University of Utah football coaches are either mad scientist-types or crazy or a little of both. They've got one of the best passers in the country in quarterback Alex Smith, and they're using him like a running back.
Who does that?
Smith doesn't just run the ball, he runs between the tackles, where linebackers can knock him into Sunday.
He runs quarterback draws. He runs option keepers. These are designed runs, not scrambles and improvisations.
The Utes treat their quarterback like, well, a football player.
Who would have thought?
This of course is breaking all the rules. Quarterbacks are supposed to be pampered and protected. It's one of the canons of coaching: Protect your passer. Don't risk injury. Except for a few freaks of nature — the big and/or fast Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb or Steve Young — quarterbacks are nothing but hand-off machines when they aren't passing. Quarterbacks don't run unless they have to, and then they do a baseball slide before they get hit.
Smith runs often and smashes into linebackers and safeties. He is the second leading rusher on the team, with 211 yards in four games. He has 49 rushing attempts in five games.
Last season, he passed for 2,247 yards and 15 TDs, and had 149 rushing attempts for 452 yards (and 5 TDs), and that's after subtracting yards lost to sacks. He ran the ball 23 times against BYU. He collected 97 yards against UNLV and 89 against Air Force.
Who uses a quarterback in a spread offense this way?
"That's just how we play," says Ute quarterback coach Dan Mullen. "We want the defense to have to account for everyone on offense. If your quarterback just turns and hands off to the running back and never runs, the defense doesn't have to account for him. Our philosophy is to spread the defense out and take advantage of matchups. We want to limit what the defense can do."
Translation: They want to force opponents to play their base defense. It's difficult, for instance, to commit extra defenders to cover receivers when they have to keep someone in the middle to account for the quarterback.
"A lot of it is simple math," says Mullen, who concedes, "It is pretty unusual. I think the only teams who run their quarterback like we did are Bowling Green and the option teams, like Air Force and Navy."
Bowling Green does it because that's where Urban Meyer's coaching staff (including Mullen) created and established their current offense.
While at Bowling Green, they visited Northwestern, Purdue and Louisville to study offensive schemes, then integrated parts of each with their own style to produce the hybrid offense that is used at Utah spread formations, one running back, a running and passing quarterback, a playbook that employs the passing game, the option and a running attack.
Under Meyer's staff at Bowling Green, quarterback Josh Harris ran 25 to 30 times a game and collected 2,000 rushing yards to go with 9,000 passing yards. "We're going to tailor the offense to the people we have," he says. "We've eliminated a lot of runs because Alex is a great passer, not a great ball carrier."
Smith is not particularly fast, strong or big. At 6-foot-4, he weighs anywhere from 205 to 210 pounds. Mullen likes to tell him, "Whenever I see you, you'd better have something to eat in your hand." They are having a race to see who can get to 215 pounds first. "I'm going down to 215, and he's going up," says Mullen.
Did we mention that Smith's backup is Brian Johnson, a 17-year-old freshman? The Utes are one sprained ankle away from potential disaster, but Smith keeps running.
"That's our belief, our philosophy," says Mullen. "You have to live by it. This year we don't run quite as much as we have in the past, probably 10 times a game. But we don't think about him getting hurt much. He could get hurt walking to class."
Besides, Mullen believes a quarterback is safer running the ball than as a stationary target in the pocket. He also believes that running plays have other benefits for his quarterback.
"I like to run a quarterback early because he gets smacked and it settles him down," says Mullen. "Throwing is a skill, and running involves effort. When you're wound up for a big game, it's a lot easier to give effort than skill because you're so fired up. When you can go out early and give a great effort and run hard, it relaxes you. Now you're ready to throw."
No one can argue with the results. The Utes have won 14 of their last 15 games, all of them with Smith at quarterback.
As you might guess, Mullen treats his quarterbacks differently in practice than most coaches. In spring and fall preseason drills, they participate in hitting and tackling drills like any other position.
"I love watching them hit," says Mullen. "I coach the quarterbacks as if I were coaching linebackers, with the same type of physical and mental toughness. During fall camp, they go with the running backs and do one-on-one tackling drills. I want them used to getting hit."