001 season.  (Dennis Oda/Honolulu Star-Advertiser)
Hawaii head coach June Jones goes over a play with quarterback Nick Rolovich, who replaced the injured Timmy Chang early in the Rainbows’ 2001 season. (Dennis Oda/Honolulu Star-Advertiser)

But the reward eventually came: a post pattern, an effortless heave from Rolovich and a 70-yard touchdown catch by Lelie during the quarterback’s prolific senior season with the Rainbow Warriors. Rolovich threw 34 touchdowns in 2001 and Lelie caught 19.

“All those misses had to be done to get us to the point where it was kind of unconscious competence with him,” Rolovich said.

Hawaii’s opponents in the Western Athletic Conference came to the island dreading their encounters with the run-and-shoot, and usually returned home in a daze. Scorelines from Rolovich’s final season in Honolulu included 66-7, 52-21, 52-30 and, of course, 72-45. Defenses were not only flummoxed by the X’s and O’s, they also didn’t have as much time to prepare for the run-and-shoot, forfeiting a day of practice to make the flight across the Pacific to Oahu.

Stopping the offense was like throwing a dart blindfolded.

“Hawaii, there’s a real fence around Hawaii, and guys, visiting teams, would leave their playbooks in the back seat of the planes or in the seatback thing,” Rolovich said. “People cleaning the planes find it, and it finds its way over to us, and there’s all these pass plays drawn up. We’re like, ‘What is this? This isn’t it.’ They’re drawing up man decisions versus Cover Two. It’s like, they really don’t have any idea what’s going on.”

After slinging eight touchdowns against unbeaten BYU in Hawaii’s nationally televised romp at Aloha Stadium, Rolovich felt he’d reached the peak of his run-and-shoot comprehension.

“Shoot, day after I went to go see if I could get a medical redshirt, because I just figured this thing out,” Rolovich said. “I’ll do one more year of this.”

• • •After pro stints in the NFL, NFL Europe and Arena Football League, Rolovich’s clock expired as a player, but he continued to preach the gospel of the run-and-shoot as a coach, working under Hawaii’s Greg McMackin from 2008-11 as a quarterbacks coach and then as an offensive coordinator.

The year before he arrived, Heisman Trophy finalist Colt Brennan had made history in the run-and-shoot, finishing his career at Hawaii with 146 touchdowns, 20 400-yard passing performances and 14,193 yards. Rolovich mentored the next wave of run-and-shoot quarterbacks, offering the same wisdom he’d received from Jones almost a decade earlier as a player.

One of those was Bryant Moniz, a former Hawaii walk-on who would become one of seven quarterbacks in college football history to throw for 5,000 passing yards in a single season. That list has since grown to 13 – Washington State’s Anthony Gordon becoming the most recent to join – largely due to the prevalence and popularity of four-vertical, spread-it-out passing attacks imagined by run-and-shoot pioneers such as Ellison and Davis.

“It just takes repetition, is really what it takes,” Moniz, who still lives on the island, said over the phone. “One of the things I remember the most is how much we’d throw the ball in practice. You’d throw hundreds of passes every day, so your arm would kind of fatigue at first until your arm got conditioned to that volume of throwing the ball. … I think even that first year after games, I didn’t practice the first day, just to save my arm from the volume of throwing.”

Rolovich wasn’t retained by McMackin’s successor, Norm Chow, and accepted an offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach position at Nevada, where Chris Ault had been successful with the “Pistol” offense.

Rolovich incorporated some run-and-shoot concepts while retaining many of the Pistol’s fundamental values. Ault and Davis never got along, so Rolovich compromised and renamed the offense the “Colt.” The new WSU coach has evolved his version of the run-and-shoot by installing some of the inside zone, bubble read and RPO (run/pass option) packages he used in Reno, which have helped weaponize the quarterback as a run threat.

“I think we feel better about the running game, especially some of the thought processes from being with coach Ault in the pistol,” Rolovich said.

Prior to the 2016 season, Hawaii gave Rolovich his first head coaching opportunity. Rebuilding the foundation of the once-proud Rainbow Warriors program was going to be a heavy lift one way or the other, but Rolovich didn’t gain many confidence points in the first couple of years, going 10-16. In order to rejuvenate the fans, restore the culture, and, quite frankly, ensure that his future was safe, Rolovich boldly brought back the run-and-shoot.

“I kind of wondered when he first got there, why he didn’t do it right then,” Jones said. “But, hey, I don’t know all the intricacies of all he was dealing with, or didn’t have the personnel to do it. I don’t know, but there had to be a reason.”

What Jones did know: “It saved his job. He was on the hot seat. When you don’t win at Hawaii and you don’t win at Washington State in two years, they’re going to already start talking about replacing you.”

• • •The run-and-shoot rescued Rolovich in Hawaii. Now he hopes it can be a revelation at Washington State.

Rolovich has never been given five weeks to teach an offense, let alone one with the complexities of the run-and-shoot. Unforeseen challenges in 2020 have created one of the most uniquely difficult tasks of the coach’s career, and many of his peers across the country have dealt with similar obstacles.

The offense the Cougars roll out Saturday in Corvallis will be one that was built virtually, through dozens of Zoom calls when football was stalled by the pandemic, and not executed in a practice setting until early last month.

“To be great at it, it takes more (time) than you’re allowed,” Rolovich said. “There has to be some initiative, there has to be a want to be great on the part of the receivers and quarterbacks, getting together. Which has been hard this year with the COVID, and can they use the field on their own and does the trainer need to be there? Do we have to film it for contact tracing? But you’re not allowed to film it for NCAA rules.

“There was all these intertwined issues. I think they would’ve done a lot more.”

He’s not sure if other programs use this tactic, but Rolovich doesn’t hand out a pre-written playbook to his quarterbacks and wide receivers. Instead, they get a rough template, then sketch the routes and concepts themselves, based on what’s projected onto a screen. There’s also a section where players can jot down notes. When the season’s over, Rolovich has his QBs and WRs review their work to see where they’d make changes and what they’d learned.

“You’ve got to be able to draw it, whether it’s by yourself or in front of your teammates,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to put it on the board. Then can you execute it in 7-on-7? Then can you do it in a team situation in practice? Can you do it in a game situation at home, then can you take it on the road and perform at a high level because of your confidence in it?”

The Cougars haven’t had chances to do most of that yet, but Rolovich will have his answer to the last question sometime before midnight on Saturday. With regard to learning the offense, he believes his players are “ where I thought we’d be at after spring ball.”

Of course, teams normally aren’t engaging in live action after spring ball, but Rolovich’s players will on Saturday.

The coach may need an acclimatization period before he truly gets the cylinders firing, but many of the offense’s trailblazers expect that Rolovich is the guy to lead the run-and-shoot revolution to new heights.

“You’ve got to be able to take risks and Rolo will do that,” Lee said. “The fans will love that with him, and he’ll win games. They’re going to have a hard time stopping him. That I know for sure.”

Jones will be tracking his pupil’s success closely.

“I’m excited to watch it this year and follow it,” the retired coach said. “I won’t miss a game, I can tell you that.”

Davis is two years shy of his 90th birthday, but he jokes, “We’ve been running (the offense) for 132 years.” Make it 132 going on 133.

Coincidentally, the place the run-and-shoot has landed is not far from where Davis was raised, until moving to Oregon at a fairly young age.

He claims he became a Cougar fan at 2 years old living in Palouse, so the union of WSU and the run-and-shoot couldn’t have been a better match.

“Not only is he a good coach,” Davis said, “he’s a really good guy.”

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